There’s a reason enlightened players carry a Sharpie in their golf bag. Identifying that the ball you’re about to play is actually yours is like Golf 101, right? Surprisingly, playing the wrong ball happens a lot more frequently than you might expect. And it’s not just rank-and-file golfers that violate this rule.

There have been a number of incidents on the pro tours in recent years where golfers have played the wrong ball with disastrous – and expensive – consequences. Australia’s Mark Hensby was assessed a 10-stroke penalty, yep 10 strokes, for playing a wrong ball in the 2021 Palmetto Championship.

In 2022, Mackenzie Hughes got hosed at the Farmers Insurance Open when a volunteer set a flag down next to a ball in the rough that turned out to be another player’s ball. He played it, took a triple-bogey after the penalty, and ended up missing the cut.

We could go on, but you get the idea. You’re not alone if you’ve mistakenly played someone else’s ball. (We’ll get into incidents when a golfer intentionally plays someone else’s ball a little later in this article. That happens, too).

So how do you proceed if you accidentally play a wrong ball? Under Rule 6.3c, in matchplay you lose the hole. In strokeplay, it’s a two-shot penalty and you must correct the mistake by going back and playing your ball to finish the hole.If your ball is gonzo, proceed under the stroke-and-distance penalty (yes, that means a third extra stroke to your score, sorry!)

This rule is pretty easy to understand, but let’s take a slightly deeper look at a few wrong-ball scenarious that often happen. One is when opponents in matchplay happen to hit each other’s golf balls. The way to handle this situation is to assess the loss-of-hole penalty to the player who hit the wrong ball first. If you and your opponent aren’t sure who hit first, there is no penalty and you should play out the hole with each other’s golf balls.

And to clarify the strokeplay procedure, you’re only hit with two shots for playing a wrong ball no matter how many strokes you take on a given hole with it. However, if you start the next hole with the wrong ball, you’re DQ’d.

If you’re wondering why Hensby wasn’t DQ’d, it’s because the tournament was using Model Local Rule G-4 allowing for a two-shot penalty on each hole where the player used a wrong ball.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what happens to a golfer who intentionally plays a wrong ball and is caught, well, Rule 1.2 covers it. The cheat is banished.


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Crazy things that only happen in matchplay

Can you hit a provisional ball after hitting a shot into a penalty area?

Your club breaks, what are your options?

My opponent took a generous drop after hitting into a penalty area. Can he be DQ’d for that?

Can I use a long putter when measuring my relief area?

Our practice putting green sucks. Can I hit a few putts on the course before my round?

I had an extra club in my bag and I just teed off. Now what?

Can I move a stone if it improves my lie?

Are you smart enough to ace this basic rules quiz?

Do I get relief from aeration holes?

What does ‘known or virtually certain’ really mean?

Do you have to use a putter on the green?

You’re playing a Srixon. Two holes later it’s a Callaway. Is switching golf balls mid-round allowed?

I hit a horrible shot. I’m waaaaaay better off if I don’t find the ball. Can I just declare it lost?

I’m on the green, my opponent is not. Who’s away?

Is sneaking a peek in another player’s bag considered getting advice?

What do I do if my golf ball is stuck in a tree?

I conceded a putt. My opponent putted anyway and missed. Is that a penalty?

What is casual water and how do I play around it?

I thought my ball was lost and put another in play then found my first ball… which ball counts?

What happens if I can’t tell my provisional ball from my original?

What exactly is an embedded ball?

How do I find my ‘nearest point of relief’?

How long can I take to hit a shot?

Does a ball have to be unplayable to declare it unplayable?