Wrong Ball Rule in Golf

Wrong Ball Rule: It Happens More than you Think

Have you ever panicked when you realized you hit the wrong ball during a golf tournament? The wrong ball golf rule is an important part of the game and one you should know how to deal with if playing competitive events.

I’ve had this happen before (read my full story below) and can say it’s one of the worst things to happen. It throws off your round, adds unnecessary penalty strokes, and might even get you disqualified from the event. 

Wrong Ball Rule in Golf – What You Need to Know 

First off, what is the “wrong ball” anyway? 

The USGA defines it as, “Any ball other than your:

  • Ball in play (whether your original ball or a substituted ball)
  • Provisional ball (before you abandon it under Rule 18.3c), or
  • Second ball in stroke play, played under Rules 14.7b or 20.1c.

Examples of a wrong ball are another player’s ball in play, a stray ball, and your own ball that is out of bound, has become lost or has been lifted and not yet put back in play.”

If this happens, you’ll need to follow the rules of golf based on the type of format you’re playing, which we’ll cover below. 

Key Takeaways 

  • Marking your golf ball is vital to avoid hitting the wrong ball in competition.
  • The wrong ball rule in golf can lead to penalty strokes, loss of hole, or disqualification.
  • If you hit the wrong ball but catch the mistake on the same hole in stroke play, there is a two shot penalty.
  • If you hit the wrong ball in match play, you or your team will automatically lose the hole.

Keep reading to learn more about this rule, how to avoid it, and other common rules that can happen in golf. 

Penalty for Playing Wrong Ball 

If you hit the wrong ball during a round of golf, not only is it embarrassing, but it might cost you the hole, multiple strokes, or even disqualification. But it depends on the type of format you’re playing.

Stroke Play

Stroke play is the most common scoring method in golf and is simply adding up your strokes on every hole. If you hit the wrong ball in competition (see my story below) you’ll need to fix the issue on the same hole that it happened. 

For example, if you hit the wrong ball on your approach shot on the 5th hole, you must fix the issue on the same hole. If you got to the green, realized you hit the wrong ball, you’ll need to go back and find your ball, take a two-stroke penalty, and finish the hole with your original ball. 

In this example, you would need to find your ball, then play it as your fourth shot. The USGA noted, “The stroke made with the wrong ball and any more strokes before the mistake is corrected do not count.” 

Unfortunately, if you don’t realize the mistake on the same hole, you are disqualified. As the USGA stated in the rule book, “If you do not correct the mistake before making a stroke to begin another hole or, for the final hole of the round, before returning your scorecard, you are disqualified.”

Golf Match Play

Match Play

However, things are a little different when it comes to match play. If you don’t know, match play is a unique format that is 1:1 or team vs. team (you’re not playing against the entire field).

Here is what the USGA said about playing the wrong golf ball in match play. “If you and your opponent play each other’s ball during the play of a hole, the first to make a stroke at a wrong ball gets the general penalty (loss of hole). If it is not known which wrong ball was played first, there is no penalty and the hole must be played out with the balls exchanged.”

Learn how to master match play now. 

How to Avoid Hitting the Wrong Golf Ball

As you can tell, this is one of the worst things that can happen during a round. So, how do you avoid it from happening?

First, make sure you clearly mark your golf ball and/or have a logo on it. A lot of golfers benefit from adding a marking (such as a straight line) to help get putts started on the right line. 

Others will mark their ball with initials or other symbols. This makes it easy to spot your golf ball on the course and avoid these rules issues. It’s best to always carry multiple Sharpies in your bag so you can remark during the round (in between holes, not during a hole, as this is a penalty).

Next, make sure to clearly identify your golf ball on the first tee box. Most starters and/or rules officials will make sure you do, but this is an important step. For example, you might say, “Hey guys, I’m playing a Titleist Pro V1X #2 and have a green line on the side of the ball.” 

If another player in your group has the same ball or number, it’s a good idea to switch numbers or add an extra marking. During the round, make it a part of your pre-shot routine to always crouch down and double check to ensure it has your identifying marks.

If you need to change balls, lose a ball, or hit a provisional, make sure to announce the number to your group as well. For example, if you need to hit a provisional ball announce to the group “Hey the first ball was a Titleist Pro V1X #2, the provisional ball is a Titleist Pro V1X #3.”

Provisional Ball in Golf

Learn more about hitting provisional golf balls here

FAQs About Playing the Wrong Ball

Do you have more questions about playing the wrong ball and other common rules in golf? If so, keep reading through the most frequently asked questions and answers now. 

What happens if I play the wrong ball in golf?

If you’re in a stroke play event, there is a two shot penalty as long as you spot the issue after the next shot. You’ll then have to replay the shot.

If you’re in a match play event, you will lose the hole automatically. 

What happens if my ball hits another ball on the fairway?

If your ball hits another golf ball in the fairway, you do not need to do anything with yours. But you will need to replace the other ball back to its original position. 

What happens if my ball hits another ball on the green?

If you’re the person who hits a ball that is already on the green, you’ll keep your ball in the same spot. But you and your playing partners will need to evaluate where the other ball was before it moved and replace it. There are no penalties associated with either golfer. 

What is the penalty for playing from the wrong place?

According to the USGA, “If you lift your ball without marking its spot, mark its spot in a wrong way or make a stroke with a ball-marker left in place, you get one penalty stroke.”

This happened to Jon Rahm in 2020 which is astonishing as he’s one of the best players in golf. 

What is Rule 15 in golf?

Rule 15 in the USGA covers the issue of when you can take free relief from immovable obstruction, like a bench by the tee box or the 150-yard stake in the fairway. This rule also covers how to deal with loose impediments, which might be something like a candy wrapper in the bunker. 

Golf Ball Marking Tool

My Experience 

I’ve hit the wrong ball once in competition and still cringe as I write this article. Two of us had hit it near each other in the right rough on the 12th hole. The guy I was playing with had hit it longer than me all day, so I assumed the ball further back was mine. 

I must not have looked at the ball and proceeded to play it. My playing partner did the same  and it wasn’t until we reached the green that I spotted the difference. There was no small marking that I typically make, and both of us realized the mistake.

He was very upset with me, when in reality he did not check to make sure it was my golf ball either. Both of us had to pick up, go back to the previous spots, take our penalty strokes, and replay. It was one of the worst moments I’ve had on the golf course and one I hope you can avoid by following the tips in this article. 

Always mark your ball clearly (I like to write my initials) and identify it with your playing partners on the first hole. If you and another person are playing the same make/model (ex. Titleist Pro V1x, #4), I’d switch numbers or add an extra marking to avoid any rules issues on the course. 

Final Thoughts 

There are a lot of rules in golf, but this is one of the most crucial to understand and hopefully avoid. As I mentioned above, it’s one of the worst feelings and can lead to someone else hitting the wrong ball as well. 

If this does happen, make sure you have the integrity to point out your mistake. Do not cheat and try to get away with it by switching balls. 

As Tom Watson said, “Golf is a game of ego, but it’s also a game of integrity. The most important thing is you do what is right when no one is looking.” 

Also, make sure every ball in your bag is marked so you can too. Double-check your ball before hitting it so you can stand over the shot with confidence and avoid any rules issue. 
Next, make sure to read more about the best golf etiquette or check our dress code for golf, too.

Picture of Michael Leonard

Michael Leonard

Michael is an avid golfer of 25 years who played in high school, college, and now competes in Arizona amateur events. He is a full-time writer, podcast host of Wicked Smart Golf, and mental golf coach.