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Rules of Golf

Rules of Golf explained: Can I clean my ball?

Ever wondered why some tour players hold their ball like it's a ticking time bomb? Rules of Golf expert Steve Carroll explains
 

Maybe it’s because some of our courses look more like rivers than fairways at the moment but questions like this one from Alex Hall have been popping up in the last few weeks:

“When can you clean your ball, and when shouldn’t you?”

I like these queries because the answer is actually quite simple but there can be a sting in the tail to catch out the unwary.

So, when should you get the towel out and when must you make sure it’s nowhere near your precious ball? Let’s find out…

Rules of Golf explained: Our expert says…

We seem to be focusing on Rule 14 quite a lot. We have already looked at how you mark a ball when lifting it and, once you’ve done that, whether you can clean it or not follows straight on.

Most of you will already know that, under Rule 14.1c – Cleaning Lifted Ball, you can always clean a ball lifted from the putting green.

You can also always clean a ball lifted from anywhere else except in four situations:

  • To see if it’s cut or cracked (Don’t clean it)
  • To identify it (You are allowed to clean it only as needed to identify it)
  • When the ball interferes with play (Don’t clean it)
  • To see if it lies in a condition where relief is allowed (Don’t clean it, unless you then take relief under a Rule)

If you clean a ball when you’re not allowed to do so, you’re going to pick up a penalty shot.

Nothing there that’s going to really bend your brain, I think. But what about that promised sting in the tail?

Think about this for a minute. You’ve lifted your ball and it’s one of those exceptions where cleaning is not allowed. So what constitutes cleaning? Could you inadvertently do it, even if it was unintentional?

An interpretation to Rule 14.1c spells it out quite nicely: Player Must Be Careful When Lifted Ball May Not Be Cleaned.

Two examples given reveal the potential problems and may give some of you a bit of a wake up call.

The first describes how a player lifts a ball that has grass or debris attached to it and throws it to a caddie, who catches the ball in a towel. Because it’s likely that, in that action, some of the grass or debris has been removed, the ball is classed as being cleaned.

But the second example is the one that might really have caught some of you out. “If the player places that ball in his or her pocket or drops it onto the ground, these acts could result in some of the grass or other debris being removed from that ball, meaning that it has been cleaned.”

It’s why, on tour, you’ll see players sometimes holding a ball as if it’s diseased.

Have a question for our Rules of Golf expert?

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf at the beginning of 2019, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s level 2 rules exam with distinction, I am more than happy to help.

Click here for the full Rules of Golf explained archive and details of how to submit a question to our expert.

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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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