One of the fundamental principles of the Rules of Golf is that you put your ball in play at the start of the hole and don’t touch it until you remove it from the hole. Generally, a player who lifts or moves his ball, or even just “touches it purposely,” incurs a 1-stroke penalty under Rule 18-2a. However, the rules provide a number of exceptions whereby players may lift balls without penalty. Here are some of the most common.
(1) A ball embedded in its own pitch-mark in any closely mown area may be lifted, cleaned, and dropped. Local rules may extend this rule to balls embedded in other areas (but not hazards).
(2) A ball resting on the putting green may be marked, lifted, cleaned, and replaced.
(3) Where there is interference by an “abnormal ground condition” (ground under repair or casual water) the ball may be lifted, cleaned, and dropped within one club-length of the nearest point of relief.
(4) A ball that lies in or on a movable obstruction may be lifted, cleaned, and dropped as near as possible to where it lay (after the removal of the obstruction).
(5) Where there is interference by an immovable obstruction, the ball may be lifted, cleaned, and dropped within one club-length of the nearest point of relief.
(6) If a player determines that another player’s ball (on any part of the course) might interfere with his play, he may request that the ball be lifted. In this case the ball may not be cleaned. However, except on the putting green, lifting a ball in the mere belief that it might cause interference, absent another player’s request, results in a 1-stroke penalty.
(7) If a player declares his ball unplayable, he may lift, clean, and drop his ball pursuant to the options provided by Rule 28, but will incur a 1-stroke penalty.
(8) A ball in a water hazard may be lifted, cleaned, and dropped outside the hazard pursuant to the options provided by Rule 26, but the player will incur a 1-stroke penalty.
(9) A player may lift a ball if necessary to identify it as his ball, but must first announce his intention to do so and mark the position of the ball.
(10) Generally, if a ball moves once the player has addressed the ball (taken his stance), the player is deemed to have moved the ball and incurs a 1-stroke penalty. However, an exception added in 2012 provides that there is no penalty “if it is known or virtually certain that the player did not cause his ball to move.” This exception typically will apply if a gust of wind causes a ball to move on a putting green.
While we might strive to adhere to the principle of not touching the ball we hit off the tee until we remove it from the hole, the game of golf is not always so cooperative. But unless you fall within one of the exceptions, you are best to let sleeping balls lie.
Jack Ross completed an intensive PGA/USGA rules workshop. He also contributes rules columns to ESPN.com.