What Happens When You Play The Wrong Ball In Golf?

It’s often done and can be extremely frustrating, but what do you do if you play the wrong ball in golf?

play the wrong ball in golf
Is that definitely your ball?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Imagine the scenario – You’ve played your tee shot into the rough and are struggling to find it, you’re in danger of succumbing to the three-minute search rule. Then, with seconds left, you find it… Or at least you think you find it. You blast out incredibly well to the edge of the green. You’re about to chip on to the surface when you notice that the ball you thought was yours has different markings… It’s not your ball… Aaaargghh. After the steam has stopped piping out of your ears, you consider the situation… What are you supposed to do now?

Played The Wrong Ball

wrong ball

The long walk back

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In stroke play, a general penalty of two strokes applies – added to your score at the end of the hole. You must also correct the mistake by continuing play with your original ball by playing it as it lies or taking relief under the Rules.

That means you must go back to where your original ball lies and, if you find it, you then complete the hole with that ball, adding two shots to your score.

The stroke made with the wrong ball and any more strokes before the mistake is corrected (including strokes made and any penalty strokes solely from playing that wrong ball) do not count.

If you can’t find your original ball (as you might well not in the scenario described in the introduction above,) you’d have to go back to the tee, play three off the tee, plus add two shots onto your final score for the hole as general penalty for playing the wrong ball. You could be en-route to a big number!

If you don’t notice you’ve played the wrong ball until after you’ve completed the hole, you’re in trouble – In stroke play competition, you’re disqualified.

What About In Match Play?

If you play the wrong ball in a match play contest – the general penalty applies – that is: loss of hole.

If you and your opponent play each other’s ball during the play of a hole, whoever was first to play the wrong ball will get the general penalty (loss of hole).

What If Someone Plays Your Ball?

If it is known or virtually certain that your ball was played by another player as a wrong ball, you must replace the original ball or another ball on the original spot. This applies whether or not the original ball has been found.


Wrong ball

Duffy Waldorf always recognises his ball

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Although it does happen, there are ways to make sure you don’t play the wrong ball. Firstly, it’s important that you mark your ball clearly so you can identify it easily… One black dot might not be enough as lots of players will just quickly put a dot on their ball at the start of the round. With so many playing the same makes of ball, it could be easy to make a mistake. Use a bright coloured marker pen, put your initial on there or a unique pattern.

If you can’t be sure if it’s your ball because of the way it’s lying, you’re allowed to mark the spot and lift or rotate the ball to identify it as long as you then replace it in its original spot.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?