Rules Guy: What do I do if my playing partner picks up my ball without my permission?
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I was playing my local course with a stranger, and my second shot on No. 1 went into the woods. As we were searching, suddenly he said, “Here it is!” and tossed the ball from a very difficult lie in the shrubs out into the rough, assuming I wouldn’t play it as it lay. I marked this down as a drop and played it as my fourth shot after taking a penalty stroke. But is this really the case, given that he never gave me a choice in the matter?
—Thomas Novakovich, via email
Rules Guy spent a few minutes trying to figure out if your name was an anagram for “Novak Djokovic tennis” but came up empty….
Anyway, this stranger clearly thought he was doing you a kindness but instead created a conundrum. The surprise here isn’t that you screwed up — spoiler alert: you did!—but how you screwed up.
You played a wrong ball, per Rule 6.3c as well as the definition of a drop. When the stranger lifted your ball, he took it out of play, and his act of tossing it somewhere nearby didn’t put it back in play.
To put a ball in play, you must have the intent to do so; because your ball wasn’t put back in play, it’s a wrong ball. (Yes, even though it’s the same ball—“wrong ball” refers also to the status of the ball, whether it’s in play or out of play, not just hitting someone’s TaylorMade when you’re actually using a Titleist.)
What you should have done was replace the ball where it was in the shrubs and either played it from there or taken correct unplayable ball relief.
If you didn’t correct your mistake of making a stroke at a ball that’s not in play before starting the next hole, you’d have been disqualified from any competition. Stranger danger!
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