Your Equipment and the Rules – Clubs and Balls
By Jamie Wallace, USGA Rules Department
Golf clubs and balls play an integral part in the game of golf. After all, they are the implements directly used by all golfers during a round. A new club or ball can fill a golfer with hope and confidence, yet equipment also frequently takes the blame for poor shots or poor rounds. The interaction between your equipment and the Rules of Golf is something that most golfers don’t pay attention to, so let’s take a closer look.
The first item to note is that all golf clubs used in making a stroke must conform to the requirements laid out in the Equipment Rules. When club manufacturers want to introduce a new club, they send it to the USGA Research and Test Center in New Jersey to make sure that all aspects of the club conform. If a club conforms when new, it will still be a conforming club despite changing slightly over time due to wear and tear from normal use.
If one of your clubs is damaged during a round such that the performance characteristics of the club are changed, you can always continue using that club if you choose, no matter what state it is in. You can also always have the club restored or repaired, even though that is not usually an option for most golfers. Under the Rules, a damaged club normally can’t be replaced. However, it is important to note that there is an optional Local Rule (Model Local Rule G-9) which, when in effect, says that you can replace a broken or significantly damaged club (except when the damage was caused by abuse). The USGA uses this Local Rule in all of its championships, as do most major professional tours and high-level amateur events.
Many clubs today have adjustable features that allow you to change the lie, loft, weighting, etc. These features must be set before the round and must not adjusted once it has begun. You also must not apply any substance to a clubhead (other than in cleaning it) to affect how the club performs.
The Rules take all of the above club specifications very seriously. If you make a stroke with a non-conforming club or make a stroke with a club whose performance characteristics have been deliberately changed, you will be disqualified.
Probably the most well-known aspect of the Rules regarding golf clubs is the 14-club limit. You must not begin a round, or have at any point during a round, more than 14 clubs. A few related items to note:
- If you start a round with fewer than 14 clubs, you can add a club (or clubs) during the round until you reach 14.
- You must not share clubs! Each club can only be selected for play for that round by one player. The only exception to this is in partner forms of play where you and your partner can share clubs if the total number of clubs between the two of you is 14 or fewer (for example, you have 6 clubs in your bag and your partner has 8).
- If you become aware during a round that you have more than 14 clubs, you must immediately take an action to indicate the club being taken out of play, such as stating this to another player or turning it upside down.
- Penalty for breach of 14-club limit:
- Stroke Play – Two strokes for each hole where a breach occurred, with a maximum total penalty of four strokes per round.
- Match Play – A breach of this Rule comes with a unique penalty called a match adjustment, which is different than the standard loss-of-hole penalty. For each hole where a breach occurred, the match score is revised by deducting one hole. So if you lose the first hole and then also discover that you were carrying 15 clubs, you will be 2 down when you tee off on the second hole. Similar to stroke play, this penalty comes with a maximum deduction of two holes per round.
Just like for clubs, any golf ball that is used in making a stroke must conform to the requirements laid out in the Equipment Rules. Unlike clubs though, you are free to borrow a golf ball from anyone else, including another player. You are also free to switch to a different ball between holes (but not during a hole).
Even if you are using a conforming ball, there are still some restrictions as far as what you can do to that ball. You must not deliberately change its playing characteristics by doing something like deliberately scuffing the ball or applying any substance (other than in cleaning it).
If you think your ball has become cut or cracked on the hole being played, you can mark and lift the ball to check, but you must not clean it! Another ball can be substituted if the original has become cut or cracked but note that another ball can’t be substituted if the original is only scraped or the paint is only damaged or discolored. If you lift the ball and it has not been cut or cracked, you must replace that ball back on its original spot.
As you can see, there is more to the equipment that sits in your golf bag than you might realize. If you are interested in learning more about the Rules relating to clubs and balls, or more about other aspects of your equipment, see Rule 4 in the Rules of Golf.