Date: May 18, 2016
Author: Frank Gal

Rules: When is a ball in play?

The first Rule of Golf tells us that golf involves playing a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole (Rule 1-1).

It is important to know when a ball is in play in order to proceed correctly under the Rules, and a careful reading of the definition of “ball in play” is a good starting point towards getting that knowledge.

The definition tells us firstly that a ball is not in play at a hole until a stroke has been made on the teeing ground, i.e., from within the two club-length deep area described in the definition of “teeing ground”. This is why there is no penalty if your ball falls off the tee before a stroke is made, even if you caused the ball to fall off the tee by touching it with a club. There would also be no penalty if the ball was knocked off the tee accidentally by a practice swing, since a practice swing is not a stroke (see the definition of “stroke”).

However, an “air swing” which was meant to hit the ball is a stroke, so if you have an “air swing” at a teed ball, the ball is in play at its position on top of the tee and if you subsequently cause it to move (except as allowed by the Rules), you will incur a penalty stroke.

The definition goes on to say that “the ball remains in play until it is holed, except when it is lost, out of bounds or lifted, or another ball has been substituted…” The following points should be noted regarding this section of the definition:

  • A ball is lost when any one of the five conditions listed in the definition of “lost ball” exists. Since a lost ball is not in play, if you make a stroke at a ball that is deemed to be lost you are making a stroke at a wrong ball and will incur the penalty outlined in Rule 15-3.
  • If you make a stroke at a ball lying out of bounds, you are also playing a wrong ball.
  • Playing a provisional ball is not the same as putting a substituted ball into play. A provisional ball only becomes the ball in play when the original ball is lost or out of bounds or when a stroke has been made at the provisional ball from where the original ball is likely to be or from a point nearer the hole than that place (Rule 27-2b). If none of these conditions exists, the provisional ball must be abandoned and if you make a further stroke at it you would be playing a wrong ball.

The definition was revised in the 2016 edition and now includes the following statement:

“A ball in play that has been marked but not lifted remains in play.   A ball that has been marked, lifted and replaced is back in play whether or not the ball-marker has been removed.”

Rule 20-4 was also amended to clarify that a ball that has been replaced is in play whether or not the ball-marker has been removed.

This was the case prior to 2016 but the principle was previously contained in Decision 20-4/1. Including this clarification in the definition and the Rule itself will greatly assist players to understand a previously much misunderstood Rule.

To illustrate the principle, if you mark a ball, say on the putting green, it is still in play until it is lifted; putting a marker behind the ball does not take it out of play, the act of lifting it does. If your ball in play is moved by wind, it must be played from its new position even if the marker is in place behind the ball because the ball is still in play.

The definition then goes on to clarify the status of a ball which is played from outside the “teeing ground” when starting play of a hole.

In stroke play, if you play a ball from outside the teeing ground when starting a hole, or when attempting to correct this mistake, the error must be corrected by playing a ball from within the teeing ground (Rule 11-4b). The ball was not in play and if you continue the round you would have no valid score for that hole.

However, if you start a hole correctly from within the teeing ground but the ball goes out of bounds, you are faced with a different set of circumstances if you play the next stroke from outside the teeing ground. In this case, the definition advises that the ball played from outside the teeing ground is in play. The hole was started correctly when the original ball was hit out of bounds. Although the second ball is in play, it was played from a wrong place and the provisions of Rule 20-7c would apply.

In match play the result is different again. If you play a ball from outside the teeing ground, your opponent may require you to cancel the stroke and play a ball from within the teeing ground. If your opponent does not require you to replay the stroke, the exception to the definition clarifies that the ball played from outside the teeing ground is in fact in play (see Rule 11-4a).

This discussion highlights the importance that a sound knowledge of the definitions has in the interpretation of the Rules. This topic is also fairly technical but it is important to know whether or when a ball we touch, move, lift, drop, place or play is in play.