Do the rules of golf specify what types of objects are and are not appropriate to use as ball markers on the putting green? Do the rules prohibit the use of any particular objects as ball markers on the green?
These questions arose when a reader mentioned playing with a fellow-competitor who used a larger-than-usual and very thick coin as a ball marker. The reader found it very distracting, particularly when his playing partner's large ball marker was close to the hole.
Do you have recourse if you find your foe's ball marker distracting?
Do you have any recourse when an opponent or fellow-competitor is using an unusual ball marker on the green, one that you find distracting? Yes, two: Politely ask him to switch to something else, something smaller. Or: Require him to move the distracting ball-marker over, one clubhead-length at a time, until it is no longer causing you "mental interference."
Ball markers come up in the official rules under Rule 20-1 (Lifting and Marking). Included in Rule 20-1 is the statement that the "position of the ball must be marked before it is lifted ..." More to the point is the Note to Rule 20-1, which reads:
"The position of a ball to be lifted should be marked by placing a ball-marker, a small coin or other similar object immediately behind the ball. If the ball-marker interferes with the play, stance or stroke of another player, it should be placed one or more clubhead-lengths to one side."
So the rules only state that the marker should be (as opposed to must be) marked using a "ball-marker, a small coin or other similar object." The USGA and R&A consider it appropriate for players to use a small, round, relatively flat object - whether a coin, or something specifically manufactured for use as a ball marker, or something else.
But the governing bodies do not require such an object be used. (That's the difference between using "should" and using "must" in the note to Rule 20-1 quoted above.)
The relevant decisions from the Rules of Golf
Two decisions to Rule 20-1 are applicable, as well. Decision 20-1/16 responds to the question, "Is a player penalized if he uses an object that is not similar to a ball-marker or small coin to mark the position of his ball?"
The answer is no, with the decision stating, "The provision in the Note to Rule 20-1 is a recommendation of best practice, but there is no penalty for failing to act in accordance with the Note."
Read that decision for the full text, but it also offers several examples of unorthodox ways to mark a golf ball on the green, each of which is fine although none conform with the Note to Rule 20-1:
- placing the toe of a club at the side of, or behind, the ball
- using a tee
- using a loose impediment
All of these methods go against the recommendation in the Note to Rule 20-1; remember, you should use something small, round and relatively flat such as a coin or an object specifically manufactured as a ball marker. But the fact is, you could mark your ball with a cupcake if you wanted to. That would be very poor etiquette, and you shouldn't do it - but there'd be no penalty. (Unless you're playing with me, in which case I might eat your ball marker.)
Decision 20-1/17 addresses a situation in which Player B marked his ball using a tee, and Player A's ball caromed off that tee. There is no penalty in such a situation (ball played as it lies), but the USGA admonishes Player A for not requesting that Player B move the tee out of his way (this applies to any type of ball marker).
Conditions of competition can be used to limit ball markers
In some competitions, however, unorthodox or particularly large ball markers might be banned. A friend who is a PGA Professional said that in PGA of America chapter and sectional tournaments, it is not unusual for a condition of competition to be in effect stating that golfers must use "a ball-marker, a small coin or other similar object" to mark balls on the green.
I checked with the USPGA Tour to see if a similar condition of competition is in effect there. Tyler Dennis, the Tour's Vice President for Competitions and Administration, said, "A number of years ago the Tour did have a rule that required players to use a coin or other small object. We no longer have that rule in effect and thus a player could use a number of different objects to mark the ball."
But Dennis also notes this: "In practice, from an etiquette perspective, everyone uses a coin or small marker."
It comes down to etiquette
If you are a golfer who uses something unusually large as a ball marker, think about what the governing bodies recommend (a small coin or something similar), and then consider the etiquette. Make sure that what you're using is not so large or so unusual that it could conceivably be a distraction to your playing partners.
And if you're someone who is bothered by a playing companion's unorthodox or large ball marker, note that they aren't violating the Rules of Golf, but feel free to (politely) appeal to their sense of etiquette. If they decline to change, you have two options:
- Learn to deal with it;
- Require the other golfer to move his ball marker (one clubhead-length at a time to the side) to a position in which it no longer bothers you.
Option No. 2 arises out of Decision 22/1, which addresses "mental interference" caused by another golf ball. However, the situations are analogous, and the USGA says we can substitute "ball marker" for "ball" in the text of this decision, which reads:
Q. In order for A to be entitled to have B's ball lifted because of interference, does B's ball have to be on or near A's line of play and thus in a position to interfere physically with A's ball? Or may A also have B's ball lifted if it is off his line of play but catches his eye and thus constitutes mental interference?
A. A player may, under Rule 22-2, have another ball lifted if the ball interferes either physically or mentally with his play.
So there you have it: A distracting ball marker does not have to pose direct interference to your stance, stroke or the line of your putt; if it is causing "mental interference," you can require your opponent or fellow-competitor to move it just the same.
I'll recommend again, however, always first appealing to another player's sense of etiquette and asking that they switch to a different ball marker.