All golfers know that a ball on the putting green may always be cleaned when marked and lifted. However, elsewhere on the course there may be some confusion as to whether a ball may be cleaned or not. Rule 21 states that a ball that has been lifted under the Rules (e.g. ball unplayable, relief from an abnormal ground condition, relief from a water hazard) may be cleaned, but there are three exceptions;
a. To determine if it is unfit for play (Rule 5-3);This week I received this question about cleaning a ball that had been lifted because it was deemed to have been interfering with another player’s ball, as permitted by Rule 22-2.
b. For identification (Rule 12-2), in which case it may be cleaned only to the extent necessary for identification; or
c. Because it is assisting or interfering with play (Rule 22).
If a player cleans their ball during play of a hole except as provided in this Rule, they incur a penalty of one stroke and the ball, if lifted, must be replaced.
“Recently I participated in a doubles match play. On the apron of a green I requested that one of my opponents’ balls be lifted as it was lying close to mine and was interfering with my intended chip. The opponent correctly marked and lifted her ball, holding it with thumb and forefinger of her left hand. I watched as she then transferred her ball to her right hand, again holding it between her thumb and forefinger. However, as she intently watched the play of her team member, she dropped her arm so that it was hanging straight at her side. She curled her fingers up causing the ball to roll back into her palm and it sat there 'cradled' until such time as she was to replace it. When it was her turn to play I challenged her, stating that she was deemed to have cleaned her ball. She denied having the ball in the palm of her hand and became very upset. I can only say that I watched her movements intently and didn't lift my eyes off her ball for one second. Because she was so annoyed, I said that I believed that a breach of the Rules may be overlooked in match play and we then played out the hole. Was I right to call the penalty?”This question raises two interesting rulings. The first concerns whether the opponent’s actions should have incurred a penalty. From the description of the incident it seems that there was certainly no intention by the player to clean her ball by cradling it in her hand and there is nothing in the Rules about a player being ‘deemed’ to have cleaned their ball. It is a strictly a question of fact. Decision 21-3 states;
Q. A player is asked to lift his ball, which is lying through the green or in a hazard, because the ball interferes with the play of another player. The player authorizes the caddie to lift the ball and, having marked its position and lifted the ball, the caddie throws the ball to the player who catches it. Except when the ball lies on the putting green, it is not permissible to clean a ball lifted because of interference. Does the act of throwing and catching the ball constitute cleaning it?Obviously, the course conditions have to be taken into account in determining whether the ball was cleaned. If the ball had mud on it then it is likely the action described may have loosened some mud. However, if the course conditions were dry then cradling the ball in a hand (as in the right-hand photo above) is highly unlikely to have cleaned it. The reason that many players pick up their ball using their forefinger and thumb is to show that they are aware that the ball must not be cleaned. There is nothing in the Rules that requires the ball to be handled in this manner.
A. Whether the ball is cleaned is a question of fact. The action described could result in a ball being cleaned. Any doubt should be resolved against the player.
The second ruling raised by this question concerns the writer’s belief that a breach of the Rules may be overlooked in match play, which is not quite correct. Certainly a player may observe a breach of the Rules by their opponent and not say anything, which differs from a player’s responsibility to all the other competitors in stroke play. But once a player suggests that there has been a breach and the opponent disagrees a claim must be made under Rule 2-5, so that the Committee may make an informed ruling based on the evidence. Players may not ignore a breach of a Rule once it has been brought up, or they would be breaching Rule 1-3, Agreement to Waive Rules, incurring the penalty of disqualification.
Edit: My thanks to Richard for pointing out that Decision 20-1/0.7 rules that there is another instance where a player may not clean their ball when lifting it. This is when they a player lifts their ball to determine whether they are entitled to relief under a Rule, e.g., to determine whether their ball is in a hole made by a burrowing animal, or is embedded.
I have two, free subscription lists containing information on the Rules of Golf;
1. You can receive these weekly blogs in your email by subscribing your name and email address in the box at the top right hand corner of my home page.
2. ‘Rhodes Rules School’ is a series of weekly emails where I use photographs with questions and answers to illustrate rulings regularly encountered by golfers on the course
If you are not subscribed to either of these lists I strongly recommend that you do so now, as it is a great way to get to understand the Rules better. There is absolutely no charge and it is easy to unsubscribe at any time. I do not share your contact details with anyone else.
Click here to subscribe to my blog.
Click here to join ‘Rhodes Rules School’.