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Illegal Golf Ball Markings: What You Can Do and What You Can’t

Markings on a golf ball

For years, the Golf World has been divided regarding some of the simple tools used by amateurs and pros alike to help keep their golf game on track. In what situations is it ok to mark up a golf ball? What kinds of place holders are ok for the putting green? Do certain social situations call for different practices? Below we’ll cover a handful of different ball marking practices, their legality, and where they are appropriate on the course. 

Why Mark a Golf Ball?

The main reason golfers mark up their ball of choice is to ensure they can identify the ball. Losing a golf ball can be embarrassing, costly to your score, and can breed bad blood with your fellow golfers if you accidentally play theirs. 

If you happen to accidentally hit someone else’s ball you’ll incur a 2 stroke penalty in stroke play and the loss of a hole in match play. The penalty can be applied more than once if you keep playing it. 

Depending on who you choose to play with, you’ll be out at least a round of drinks if you’re out for a friendly game!

Bottom Line: Mark your golf ball if you want to avoid penalties. 

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What do the Rules Say About Ball Marking?

Stu Francis and Fred Perpall of the USGA

If marking a golf ball helps you identify your ball, then why is it such a hotly debated topic? 

In the Official Rules of Golf, we read the following:

“The responsibility for playing the proper ball rests with the player. Each player should put an identification mark on his ball.”

So technically, ball marking isn’t illegal, it’s actually required. (If you want to read the official ball marking rules, they’re not terribly easy on the eye, but check them out here.)

Let’s talk about a few instances where ball marking is unclear. 

Alignment Marking On Golf Balls

The practice of drawing alignment lines for shot setup at the putting green has become increasingly popular among amateur golfers. This is a line that goes down the center of the ball, and can help guide your eye and body in hitting the ball in the right direction. Marking the golf ball is ok though, right? 

Rule 10-2b states that:

“The player or caddie must not set an object down anywhere on or off the putting green to show the line of play.”

Many golfers argue that an object is “anything that can be seen or touched” and that an alignment line on a golf ball qualifies as such. This debate is far from settled, however, and at the moment you will likely be alright if you want to mark you ball with an alignment line. 

Marking Your Spot 

marking your golf ball spot

What about marking your spot at the putting green or elsewhere? There are certain situations where carrying a placeholder for your ball is expected to show consideration to other places. 

Interestingly enough, the Rules of Golf only allow you to use artificial objects to mark your golf ball placement. This means anything from a coin, to your gum wrapper—even the tab of a soda can will do. If you use a twig, however, you’ll receive a one stroke penalty. (The “Oh wait, I think I was actually at this twig!” dilemma is not a fun one.) A tee is also ok.

Make sure you are vigilant about marking your spot though. According to the Official Rules of Golf: 

“If a player fails to employ a marker and instead decides to use a certain blemish or distinguishable spot on the green as a reference point, then a one-stroke penalty is the result of such action.”

Ball Marking Etiquette

Context is important. If you’re playing a round with friends, alignment markings on your ball are tolerable, and the tab of your soda can will suffice for the green. 

But be sure to set the item right behind the ball. It’s not recommended that you place it anywhere else. Stingier golfers worry that placing the marker in front of the ball, for example, may alter the green in some way. It is a one-stroke penalty to mark a ball by placing the marker more than an inch behind the ball.

But for tournament play? Forget about it. Luckily, most tournaments provide those fancy placeholders for the green so you won’t have to worry about that. However, if your fellow competitors see your ball covered with alignment aids, odds are they’ll call you out.  

Say that you’re playing golf as a guest, for work or more formal events. When you’re on someone else’s turf, you had better be on your best behavior. 

Don’t ruffle any feathers here. Depending on the golf club and the group you’re playing with, they can be quite strict in their codes of conduct. Be sure to tuck your shirt in, wear a hat that fits, and maybe reach for the fancy placeholder or the penny rather than the tee. 

Is It Ok to Move a Marker?

golf ball marker

According to the rules of golf, a ball marker is considered a movable obstruction. A good rule is that if it’s in your way of play, moving it is ok. Rest assured that you won’t receive any kind of penalty. 

When a player chooses to putt his/her golf ball with the ball marker in place and hits the marker, the deflected golf ball must be played from where it ends up on the putting surface.

A player may mark his own ball or have anyone that is authorized to do so, such as his caddy, mark the ball on the green. If the ball being marked is accidentally moved, no penalty is assessed. To move a marker, it should be placed one or more full club lengths to one side.

Will Marking My Ball or Ball Position Get Me a Penalty?

Marking your ball and ball position on the course is pretty straightforward. There are, however, a few things to watch out for. 

If for example you drop your marker on the golf ball and move it while you’re at the green, the penalty is one stroke. The penalty only exists here if you move it. If the wind, your fellow opponent, or anything else moves it beyond your control, there is no stroke penalty. 

Be sure you don’t pick up your ball marker too early. If the hole hasn’t been finished yet and you pick up your marker to take a victory lap to the cart, the penalty is one stroke. 

Ball Marking is OK, Just Know the Limits 

If by this point you’re terrified of marking up your ball or adding a marker to the green and will never golf again, take a step back. Marking your golf ball for identification is a must-do. You need to keep track of your own ball the same way you need to keep track of your car keys. It can be replaced but it comes at a price. 

Take your time to get to know proper etiquette, rules, and practices and you’ll be on your way to marking your golf balls stress-free. Like anything else it just takes practice. Good luck!

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