Marking a golf ball seems to be a simple thing, but most of us haven’t spent much time reading the Rules dealing with marking. For example, most golfers believe that they have to mark the ball on a cart path before they lift it to take relief, but that is not the case. Rule 20-1 says you only need to mark a ball before lifting it if you are going to have to put it back (replace it). That would be the case on the putting green, or if someone asks you to lift your ball because it interferes with his shot. But when you are taking relief from a cart part, you are not going to have to replace the ball on the path – you are going to drop it somewhere else. Therefore, you do not have to mark it. You can, but it is not necessary. This is also true if you are taking relief from any other immovable obstruction, or abnormal ground conditions such as casual water, ground under repair, or a hole made by a burrowing animal
A ball may be lifted by the player, his partner, or another person authorized by the player (such as the player’s caddie.) Just as a side note here, it may be replaced by the player, his partner, or the person who lifted it. So you can see that if a caddie lifts the ball, the player may replace it. But if the player lifts the ball, the caddie may not replace it. In stroke play, if your ball is lifted by a fellow-competitor without your authority, there is still no penalty, and the ball gets replaced. However, in match play, if your opponent lifts your ball without your authority, he gets a one stroke penalty.
When marking a ball on the green, the marker may be placed behind, to the side of or in front of the ball as long as nothing is done (i.e. pressing down a tuft of grass) to influence the movement of the ball when played. There are a lot of ways to mark a ball, many of them not recommended, but they are permissible. You may place the toe of a club at the side of or behind a ball. You may use a tee or a handy loose impediment (make sure it won’t blow away). You may not just point out a blemish near your ball and use that as a mark – you must physically mark the position of the ball.
Is there a “correct” way to move a ball-marker to the side because it interferes with someone else’s putt? You may measure from the side of the ball or from the ball-marker, as long as you reverse the exact same process to get the ball back on the spot from which it was lifted.
What happens if the ball or ball-marker is accidentally moved in this marking/lifting process? There is no penalty provided the movement of the ball or marker is directly attributable to the specific act of marking/lifting. That means if you nudge the ball forward as you are marking, you do not have a problem. But, if you are walking up to mark your ball and drop your putter on the ball, that will be a penalty of one stroke, and the ball must be replaced.
One point to remember: once you mark and lift your ball from the putting green it is no longer the “ball in play” – it has become part of your equipment. Once you replace it on the spot from which you lifted it, it is again the ball in play – even if you leave your marker in place. Therefore, if the wind blows it somewhere else, you must play it from its new location!
Jeanne Myers, Assistant Director-Rules & Competitions
Golf Association of Michigan