When a player may substitute a ball

If a player substitutes a ball when not entitled to do so they incur a penalty of two strokes in stroke play, or loss of hole in match play, for a breach of Rule 15-2, part of which states;

If a player substitutes a ball when not permitted to do so under the Rules (including an unintentional substitution when a wrong ball is dropped or placed by the player), that substituted ball is not a wrong ball; it becomes the ball in play.

If the mistake is not corrected as provided in Rule 20-6 and the player makes a stroke at an incorrectly substituted ball, he loses the hole in match play or incurs a penalty of two strokes in stroke play under the applicable Rule and, in stroke play, must play out the hole with the substituted ball.

Of course, players may change balls at will between the play of two holes (unless there is a One Ball Condition of Competition), as they do not have a ball in play at that time.

Two examples of when a player unintentionally substitutes a ball are;

  1. When a ball is marked and lifted from the putting green, put in a pocket and then a different ball is replaced at the marker and played. This precludes a player from having a favourite ball for putting only.
  2. When a ball is lifted from a putting green and is accidentally dropped or thrown somewhere from where it cannot be retrieved, e.g. in deep water of a water hazard.

An example of when a player intentionally substitutes a ball when not entitled to do so is;

  • When a player notices that they are playing the same brand and number of ball as another player in their group and they change their ball, so as to easily distinguish between them, Decision 15/6.5.

However, there are several instances where a player is not penalised for substituting a ball, as Rule 15-2 also states;

A player may substitute a ball when proceeding under a Rule that permits the player to play, drop or place another ball in completing the play of a hole. The substituted ball becomes the ball in play.

Examples of where the Rules permit substituting a ball are;

  • When taking relief from a water hazard, Rule 26-1.
  • When playing under penalty of stroke and distance, Rule 27-1, even if the original ball is not lost or out of bounds.
  • When the player deems their ball unplayable under Rule 28, whether or not the original ball has been retrieved.
  • When a ball has come to rest in a place that is dangerous to the player (e.g near a poisonous snake or a bees’ nest) and they are permitted to drop a ball away from the danger, Decision 1-4/10.
  • When it has been determined that a ball has become unfit for play, Rule 5-3.
  • When a ball has been lifted under the Rules, due to suspension of play, the player may replace the original ball, or a substituted ball, Rule 6-8.
  • When a ball to be dropped or placed is not immediately recoverable by a player after they have caused it to move; e.g. if it was accidentally kicked into water; because it is in or on a movable obstruction, Rule 24-1, or an immovable obstruction, Rule 24-2; because it is in an abnormal ground condition, Rule 25-1.

Note that there is no penalty is a player lifts a ball that has been incorrectly substituted and replaces it with the original ball, provided they have not made a stroke at it. Rule 20-6 states.

A ball incorrectly substituted, dropped or placed in a wrong place or otherwise not in accordance with the Rules but not played may be lifted, without penalty, and the player must then proceed correctly.

30 Responses to When a player may substitute a ball

  1. Jim Budelman November 27, 2017 at 11:36 am #

    The one ball rule is crap, most of us do not have a dozen or so of the same ball in our bag.
    Changing balls should generally be OK on the tee, and nowhere else unless that rule is followed.

    • marchinko November 27, 2017 at 12:38 pm #

      the one ball rule is for tournaments, usually run by USGA or State golf association. or if you are playing for money
      I find proV1x goes a little farther but nothing compare to putting a proV1, so there are advantages to be gained by
      switching balls.

      • Michael January 8, 2019 at 3:05 pm #

        When I get up on the green sometimes there is mud on the ball and rather than stop to clean it I’ll just substitute a new ball of the same type. It saves a few seconds, maybe a minute ifI had to go back for a towel, but with others waiting it is appreciated. There is no advantage gained. It should be allowed as part of pace of play considerations in the judgement of the golfer. If you can’t trust my motives in a game of honor, even in amateur tournaments, why play at all?

    • ernaldo November 27, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

      It is ok to change a ball between holes. Its out of play….

    • Linda Hedrick PTA May 15, 2018 at 10:22 am #

      I agree with you about the rules not being followed. I see it all the time. I am also a high handicapper but due to my history of refereeing Volleyball and umpiring Softball, I also think we should play by the rules. I have seen High school coaches that tell the kids the wrong rule and then get mad when someone (a Female) corrects them. They should know the rules if playing or coaching.

      • Coldshower July 28, 2018 at 10:12 am #

        I totally understand what you mean, but 99% of what you call “Coaches”, don’t know the rules, plus can’t or don’t even play .
        To be corrected by a female, love it!
        To them, that would be like a basketball coach correcting a football coach on the rules.
        Anyway, nice comment.

    • Leon July 27, 2018 at 3:01 pm #

      for the person who said we amateurs usually don’t have a dozen of the same balls in our bags: buy your balls recycled online and save $, then you can more easily afford to carry more in your bag, especially if playing alone when you won’t have the other players’ eyes watching while you “keep your head down” through impact, then have o find that speedy little dot in the glaring late pm sun.

      • Coldshower July 28, 2018 at 10:17 am #

        I totally understand what you mean, but 99% of what you call “Coaches”, don’t know the rules, plus can’t or don’t even play .
        To be corrected by a female, love it!
        To them, that would be like a basketball coach correcting a football coach on the rules.
        Anyway, nice comment.

      • Coldshower July 28, 2018 at 10:25 am #

        Sorry Leon, you must be an avid golfer. As far as the Average golfer goes. 99% probably have never heard of the one ball rule.
        Suxty-five years of week day and weekend golf. Zero of our groups be erected played the on ball rule.
        Good point about marking your ball wether the same ball or not.

    • Leon July 27, 2018 at 3:03 pm #

      as for changing on the tee to avoid playing the same make / model / number as another in your group – THAT’S WHAT SHARPIE PENS ARE FOR !!! MARK IT DIFFERENTLY THAN THE OTHER PLAYER !!!

    • Dan January 8, 2019 at 8:45 am #

      There is no magic ball a top flight putts the same as a pro v any brand ball can get out of round or cut and roll badly unless you’re in a usga regulated league or tournament the one ball rule shouldn’t make any difference in your round I get tired of hearing 30 handicappers argue about rules that have no effect on your ugly swing get real.

  2. Stan November 27, 2017 at 11:54 am #

    Wasn’t there a utube of a college player diving in to water looking for his ball he accidentally dropped near a green and it rolled into the water. Wasn’t he penalised and the team lost the event?


    • Jim January 8, 2019 at 12:10 pm #

      A player..cant remember who, mistakenly threw his ball in water at The Players one year and his caddy went into the pond to retrieve it to avoid the penalty. He found it too amazingly.

  3. ken young November 27, 2017 at 12:08 pm #

    I can understand the “one ball rule” applying to sanctioned competition. For recreational golf, no.
    Now, For substituting a ball.
    First. Unfit for play. That should be as the player perceives. For example cart path scuffs, tree damage, these are aspects would be legitimate reasons to change balls. Now, the rules may say something else. The way I see it, if I SAY the ball in play is damaged, then its damaged and I will substitute after informing my fellow competitors.
    As with the entire USGA rules issue. the Rules of Golf are far too complicated.
    This in and of itself is a major reason why golf participation is not attractive to young people.
    In order to save the game as a major participation sport, Golf has be made less complicated.

  4. Lloyd November 27, 2017 at 12:50 pm #

    The ‘One Ball Rule’ never applies to recreational golf and not often to amateur competitions. The following is a quote from the USGA Rules of Golf:

    When changing balls, the player is permitted to substitute a ball of another brand or type unless the Committee has adopted the One Ball Condition of Competition (see Appendix I; Part C; Section 1c). This optional condition (usually referred to as ‘The One Ball Rule’) is generally adopted only in events that are limited to professional golfers or highly-skilled amateur golfers. Generally, this condition of competition is not adopted in club-level competitions.

  5. Wbdav November 27, 2017 at 2:52 pm #

    LOL. A lot of us change balls every hole because we lost the one we started the hole with.

  6. Scott Bess November 27, 2017 at 3:53 pm #

    Is it OK to change colors between holes as long as the brand and model stay the same? In our PGA Section events we do not play the one ball rule except for National Qualifiers.

  7. Paul Kruger December 1, 2017 at 1:19 pm #

    It is my understanding that it is not OK to change colors even though the brand and model stay the same. The differently colored ball (albeit with the same brand/model) is a separate listing in the USGA list of conforming balls, and thus is deemed to be a different ball under the One Ball CoC.

  8. Steve January 28, 2018 at 3:04 pm #

    I had a situation where I didn’t even attempt to find my ball even though I knew where it was because it was in a “dangerous to the player”, as stated in the article. I hit it near woods where I spotted a black bear about where I had seen my ball land. Needless to say, I chose to drop somewhere else and safe.

  9. Barry McPherson January 29, 2018 at 12:15 am #

    I find it amusing that golf, being a game of rules and honor, is so willingly abused by recreational players simply because they think the rule is stupid. When you play other games with friends do you make rules up when you go along too? As an amateur, it is not difficult in the slightest to find a ball that can meet your skill ability for driving, approach and putting, and knowingly ignoring the rule is cheating. BTW, half of the comments on here talk about changing a ball between holes. You can change brand, type, COLOR, whatever you want between holes. That is clearly stated in the article. Pros have rules about the number of balls they can carry. We do not so you can try that Titleist on one hole and the Callaway on the next, no problem. But swapping out that limited spin distance ball you used to tee off with a soft, high-spin ball so you can grab the green better….that is cheating. What is worse, you know it is cheating but still do it because you think the rule is stupid or not for you. But hey, your prerogative and your conscience. Kick a ball out from under a tree and tell your buddies you got a par while you are at it. Same thing.

    • Larry Gouveia March 14, 2018 at 8:04 pm #

      Barry, loved your comments. That is the way I have lived my golf life! Does your golf life run into your everyday life? Larry

    • Tom King May 15, 2018 at 6:25 am #


    • Rick December 10, 2018 at 9:19 pm #

      Barry, I don’t buy golf balls. I play with what I find on the course and I can’t tell the difference between the ones that have been in the pond for 3 months or a brand new one someone just lost in front of me. I usually don’t switch balls until I loose one because that is part of my game, playing a whole round with the same ball is a major accomplishment for me. I understand the need for the rules when better golfers play but on my best day I shoot about 90 an often over 100. I wish that I was better but I’m not but I still enjoy playing so I’m not going to get upset if someone in my group wants to switch his ball every shot. We just aren’t good enough for that to make any difference in our game.

  10. dave May 15, 2018 at 5:55 am #

    The reason I don’t like the one ball rule is that I like to use a cheaper ball off the tee so that if I lose it then I don’t lose 4/5$. Then if the ball is in the fairway I play a more expensive ball because I’m less likely to lose it. I’m not trying to gain an advantage I just can’t afford to lose an expensive ball and it’s on the drive that that is most likely to happen. Then when putting I like to use a ball that has one of my grandchildren’s face on it. I certainly don’t want to lose that one. I gain no advantage at all in what I do. Except I lose less $ when I lose a ball.

    • Leon July 27, 2018 at 3:08 pm #

      see above, buying balls recycled online cheaper than retail

  11. jim May 19, 2018 at 7:46 pm #

    So using my Chicago Cubs “putting ball” is against the law. Dammit! I guess I’m goin’ to hell.

  12. Mike July 27, 2018 at 2:58 pm #

    I’m a high handicapper senior player who only seriously picked up golf after I turned 50 . I play every round as a learning experience and while the rules of golf are there to keep things orderly, those I play with are all pretty much all rank amateurs too who are also treating most rounds as learning experiences. So, we give each other gimmes on the greens. Against the rules? Absolutely. We play whatever cheap ball we pull out of our pockets. Against the rules. Absolutely. And we play best ball scrambles. Where pray tell are the ‘rules’ for that. Talk about flaunting the one ball rule! And in ‘competition’ to boot. I remember reading about Lee Trevino’s days as a club gambler, challenging players with him only using a coke bottle. WHAT? That’s not a regulation club? Absolutely. If I were to play (not a chance btw) a real competition, I certainly will play by every rule as best I can, but til then every round is an enjoyable pastime, not THE OPEN. Oh, and I grew up starting each Monopoly game with a $500 bill in the center as a prize for landing on Free Parking. Lock me up for that one.

  13. Leon July 27, 2018 at 3:09 pm #

    try your Chicago Bulls putting ball …. oh, wait, it won’t fit in the hole …. nevermind

  14. Robert A July 28, 2018 at 4:27 am #

    My group plays for fun and not millions of dollars twice a week If someone wants to change balls every shot, we don’t care. We might even take a mulligan on the first tee shot. I have seen more than one tight ass on the course arguing rules during a friendly match instead of just enjoying the game. Yes, when we play tournament play, we adhere to the rules and have no problem separating tournament golf vs fun golf.

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