Rules School: Identifying your Golf Ball and Playing a Wrong Ball

Oct 05, 2011

By John Morrissett

This article is the first in a six-part series exploring the history of the Rules of Golf. The objective of these articles is to give the reader greater clarity on why Rules changes occur and what is considered when making, or not making, a Rules change. The USGA, in conjunction with The R&A, writes, interprets and maintains the Rules of Golf to safeguard the tradition and integrity of the game. The two organizations are joint authors and owners of The Rules of Golf and Decisions on the Rules of Golf. The Rules are revised every four years, with the next revision taking effect Jan. 1, 2012.

The evolution of Rule 12-2 emphasizes several key aspects of the quadrennial change cycle used by the USGA and The R&A for the Rules of Golf. The main purposes of this self-imposed revision schedule are to ensure that the Rules are not changed on a whim and that the game enjoys uniformity without continuous changes.

For several years there had been discussion about revising Rule 12-2 (Identifying Ball) to allow a player to lift his ball for identification in a hazard (whether a bunker or water hazard). If such a change were made, the Rule regarding the play of a wrong ball (Rule 15-3) could then be changed to provide for a penalty for the play of a wrong ball from anywhere, even from a hazard.

What was the impetus for such a change to a long-held and well-understood position? While often a Rule change will start with an actual incident that identifies a shortcoming in that Rule, the changes to Rules 12-2 and 15-3 originated more with a concern over what could happen and the desire to prevent an unfortunate situation and to eliminate a significant exception in the Rules (that there was no penalty for playing a wrong ball from a hazard). Specifically, the following points were made in favor of the proposed change:

• In general, the fewer exceptions the Rules contain, the simpler and easier they are to understand. The removal of the exception regarding the play of a wrong ball from a hazard would make the Rules for playing the ball more uniform for all parts of the course.

• There was not a philosophical reason for exempting a player from penalty for playing a wrong ball from a hazard; the reason for the exemption was more practical – that the player should not be penalized for playing a wrong ball in a situation where he or she is not permitted to lift the ball to identify it.

• There could be situations where the lack of penalty for playing a wrong ball from a hazard would yield undesirable results. For example, in a match between A and B, A plays a bunker shot and his ball comes to rest close to the hole. B concedes the hole, and then it is discovered that A had played a wrong ball from the bunker. Prior to 2008, Decision 2-4/9.5 (which was withdrawn for 2008) ruled that the concession stands as A had incurred no penalty by playing the wrong ball from a hazard. While such a situation is rare, it was realistic enough to have warranted inclusion in the Decisions book since 1989.

• The idea of lifting a ball from a hazard was not a new one, as other Rules already allowed such a procedure. For example, Rule 5-3 allows a player to lift his ball anywhere on the course, even in a hazard, to determine if it is unfit for play.

The USGA and The R&A were close to reaching agreement on the proposed changes to Rules 12-2 and 15-3 for the 2004 Rules book. However, at its January 2003 meeting, the USGA’s Rules of Golf Committee got cold feet about the proposal and dropped its previously tenuous support of it. The USGA was concerned with changing a long-standing Rule that was well understood by so many golfers. There was also concern with increasing the frequency of balls being lifted in hazards, as such a change could be seen as being at odds with the principle of playing the ball as it lies and could lead to practical issues involving the actual lifting and replacement of a ball. Without the USGA and The R&A in agreement for a change for 2004, the discussion continued as an item for discussion for the 2008 Rules changes.

With the further discussion during the 2004-2007 revision cycle, the USGA became more comfortable with the proposed change as the rulings with its previous concerns were addressed.

Early in the next revision cycle, a frustrating detail was noticed that would prevent, if the proposal was successful, the complete elimination of the exemption from penalty for playing a wrong ball from a hazard. As the general principle was that a player should be responsible for playing his ball only when he has the ability to determine whether the ball in question is his, it was realized that, as a player is allowed to play a ball moving in water in a water hazard (Rule 14-6) and there is not a method for lifting and replacing a moving ball, there would have to be a narrow exception to provide for no penalty for playing a wrong ball that is moving in water in a water hazard.

During the 2004-2007 discussion, the question was raised as to whether the answer to Decision 5-3/5 was correct. The Decision addressed the situation where a player lifted his ball in a bunker to determine if it was unfit for play and the original lie of the ball was altered in the process of lifting the ball and provided the apparently unsupported answer that Rule 20-3b (Lie of Ball to Be Placed or Replaced Altered) did not apply. In anticipation of more players lifting balls in hazards with the change to Rule 12-2, the USGA and The R&A decided the Decision needed to be changed so that Rule 20-3b would in fact apply to such situations.

While Rule 12-2 was under the microscope, the USGA and The R&A took the opportunity to improve other aspects of the Rule. First, in part to address the concerns about additional lifting of balls in hazards and to prevent possible abuse, the authority to lift a ball for identification was restricted to situations where “it is necessary to lift the ball to identify it” (i.e., if the player could see his identification mark on a ball on the ground, he was not entitled to lift the ball to identify it). Second, the penalty stroke for not following the prescribed procedure for lifting the ball was qualified as applying only to situations where the ball was in fact the player’s ball (i.e., there would be no penalty stroke under Rule 12-2 for failing to follow the lifting procedure if the ball turned out not to be the player’s ball).

This time around, both the USGA and The R&A supported the proposed changes to Rules 12-2 and 15-3, and the changes took effect January 1, 2008. As is the case with some Rules changes, no one can know for certain how a change will actually play out in practice until golfers start playing by the new Rules. In this case, there was some holding of the breath for the first few weeks of the year, but when no reports came in of actual incidents that revealed a point that had not been considered, there was relief on the part of the governing bodies at the knowledge that the change had accomplished what it set out to achieve without creating any unintended consequences.

John Morrissett is the former director of rules at the USGA. He is currently the competitions director at Erin Hills, the host of the 2017 U.S. Open. Email questions or comments to john@erinhills.com.

Leading up to 2008, there had been considerable discussion about revising Rule 12-2 (Identifying Ball) to allow a player to lift his ball for identification in a hazard (whether a bunker or water hazard).When the change was made, the Rule regarding the play of a wrong ball (Rule 15-3) was also changed to provide for a penalty for the play of a wrong ball from anywhere, even from a hazard. (USGA Museum)


Both the USGA and The R&A supported the proposed changes to Rules 12-2 (Identifying Ball) and 15-3 (Wrong Ball), which took effect on January 1, 2008. (USGA Museum)


The USGA, in conjunction with The R&A, writes, interprets and maintains the Rules of Golf to safeguard the tradition and integrity of the game. The two organizations are joint authors and owners of The Rules of Golf and Decisions on the Rules of Golf. The Rules are revised every four years, with the next revision taking effect Jan. 1, 2012. (USGA Museum)