OUR EXPERTS EXPLAIN
Taking One for the Team May 25, 2017 By David Staebler, USGA

David Wicks displayed true team spirit in doing everything he could to try and avoid a penalty during an NCAA Regional. (Fran Ruchalski/Jacksonville University)

Marking and lifting your ball from the putting green is a privilege accorded all golfers by the Rules of Golf. “A ball on the putting green may be lifted and, if desired, cleaned. The position of the ball must be marked before it is lifted and the ball must be replaced.” Pretty simple, but let’s take a closer look. This act, done by most golfers on every green during a round, or nearly every green, is a privilege that comes with responsibilities.

First, since the ball must be replaced on the spot from which it is lifted, the position of the ball must be marked before it is lifted. This responsibility is clarified in Rule 20-1 (Lifting and Marking). Failure to mark before lifting it is a one-stroke penalty. 

Second, when replacing your ball, it must be put back on the spot from which it was lifted. While at some level of scrutiny this is impossible, the Rules expect you to use reasonable judgment and care to replace your ball accurately.

And third, you must replace the same ball that you lifted from the putting green. This is where Jacksonville University senior David Wicks ran into some trouble on May 17th in the NCAA Division I Regionals in Baton Rouge, La. If you are wondering where in the Rules it says you have to use the same ball, the answer is in Rule 16-1b (Putting Green; Lifting and Cleaning Ball), which is quoted in the second sentence of this article above. It specifies, “and the ball must be replaced.” Under many Rules you are required to use “the ball,” which means the ball you are currently playing.Under other Rules, primarily those involving relief with penalty such as the water hazard or unplayable ball Rules, you are allowed to use “a ball,” which means you can use either the ball you are currently playing or a different ball.


During his final round in the regional tournament, in which his team was in pursuit of a qualifying spot for the national finals, Wicks marked his 3-foot par putt on the 4th hole so that other players in his group could play. After reading his putt, he stood up, reached for his ball in his pocket and fumbled it. According to an article by Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner, Wicks told him what happened next. “Of course, it didn’t just fall straight down. No, it kicked off the back of his shoe, rolled off the green, around a bulkhead, and after a brief chase he watched it tumble into the water on the left side of the green.”

Wicks told Lavner, “I looked at my playing partners, they looked at me, and there was that awkward silence where we both knew it’d be a penalty.” And in fact, it would be a two-stroke penalty in stroke play if he holed out with a different ball in breach of Rule 16-1b (Putting Green; Lifting and Cleaning Ball). Instead, Wicks removed his shoes, socks and pants, jumped down into the water up to his waist and gamely but ultimately unsuccessfully tried to find his ball to avoid penalty.

Looking at this incident in isolation, perhaps it seems unreasonable to require players to hole out with the ball they lifted from the green. Let’s take a step back though and look at the reasons for this requirement. 1) Golf is a game of putting your ball into play at the start of each hole, playing the course as you find it and the ball as it lies, and playing only your own ball until you get it into the hole. 2) Allowing free substitution of balls during play would diminish the skill and judgment required to play the game by allowing balls with different characteristics to be matched to the circumstances of individual shots. One can imagine balls designed to curve more than normal in flight to get around obstacles, to fly higher or lower than normal to match the need required or on the putting green to break as little as possible. 3) Lifting a ball from the putting green is a privilege that comes with responsibilities, one of which is to retain possession of it in order to finish the hole.

In David Wicks’ case, there was, however, a happy ending to the story. With the penalty added to Wicks’ score, his Jacksonville University team tied for the last qualifying spot to the national finals, a spot they would have earned outright without the penalty. But, in the resulting hole-by-hole play-off, he was the player who made pars on each of the two holes required to break the tie, scores good enough to prevail against Northwestern University and send his team to the 2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship.

David Staebler is the director of Rules Education for the USGA. Email him at dstaebler@usga.org.

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