YES! There Is Still A Penalty If You Accidentally Move Your Own Golf Ball

While there are certainly more exceptions than there once were, some golfers believe there is now no penalty if you accidentally move your own golf ball anywhere. This is not the case...

Moving golf ball accidentally on practice swing
If you move your ball on a practice swing on the fairway, there is still a penalty
(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

YES! There Is Still A Penalty If You Accidentally Move Your Own Golf Ball

The Rules of Golf sometimes get misinterpreted, especially when things change a little and certain loud voices at golf clubs are ‘certain’ that something is now the case, when in fact it isn't. In recent times, the Rule that perhaps most fits this bill would be Rule 9.4, which covers movement of your own ball at rest… whether accidental or not!

Dropping towel on golf ball and moving it

If you drop a towel on your ball and move it in the general area, a bunker or a penalty area, there is a penalty

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

In a recent issue of the magazine, we ran the above photo of GM’s Fergus Bisset accidentally dropping his towel on his ball on the fairway, causing the ball to move. A reader subsequently wrote in to query if the published answer (the player gets a one-stroke penalty and must replace the ball) was correct as they believed such accidental movement did not attract a penalty.

We have been hearing this same misinterpretation a growing number of times, suggesting that it is perhaps a fairly widely held belief out there among golfers in general. But the default position in the Rules of Golf regarding movement of your own ball at rest by you, your playing partner or by either of your caddies is that there is still a penalty as described above, whether or not the movement is accidental.

Searching for golf ball

Exception: there is now no penalty if you move your own ball while searching for it

(Image credit: Tom Miles)

The problem, if you like, is that there are now more exceptions (to the player’s benefit) than there once were and golfers, aware of these exceptions, have then perhaps read too much into the overall rule. One of the main exceptions is specifically when searching for your ball or trying to identify it. Until the major revisions to the Rules of Golf in 2019, moving your ball at rest when searching for it would have attracted a penalty. That is no longer the case. Similarly, on the putting green, there is now no penalty for accidental movement of either your ball or ball-marker, but in both scenarios, you must replace the ball (or marker) to its original position before playing, estimating that spot to the best of your ability if you cannot be 100% sure.

Moving ball on practice putting stroke

Exception: there is now no penalty if you move your ball on a practice putting stroke on the putting green

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

These are the exceptions we are mainly concerned with here, although there are two further ones relating to movement when lifting or moving your ball under certain Rules or when applying various other Rules. These are described in detail in Rule 9.4b of the full edition of the Rule book. There is also no penalty if you accidentally move your ball in the teeing area, whether nudging it off a tee-peg or clipping it on a practice swing, but this is slightly different as the ball is not in play on a hole until a stroke has been made at it.

Moving ball on practice swing on tee

No penalty for moving your ball on a practice swing in the teeing area as the ball is not yet in play on the hole

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

However, if you move your ball on a practice swing anywhere else on the golf course other than the putting green - so in the general area, bunkers or penalty areas - there is a one-stroke penalty and you must replace the ball before playing it.

All of which should serve as a timely reminder to take extra care around your golf ball at all times, as dropping something on it, kicking it accidentally, letting your bag fall on it on a windy day, carelessly clipping it on a practice swing or moving it as you try to remove a loose impediment will all result in a one-stroke penalty.

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 across the whole spectrum from courses and Rules to equipment and even instruction despite his own somewhat iffy swing (he knows how to do it, but just can't do it himself). He also edits The Golf Club Secretary Newsletter, has authored or co-authored three books and written for a number of national papers including The Telegraph and The Independent. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 89 of the Next 100. He has played well over 900 courses worldwide in 35 countries, but put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content. On his first trip to Abu Dhabi a decade ago he foolishly asked Paul Casey what sort of a record he had around the course there. "Well, I've won it twice if that's what you mean!" came the reply...

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf