With this year's Masters being played in softer November conditions the mud ball becomes a distinct possibility. But why is it such a problem?

What Is A Mud Ball? And Why Do Golfers Hate Them?

Mud balls have existed since golfers first took to the fairways – and they’re common during the 2020 Masters.

But perhaps no duo has done more to publicise the mud ball’s undesirability than the now-defunct partnership of Tiger Woods and Steve Williams.

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Many’s the time that Tiger Woods was heard to utter, “Goddamn mud ball, Stevie!” as his ball flew erratically offline, some way from its intended target.

Why does a mud ball present such a problem for golfers?

Basically, when there’s mud on the ball it can have an effect on flight trajectory, shape and distance.

While it’s true that the ball will often move in the opposite direction to the side the mud is on, that’s not always the case.

And if the mud is on top, it may spin the ball too much and balloon up in the air, costing the player distance as well as accuracy.

Far from a precise science

But note the use of the word ‘may’ in that last sentence.

The problem with the mud ball is that it is unpredictable with a huge number of variables at play.

The problem with the mud ball is that it is unpredictable (Photo: Getty Images)

The resulting ball flight can depend on many things.

Where the mud is located; how much there is; whether or not it stays on the ball throughout its flight and more.

So, trying to work out what will happen is far from a precise science. No great help to players in our November Masters, where conditions are very different to usual.

Soft fairways – Bryson DeChambeau’s first-round bomb down the 15th hole stopped within about six inches – bring an increased likelihood of mud balls in this year’s Masters.

It seems Tiger drew one on his first drive of the tournament down the 10th hole. He went on to miss the green left with his approach but salvaged par.

Tiger was able to chip close and save par on his first hole in this year’s Masters despite a mud ball on his approach shot (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

If there’s one course where you don’t need the added uncertainty of a mud ball, it’s Augusta National – particularly the back nine with all its water.

Any Rules assistance?

So, do the Rules of Golf come to the rescue at all?

Well, no, not really unless a Local Rule permitting preferred lies is in force. Both the PGA Tour and European Tour sometimes use such a Local Rule in soggy conditions.

In the UK, we typically play preferred lies on the fairways through the winter months. This allows us to lift, clean and place the ball within a specified distance – typically six inches or a club-length.

Generally, there will be no preferred lies in the rough.

But committees can, in exceptional circumstances, permit lift, clean and replace in the general area (i.e. the rough too) in areas of the course where it is needed.

Assuming The Masters Committee doesn’t sanction such Local Rules this week, the only time players will be able to clean mud from their ball (other than when they reach the safety of the putting green) is if their ball embeds in its own pitchmark.

Without a Local Rule, relief is only available for a ball embedded in its own pitchmark (Credit: The R&A)

If it does, free relief is now available under Rule 16.3 for an embedded ball anywhere in the general area – not just closely mown areas.

In taking embedded ball relief, you are allowed to clean the ball before dropping within a one club-length arc directly behind the spot where the ball is embedded.

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