Marking Your Golf Ball: A Guide For On And Off The Green

Marking your golf ball should be a fairly straightforward process, yet there are a number of intricacies and customs that can arise from time to time, so it is important to have a sound understanding of rules and etiquette to appease a stickler for the laws of the game.

While it’s pretty obvious that marking your ball when on the green makes sense to avoid it getting in the way of playing partners, there are a range of circumstances that mean when – and how – you should be marking your ball start to become a little fuzzy.

The main place you can mark your ball is on the green, and you are able to do so under all circumstances, so long as it has come to rest on the putting surface. Anywhere other than the green, you can generally mark your ball if it obstructs somebody playing a shot (such as in a bunker), as well as if you are taking a drop.

There can be other occasions where marking your ball is allowed, such as when a club allows a local ‘clean and place’ rule in extremely wet conditions.

My local club applies this all winter due to often heavy conditions (we actually had a closure recently), ensuring players don’t have their entire round ruined by constant mud balls.

When can you mark your ball in golf?

You can mark your ball on the green at all times, as well as in bunkers, rough or fairway when two balls come to rest adjacent to one another. Outside of this, you can mark your ball if you need to take a drop, your ball becomes embedded in the ground outside of a bunker, or the club you are playing at is applying a local rule, such as clean and place.

There are a few different scenarios here, ranging from ‘all good to do all of the time’ to only allowed under specific circumstances as defined by the club, so lets explore them one by one.

Marking your ball on the green

You can mark your ball whenever it is at rest on the green, usually done with a flat, round marker, or a coin.

I like the cheap plastic markers that stick into the ground as they are nice and flat, allowing wayward putts to still run right over the top and be largely unaffected.

You can also mark your ball with a tee or divot repairer, but this can get in the way of others while they putt or even just be abrasive to the eye, so it’s best to only do this if it is a brief moment while you organize a proper marker.

Marking your ball in the bunker

Sometimes there can be a local rule in play at a course, allowing you to mark, clean and place your ball if bunkers are wet or in average condition, but still good enough to be playable.

Usually the main reason you’d need to mark your ball in a bunker is going to be if it comes to rest in close proximity to the ball of a playing partner.

If two players’ balls are that close that one of the swings might displace or move the other person’s ball, then it is necessary to mark the ball closest to the whole (in most circumstances) and play the further ball first.

Now if the balls are extremely close, the tee used to mark the ball could be dislodged during the shot and render it a pointless exercise marking it in the first place.

If this is a risk, then the ball can be marked a designated distance away – such as a grip length – in line with a clear object such as a tree to keep track of the line.

After the first ball has been played, the bunker can be raked and the lie recreated, so unfortunately an original fried egg lie has to be recreated after raking.

It’s important to know where you can legally mark your golf ball.

Embedded balls

While embedded or ‘plugged’ balls in the bunker are an unfortunate part of the game, embedded balls in fairways, the rough or on the green are not expected to be played.

In this circumstance you are allowed to mark your ball and drop within one club length, no closer to the hole.

This is because, according to the USGA, “having to play a ball that is stuck in soft or wet ground (whether in the fairway or the rough) should not be considered part of the normal challenge of playing a course.”

Adjacent balls in the general playing area

If the balls of two players come to rest side by side in the general playing area, such as rough or fairway, then the ball closest to the hole needs to be marked while the other one is played, before being placed back in the original position.

However, there are a couple of things to be mindful of here:

  • While you can mark and pick up your ball if it is the second one to be played, you can not clean it, so a mud ball must stay a mud ball, as frustrating as that might sound.
  • If, in the process of playing their shot, the first player makes a mess of the ground where your ball originally was, you are not required to put it back into a divot hole and play from there. In this situation, you can place your ball back in the spot closest to the original location with the same lie, so long as it is within one club length and no nearer to the hole.

Taking a drop

A common feature of golf is the need to take drops, occurring for a range of reasons such as having an unplayable ball, moving off of a cart path or taking relief from an area allowing a free drop.

When you need to take a drop, you’ll usually be required to mark your ball at the point where it rests or the estimated entry point into a hazard or out of bounds area.

Can you mark your ball on the fairway?

Generally no, you can not mark your ball on the fairway, unless there is a particular local rule allowing you to mark, clean and place, or you are required to mark and hold a ball due to it obstructing another player from taking their shot.

Keep in mind that all of these rules only apply to official competition rounds, so you’re more than free to mark and move balls in a practice round or a low stakes game with your buddies, if you so desire.

Can you mark your golf ball before everyone is on the green?

Yes, you can mark your ball before other players are on the green, and this is going to be encouraged in certain situations. If you nail a 7-iron onto the green while everyone else was looking for another player’s ball, marking it isn’t necessarily required, but could be useful to speed up play when others reach the green or allow you to go and assist in the search.

Where marking your ball if you are first on the green is really important is if other players are chipping and have a good opportunity to get the ball close or hole out.

Obviously a 150-yard shot is going to have a greater margin for error, so a ball a few feet from the hole, if hit, isn’t going to cause much angst.

Leave your unmarked ball on somebodies chipping line and deflect a bump and run that was tracking towards the hole offline and it’s a different story.

Can you move your ball on the green without marking it?

No, you can’t move your ball when you are on the green without marking it, and doing so would incur a one stroke penalty. However, there is no penalty for accidentally moving your ball with your putter, such as when taking a practice stroke, so long as your intention was not to hit the ball in the first place.

This applies to your opponents too, as they also won’t incur a penalty if they accidentally move your ball (whacking a ball that is in play away in a fit of rage will still very much incur a penalty though).

Be mindful though that this rule doesn’t apply to fairways and the rough, and if you rest your club behind the ball and this causes it to roll back towards you, then this does in fact cost you a penalty stroke.

It’s also important to take notice of the elements too, because natural forces can move your ball and force you to play it from where it lies.

So, on a windy day, a ball can blow a few feet away from the hole and worsen your putt, so long as you hadn’t placed a marker down behind the ball prior to this occurring, and require you to play it from its new position.

Can you mark your golf ball on the fringe?

No you can not mark your ball on the fringe, and doing so will incur a penalty. However, it is important to note that the whole ball does not need to be on the putting surface for it to be classed as ‘on the green’. Therefore, a fraction of your ball may be touching the putting surface with the majority on the fringe, but this still constitutes a ball on the green, so you can mark it.

This can look a little bizarre since this situation will most likely result in a ball marker sitting completely off the green, but so long as the ball’s original resting position saw a fraction of it touching the green, you are fine to place your marker on the fringe behind it.

Rules of Golf: Marking Your Ball

Do you have to mark your golf ball?

No, you don’t have to mark your ball when resting on the green, so long as it isn’t impacting the putt of another player. The rules of golf specify that a ball must be marked and lifted if it is obscuring play or assisting another player, such as sitting behind the hole and providing a backstop. Generally, if you choose not to mark your ball but another requests you to do so, it would be considered good etiquette to follow their request.

To be honest, it’s probably just good practice to get into the routine of marking your ball, unless it is perched well away from everyone else’s balls and you’re first to putt.

Unless you have a particular desire to clean and line up your ball, if your putt is 20 feet longer than everyone else’s and you are first away, you may as well just step up and play.

The important thing here is to mark your ball if it is going to potentially hinder or help someone else’s putt, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be directly in their line to do either.

For example, a ball that rests six feet off of someone’s line might still feel annoying or distracting, so that player is well within their rights to ask you to mark the ball to make it a less prominent feature that could divert their gaze.

There is definitely a limit to what should be considered reasonable in this scenario, given some players will look to use any excuse for a bad putt, including a ball sitting 20 feet off to the side.

Can you mark someone else’s golf ball?

Yes, you are welcome to mark someone else’s ball as a good gesture, except during competitive matchplay. If you are in direct competition with an oponenet, you need to let them mark their own ball, even if your efforts were purely an attempt to speed up play or keep the game moving.

There is one exception here where it is perfectly fine to mark and move a playing partners ball in both matchplay or other types of competitive round: if you accidently thought it was your own.

For all other occasions, marking a playing partners ball to help them out is fine, so long as it isn’t matchplay.

Final message

The rules around when you can and can’t mark your ball are pretty clear, but things start to get a little grey when it comes to golfing etiquette.

If you and your regular playing partners are happy to be looser with the rules then go for it, but always sound out new players if placed in a random group to ensure you don’t make a minor faux pas that enrages a stickler for the rules.

Lewis Carhart
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