Rules of Golf
Rules of Golf Review: My opponent looks like he's weed-whacking as he searches for a lost ball. When is that a penalty?
When searching for your golf ball, you're on the clock for three minutes the moment you begin the search. It used to be five, but now it's three—and that might leave you with a sense of urgency, prompting you or your opponents to take drastic actions in an effort to find the ball.
If those drastic actions include accidentally breaking branches or grass blades or sifting through bushes and flower beds without leaving those natural objects as pristine as you found them, you might wonder if you're doing something that runs afoul with the Rules of Golf.
The short answer: Maybe, maybe not.
To clarify, you can't jump on a riding mower and take out the fescue on the right side of No. 2 in an effort to find your ball. But if you happen to accidentally rip some grass out as you reach down into the rough and root around for your ball, there is no penalty according to Rule 7.1. The damage has to be the result of "other reasonable actions taken to find or identify the ball," the rule says.
Now here's something that might surprise you: Say you were searching in the high grass trying to find your ball, and your actions ripped up some grass in a way that when you found your ball, it greatly improved the conditions for your next stroke. You might think that's a penalty. Rule 8.1a, after all, says you can't bend, move or break any natural object that is attached if it improves conditions affecting a stroke. But keep in mind, you're searching for your ball and not setting up to hit your next shot. Because of that, Rule 7 takes precedence and there is no penalty.
One catch: There is NO penalty only if the search was "fair."
It's a matter of interpretation, for sure, so if you see an opponent "weed whacking" in an effort to find his or her ball, you could make a strong case that those actions weren't "fair." If the committee (or your pro) agree, it's a two-stroke penalty or loss of hole in match play.
But if your opponent accidentally broke some branches on the way into the woods to find his or her ball, and there was no intent to provide an opening to get the ball back onto the fairway, nothing happened in violation of the rules.
By the way, it's perfectly legal to sift through sand in a bunker or a waste area to try to find your ball. You also can splash away water from a puddle to search and move loose impediments and movable obstructions without risk of penalty.
And what happens if the ball accidentally moves as a result of the search? Just put it back where you found it—no penalty (Rule 7.4).