Written by Joyce McCann, 18ers Rules Chair.

First published in 2018. Updated to conform to the New Rules.


The ball you tee off with on a hole should be the ball you hole out with on that hole (Rule 6.3). However, stuff happens between tee and hole, and the Rules indicate that it is OK to substitute another ball before you hole out in some circumstances without penalty, but not in others. The reason for not allowing substitution, in some situations seems a bit rigid.  Here’s an example taken from a USGA Rules of Golf Quiz (as you can see, the 18er Rules Committee answered this question incorrectly) —  

Question #6. In stroke play, a competitor lifts his ball to take relief from temporary water. He tosses the ball to his caddie for cleaning. The caddie is distracted and the ball comes to rest in a deep water penalty area, where it cannot be retrieved. The competitor substitutes a ball and plays out the hole. What is the ruling?

You answered: There is no penalty.

Correct answer: There is a two stroke penalty

It seems common sense that, if a ball is legally lifted for cleaning and then accidentally dropped in a lake, the Rules should permit substituting another ball without penalty. However, that is not the case, and in the above example the player has to take a 2-stroke penalty simply because her caddie didn’t catch the ball! The reason for the penalty is that Rule 14.2 (Replacing Ball on Spot) requires that any time a ball is to be replaced, the original ball must be used. And, they might have added “no exceptions”! Here’s another example. How many of us, after marking and lifting our ball on the green, have replaced it with a cleaner ball? Well, this is a similar example. Since the action is to replace the ball, the same ball must be used (Rule 14.2). If not, there is a 2-stroke penalty. 

However, you may substitute a ball without penalty when you are taking relief under any Rule that requires you to drop or place a ball (Rule 14.3). Examples are taking penalty relief from a penalty area (Rule 17), taking a stroke and distance penalty (e.g., ball OB) (Rule 18), taking penalty relief from an unplayable lie (Rule 19), or free relief from immovable obstructions (e.g. a cart path (Rule 16) or abnormal course conditions (e.g., temporary water, GUR)). In those cases, you can substitute a ball even if the original ball is available. 

The bottom line is, that substitution is not allowed if you are replacing a ball, but is allowed if you are dropping a ball.