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Rules Review: What can you use, and how can you use it, when marking your ball on the green?

October 24, 2022
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Hunter Martin

You’ve seen that player. The one who whips out a giant poker chip from that last trip to Vegas and uses it as a ball-mark. Heck, you’ve probably been that player. You’ve probably also played with the person who sniffs at any ball-mark that isn’t a non-reflective penny or low-profile plastic microdot.

Taste aside, what are the rules about what you mark your ball with (and how) on the green?

Turns out, pretty much anything goes—provided you follow two iron-clad provisos. You have to mark your ball in a way that allows you to return it accurately to its previous spot, and you have to use something “artificial”—not a leaf or stone or other naturally occurring item.

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Donald Miralle

Let’s start with what the USGA says. Rule 14 establishes that a ball marked on the green must be marked with a “ball-marker,” and defines a ball-marker as “an artificial object used to mark the spot of a ball to be lifted, such as a tee, a coin, an object made to be a ball-marker or other small piece of equipment. How is equipment defined, you ask? “Equipment is any thing used, worn or held by a player or player’s caddie.” If that sounds like a definition through which you could drive a truck, you’d be correct.

The late, great Brian Barnes was such an iconoclast (does it get more majestic than plaid shorts, socks and a pipe?) that it’d be criminal not to reference him as much as possible, lest we forget. On at least one occasion, Barnes bought a beer from the concession stand to enjoy during a tournament round and used it to mark his ball. He was carrying it, so by definition, it was “equipment.” Given that it was a standard size can, Barnes—who could have caroused for Scotland in the Olympics—would certainly have characterized it as “small.”

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R&A Championships

Provided the mark is artificial and you strive to accurately replace your ball where it was, you’re good to go with a poker chip, gold krugerrand, divot repair tool, cheeseburger or frosty cold Coors Light. You don’t even have to mark specifically behind the ball according to the rules, provided you get the “put it back accurately” part right. The etiquette of it all, on the other hand, can be a bit ticklish. It’s bad form to slam down a beer can (or even a poker chip, really) when something garish could distract another player—or influence the roll of his or her shot. That might not be an issue four beers in on the fifth day of a golf trip with your buddies, when all the bets have been closed out. Doing it on the 18th green on Sunday at a European Tour event, like Barnes did? Bolder.