If you delve deeply enough into the rules, even seemingly routine tasks in golf can become complex. Most golfers mark, lift, and replace balls throughout their round with little thought to the rules. But even this simple procedure can be fraught with hazards.
First, never lift your ball without first marking it, or you incur a 1-stroke penalty. Although the rules state that a “ball marker, small coin, or other similar object” should be used to mark the ball, players may employ other marking techniques. Although not recommended by the rules mavens, you may place the toe of a club behind or at the side of the ball, use a tee or a loose impediment, or even scratch a line. (My son never carries any of the commemorative ball markers I have given him over the years and habitually uses a tee to mark his ball, which I find annoying even though it complies with the rules.)
Although the rules recommend that the marker be placed behind the ball, it is permissible to place the marker in front of the ball provided that nothing is done to improve the line of putt. If a ball or ball marker is accidentally moved in the process of marking, lifting, or replacing, there is no penalty provided that the movement was “directly attributable to the specific act” of marking, lifting, or replacing the ball. So if you accidentally move your ball while picking up your marker, you are not penalized as long as you replace the ball.
Unfortunately, there is no relief for overt clumsiness that falls outside of the process of marking, lifting, or replacing. If your playing partner requests that you lift your ball because it interferes with his play and you accidentally kick it while approaching it, you are penalized one stroke because the kick was not directly attributable to marking or lifting it. The same result applies if you drop your putter on your ball while approaching it to lift it. You are also out of luck if you step on your marker and it adheres to the sole of your shoe. But if it adheres to the sole of your putter when you tamp it down you are not penalized, as the tamping was directly attributable to the marking process. Make sense?
There is no penalty if wind or casual water moves your marker, or if your marker is removed by an outside agency such as a group you let play through after you marked your ball on the green. (This is of little consolation if some ungrateful golfer snatched your favorite Pebble Beach marker.) In such cases you replace your ball as nearly as possible to its prior position. I often do not mark my ball if leaving it on the green does not interfere with another player; why bend down if I don’t have to? Plus, there is always the chance I might kick or drop my putter on my ball.
Jack Ross completed an intensive PGA/USGA golf workshop, and also contributes rules articles to ESPN.com.