Rules of Golf

Rules of Golf Review: Can I clean mud off my golf ball while playing a hole?

February 15, 2024

Fred Vuich

It's that time of year when conditions at courses around the country can make actually playing golf a bit of a challenge. Everything from trying to get a tee into frozen ground to dealing with truckloads of goose poop—let's be honest, you sometimes have to really want to be out there to even think about a round in the winter or early spring. (We'll excuse everyone in warm-and-sunny Florida and Arizona from this post. We're jealous.)

Back to the rest of us: This time of year, especially, mud on a golf ball is an issue we all have to deal with. Well, maybe not the pros so much. Competitive tours often enact a Model Local Rule that enables players to lift their ball, clean it and replace it on soft-and-soggy days. Everyday golfers have the right to a little help, too, so check with your course or tournament committee on whether Model Local Rules E-2 (cleaning a ball) or E-3 (preferred lies) are being used. We'll explain more about both in a bit. We'll also cover how to play when you're out there to battle the elements without any preferred lies—like Bishop Pickering in "Caddyshack."

To be clear, we're only going to discuss here what the Rules of Golf permit or prohibit when you find mud on your ball. If you want to know how your ball might behave when you have to hit it with a clump of mud stuck to it, Golf Digest's Mike Stachura has covered the topic (and the science behind the strategy of playing a mud ball) in depth in this article.

Back to when it is or isn't OK to clean your ball, let's start with this: If no Local Rules are in effect, you have to play a ball with mud on it (Rule 8 and 9 address this concept generally). Of course, on a putting green, you can mark your ball, lift it and clean it (Rule 13). You also can lift and clean your ball when it’s embedded in the general area of a course (Rule 16.3). The general area is most of the golf course including the rough, but does not include the teeing area you're starting from and the green of the hole you're on, any penalty areas and all bunkers.


Warren Little

To be clear, the general principal of Rule 8 is to "play the course as you find it." But there are times when you're allowed to lift your ball and clean it beyond the putting green. Two examples would be when you're taking free or penalty relief. Say your ball is up against one of those irrigation-control boxes covered in mud. You’re entitled to relief from the box, and when you take that relief you’re also allowed to lift your ball and clean it before dropping it back into play. Same thing goes if you're taking an unplayable lie—go ahead and spiff up your ball (while adding the penalty stroke)—or taking relief for a ball in a penalty area.

But here are some examples under Rule 14 when you CAN'T clean your ball:

• To see if it is cut or cracked—cleaning is not allowed.

• To identify it—cleaning is allowed only as needed to identify it.

• Because the mud interferes with play—cleaning is not allowed.

• To see if the ball lies in a condition where relief is allowed—cleaning is not allowed, unless you then take relief.

Another thing to remember is that you have to mark the position of your ball before lifting when a rule requires you to replace it on its original spot. You can mark your ball with things such as a tee, a coin and most artificial objects, but don't mark your ball with a pine cone, leaf, twig (natural stuff), or it's a one-stroke penalty.

OK, so now on to the Model Local Rules. E-2, if in place, says you can enact lift, clean and place procedures for any ball in the general area of the course. E-3 is similar, but restricts lift, clean and place procedures to parts of the course in the general area that are cut to fairway height or less. This is what the PGA Tour does on soggy days.

We should make one more note about mud balls: If you play in a part of the country that allows you to post handicap scores (golfers in 34 states cannot post during most of the winter), you can still record a round if the Model Local Rules above are in effect. In fact, you must post. Keep in mind that the new World Handicap System makes adjustments to scores based on weather. It's called the Playing Conditions Calculation, it was updated at the start of this year to kick in more. Here’s how it works:

"If scores were abnormally low or high, a PCC adjustment between -1 and +3 will be applied in the calculation of Score Differentials of everyone who played that day. A negative (-) adjustment means the course played easier than expected and a positive (+) adjustment means the course played more difficult than expected. A PCC of 0 means the course played as expected, which will be the case on most days."


David Cannon