Ask the Rules Guy: What happens if I swing at the wrong ball?

March 10, 2017

Got a question about the Rules of Golf? Ask the Rules Guy—he won’t throw the book at you!

Rules Guy:

On the 17th hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, my drive found a deep fairway bunker. I should have pitched out sideways but didn’t. Instead, my shot struck the bunker’s face and bounced back at me, and I hit the ball again on my follow-through, knocking it OB. How many penalty strokes do I face? —KEVIN BRADY, WILMINGTON, N.C.

I hope you saw the plaque on Lytham’s 17th fairway commemorating a famous mashie-niblick shot that Bobby Jones hit from a sandy area en route to his 1926 Open win. His heroics aside, Jones knew something that’s easy to forget: In golf, you sometimes have to take your medicine. First, your ambitious swipe should have cost you a one-stroke penalty for striking the ball twice. Under most circumstances, you could have then just played the ball from where it came to rest, but since it went OB, you had to proceed under stroke-and-distance. This means that in sum, you incurred two one-stroke penalties and were required to play again from the bunker. Now, sometimes the Rules limit the number of penalty strokes that can be incurred from a single act, but no such help comes here because two actions unfolded: your double-hit, and your ball ending up OB. Still, there’s good news: You may have a bright future as a trickshot artist.

Rules Man:

What happens if your match-play opponent mistakenly hits from a more forward tee than the ones you’ve both being using, assuming he’s called on it? FERREL HARPER,ST. SIMONS, GA.

It depends. Under Rule 11-4a, the witness to this crime has the option to immediately— i.e., before anyone else makes another swing—cancel his match-play opponent’s stroke and order it replayed from the correct teeing ground. But if the drive, say, sails into a hazard, he may let that errant shot stand. (In stroke play, under Rule 11-4b, the offending player incurs a two-stroke penalty and must correct his mistake.) Some might call that mean. I call it playing by the book.

Hey, Rules Guy:

I was in a senior men’s tournament at my club, which has three different nines. My group accidentally played the wrong inward nine. Instead of being DQ’d, we were told to go play the correct nine, and all was forgiven. Was this the proper move?—JEFF FLOOD, BARRIE, ONT.

Yes, your group screwed up, but so did the tournament committee. Under Rule 11- 4b, you and your fellow Lost Boys needed to correct your mistake before playing from the 11th hole teeing ground or be disqualified. (You get one hole to realize the error of your ways.) But once the committee decided to let you finish on the correct nine, its ruling stands. It turns out, two wrongs can make a right.

Dear Ruler:

Recently, I made a few practice swings in the fairway, took my stance over the ball—and whiffed. It turns out I’d swung at the wrong ball. What’s the call?—WILLIAM LORENZ, OCALA, FLA.

A whiff is embarrassing enough, and by trying to hit another player’s ball, things only got worse. You’re indeed penalized under Decision 15/1, for intending to hit the wrong ball. That’s a loss of the hole in match play, or a two-stroke penalty in stroke play. And in stroke play, you must correct the error, which means playing your own golf ball. If you can’t find it, you would take a stroke-and distance penalty in addition to the aforementioned two-stroke penalty. So, please keep your eye on the ball. Your ball.


Of course you do! Whatever it may be, send yours to and the question may be answered in an upcoming issue of GOLF. Until then, play by the Rules!