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How to Cut Penalty Strokes to Lower Your Golf Score

How to cut penalty strokes to lower your golf score

A penalty stroke can ruin your golf scores considerably. In fact, every penalty stroke adds an additional stroke to your score, and in golf that is a bad thing. You want to keep your golf score as low as possible. So, how can you cut your penalty strokes and lower your golf score?

Penalty strokes are usually incurred in certain situations, and a sound understanding of these situations will help you reduce your penalty strokes to a bare minimum. Basically, penalty strokes are awarded for infractions of the rules of golf, except in match play where the penalty is actually a loss of the hole. However, for beginners, a good knowledge of the rules helps you keep down those penalty strokes.

Here are the situations that necessitate penalty strokes in a game of golf:

Declaring your ball unplayable

One of the rules of golf is to “play the ball as it lies”, so when you declare your ball unplayable, you get penalized for violating one of the primary rules. That adds a penalty stroke to your score. However, there are some situations where this is necessary, especially if you find yourself in a position that will require more than a single swing to get out of. For instance, if the ball falls in between rocks or tree roots, or it disappears into some shrubs, you are allowed to drop a substitute ball, but you will be penalized a stroke.

If the ball lands in a water hazard, or out of bounds on the course, such a ball is regarded as lost.  You would have to drop a substitute ball at the expense of a penalty stroke. To prevent this from happening, proper course management will help prevent shots that may land your ball in unplayable positions. Rather than risk losing your ball to hazards, rocks, water, etc., know your distances and attempt relatively safer shots that place the ball just shy of such hazards. That way, you can clear the danger zone with your next shot.

unplayable golf ball

Hitting the wrong ball

Any ball, other than the ball you hit from the tee or a substitute ball dropped to replace a lost or unplayable ball, is regarded as a wrong ball. Hitting such a ball attracts a two-stroke penalty. A wrong ball includes another player’s ball, an abandoned ball, or any ball on the golf course other than the ball you teed or a penalized substitute.  To avoid this penalty, you need to be absolutely sure the ball you are about to hit is your ball before taking a swing at it.

To help avoid hitting the wrong ball, you can play uniquely colored balls that will stand out more easily. Another thing you can do at little or no cost is to use a marker to sign or write your initials on your balls.  There are a number of unique ball marking tools available to customize your ball.  The golf ball line marker is popular, especially for putting alignment, but other custom golf ball marking tools are also available.

Custom golf ball marking tool

Picking up your ball

Once you hit your ball from the tee, you are not supposed to pick it up except under the following circumstances:

  • Identification
  • To check for damage or if for any reason the ball is unfit for play.
  • To clear the path of other players’ balls on the putting green.
  • To clear loose debris like twigs and leaves under or around the ball.

Never pick up your ball except for the instances mentioned above.

Damaged golf ball

Picking up someone else’s ball

The only instance where it is allowed for you to pick up another player’s ball is to verify its identity and this should only be done if you are uncertain about the location of your ball or the location of another player’s ball.

Interfering with a moving ball

On no account should a moving ball be interrupted. Before addressing a ball, ensure that the ball comes to a complete rest. No player is to stop any ball or deflect a ball in motion. A deliberate interference will incur a two-stroke penalty. Unavoidable or incidental contact is not penalized. To avoid this penalty, stay out of the way when a ball is in play!

Playing out of turn

If you play your ball out of turn, when another player’s ball is in motion, you will be penalized. The order of play is according to the distance from the hole. Playing out of turn attracts a one-stroke penalty. However, there is an exception: if the current player allows another player to play rather than lift out and mark an obstructing ball.

Cleaning a ball in play

When a ball is in play, it needs not to be cleaned as dirt does not render a ball unfit for play. In this case, there is an exception if the ball is on the putting green, or if the ball needs to be identified. If there is a question as to whether or not the ball is unfit for play, then the ball may be cleaned to inspect for any cuts or damage.

Equipment violations

Violations such as bringing too many golf clubs (more than 14 golf clubs) in a single player’s bag are regarded as an equipment violation. Other equipment violations include using a golf ball or golf club of illegal design. Balls are regarded as illegal by design if they are of an improper size or weight (balls may not be less than 1.68 inches or more than 1.62 ounces). Balls should not float and dimples on balls should not be the wrong size or depth.  “Novelty” balls such as exploding or disintegrating balls are also regarded as illegal. The penalty is two strokes for every hole the ball was in play.

Golf clubs are regarded as illegal if the clubhead exceeds 460cc. Clubs may not have a concave face or be longer than 48 inches. Grips should not have a waist (a narrow segment typically near the end of the shaft), bulges, or dis-symmetry. If a golf club is regarded as illegal, the player is penalized with two strokes for every hole played before the violation gets discovered during the round.  Additionally, there are modified equipment rules for players with disabilities.  Click here to review the USGA Equipment Rules. 

To avoid a penalty like this, ensure that all your golfing equipment is up to standard. Sourcing your equipment from reputable vendors is recommended to avoid such issues.

The rules can be more flexible in informal games, especially games involving novice players. In such instances, if a violation is observed, then the player drops a new ball at the position where the violation occurred and plays again. 

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