When Can You Clean Your Golf Ball?

You need to know when you can and can't clean your golf ball to avoid potentially incurring an unwitting penalty...

When Can You Clean Your Golf Ball?
(Image credit: Future)

Sometimes during the play of a hole you may have the ball in your hand for various reasons and it is Rule 14.1c that details when you are not permitted to clean it. Be warned - cleaning it when you are not allowed to do so will result in a penalty! The video and article below reveal exactly what you are and are not allowed to do.

First though, it's worth reiterating that you are always allowed to clean your golf ball:

1) When you’ve reached the safety of the putting green and are able to mark and lift it.

cleaning your golf ball on putting green

Once you've reached the putting green you may always mark, lift and clean your golf ball

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2) Between the play of two holes

3) Whenever you are taking free relief or a penalty drop.

However, you may have the ball in your hand for other reasons before you reach the green, and there are four specific scenarios where you need to be careful:

1) When lifting your ball under Rule 4.2c to determine if it is cracked or cut and therefore eligible for substitution during the play of a hole. If the ball proves not to be cracked or cut, you are not allowed to clean it before placing it back where it was and continuing play. 

checking to see if ball is cut or cracked

You can't clean your ball when you've lifted it to see if it's cracked or cut

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

2) When lifting your ball to identify it under Rule 7.3. In this scenario, cleaning is allowed only to the extent necessary to be able to identify your ball. So you can clean away any mud perhaps covering your identification mark, but no further cleaning is permitted before placing the ball back where it was and continuing play.

lifting golf ball to identify it

When lifting your ball to identify it you may only clean it to the extent necessary to be able to do so

(Image credit: Tom Miles)

3) When your ball is interfering with play for another player, who requests you to lift it (e.g. on their line on the fringe and they want to putt or when it is too close to their ball for their next stroke). You are not allowed to clean your ball in this situation so you need to either hold it carefully or place it down somewhere carefully before then replacing it once the other player has played their shot.

lifting interfering golf ball

Take care not to clean your ball when you've been asked to lift it as it interferes with play

(Image credit: David Cruickshanks)

4) When lifting your ball to see if it lies in a condition from which relief is allowed. A good example here would be when checking to see if your ball is definitely embedded in its own pitchmark or has just settled into a little indentation. If it's the latter, you are not allowed to clean your ball before placing it back down, but if you do end up taking relief under a Rule (e.g. the embedded ball rule) then you are allowed to clean it.

If you clean your ball when not permitted to do so, or more than is necessary when cleaning your ball to identify it, you will be penalised one stroke under Rule 14.1c.

Jeremy Ellwood
Contributing Editor

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly. He is an expert on the Rules of Golf having qualified through an R&A course to become a golf referee. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played 1,000 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts. He reached the 1,000 mark on his 60th birthday in October 2023 on Vale do Lobo's Ocean course. Put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf

Jeremy is currently playing...

Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft

3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft

Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft

Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)

Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response