OUR EXPERTS EXPLAIN
Hitting Your Ball With a Practice Swing: When is it a Penalty?
April 14, 2019
By Jamie Wallace, USGA
If you were watching the second round of the Masters Tournament on Friday, you may have seen Zach Johnson accidentally strike his ball with a practice swing on the 13th tee at Augusta National Golf Club. Johnson simply re-teed and played on without penalty. For many golfers, this raised a question about when exactly a player is penalized for accidentally striking and moving their ball with a practice swing. The answer comes down to the area of the course where this occurs.
Let’s start by looking at the definition of “stroke.” In the Rules of Golf, it is “the forward movement of the club made to strike the ball.” For a stroke to be made, the player must have the intention of trying to hit the ball. Since a player making a practice swing is not intending to hit their ball, this does not count as a stroke under the Rules, even if the ball is struck accidentally, as in the case of Johnson.
Let’s take a look at the outcomes for hitting your ball with a practice swing on different areas of the golf course:
- On the Tee: When you are playing a ball from the teeing area, the ball is not in play until a stroke is made at it. This means that when your ball is teed or on the ground in the teeing area and you make a practice swing that accidentally strikes and moves the ball, you have not made a stroke or moved a ball in play. The Rules allow you to simply re-tee that same ball or another ball without penalty. This is exactly what happened to Johnson. Note that there is also no penalty if this occurs when playing again from the teeing area after starting the hole (such as after hitting a ball out of bounds or hitting a tee shot that strikes a tree and ricochets back within the teeing area). This is covered under Rule 6.2b(5) and 6.2b(6). Please note that the “teeing area” does not include the entire tee box. It only includes the two club-length-deep area measured from the tees you are playing.
- On the Putting Green: Just as in the teeing area, the Rules are lenient if this occurs on the putting green. If you strike and move your ball with a practice swing on the putting green (or accidentally cause your ball to move in any other way), you can simply replace your ball on its original spot without penalty and play on. This is covered under Rule 13.1d(1).
- Anywhere Else: This category would include a ball that lies in a bunker, a penalty area, or anywhere in the general area (defined as anywhere on the golf course that is not the teeing area, the putting green, a bunker or a penalty area). When your ball lies in any of these areas, it is already in play. If you then take a practice swing and cause your ball to move, you still have not made a stroke, but you will get a one-stroke penalty for moving your ball in play. The ball must be replaced on its original spot. This is covered under Rule 9.4. If the player instead plays the ball from where it was moved to after their practice swing, it becomes a two-stroke penalty (or a loss-of-hole penalty in match play) and the player may or may not be required to correct their mistake (see Rule 14.7 for more information).
If you are curious whether these outcomes would have been different in the old Rules versus the new 2019 Rules, let’s take a look:
- On the Tee: Johnson would have had the exact same result in his situation last year as he did this year.
- On the Putting Green: Starting in 2017, there was an optional Local Rule that would have made the result the same for a ball accidentally moved with a practice swing. However, prior to 2017 or if the Local Rule was not in effect, the player would have incurred a one-stroke penalty for accidentally moving their ball with a practice stroke on the putting green.
- Anywhere Else: A ball moved by a practice swing in the “anywhere else” category would also have had the same outcome last year as this year.
As a general principle in the Rules of Golf, a player will be penalized if they cause their ball at rest to move. This is because players should take care to not cause their ball in play and at rest to move. But as evidenced above, there are a number of player-friendly exceptions designed to help out in situations like the one Zach Johnson experienced in the second round of the Masters.
Jamie Wallace is the manager of Rules education and digital content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.