Is It a Stroke to Accidentally Bump the Golf Ball Off the Tee?

Do You Have to Count That? Is There a Penalty?

Golfer placing ball on tee
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It's a time-honored tradition among golf groups: Yelling "that's one!" or "that's a stroke!" whenever a playing partner, waggling away with driver on the teeing ground, accidentally knocks his golf ball off the tee. But is it a stroke to accidentally knock or bump your golf ball off the tee on the teeing ground?

The short answer: No. It does not count as a stroke. There is also no penalty stroke.

A Golf Ball On a Tee Is Not Yet 'In Play'

It doesn't count as a stroke to accidentally knock the ball off its tee, but why is that?

After all, the golfer did make contact with the golf ball. In virtually every other context, that's either a stroke or a penalty.

Here's the explanation: A ball is not considered in play until a stroke has been made from the teeing ground. Therefore, when the golf ball is still sitting on the tee, it is not yet in play.

A waggle of the club, or shaky hands, or any similar move that results in bumping the ball off the tee with your driver or other club in the tee box is not a stroke. In the definition of a stroke, intent is the key— remember, a swing is only a stroke if it is the intent of the golfer to hit the ball (this is also the key question in determining whether a whiff counts as a stroke).

There is no penalty, it does not count as a stroke, and the ball is re-teed and played, a procedure described in Rule 11-3.

Just remember, this "it's not a stroke because the ball is not in play" explanation applies only on the teeing ground.

Once you have made a stroke at the ball, the ball is "in play." Once a ball is in play on a hole, accidentally making contact with it incurs a penalty. See "What's the ruling when you accidentally strike the ball with a practice swing?"

(Keep in mind that on Jan. 1, 2019, a rewritten set of the Rules of Golf from the USGA and R&A goes into effect.

The new rules will not change the ruling discussed in this FAQ. A golf ball on a tee on the teeing ground is not in play, therefore bumping it off the tee does not result in a stroke. However, the new rules will be renumbered and re-ordered, the so the specific rules—Rule 11-3, Rule 18-2a—cited in this FAQ will be different as of 2019.)

Worst-Case Scenario: When Bumping Ball Off Tee Does Result in Penalty

Keep in mind, we've never seen this happen nor heard of it happening. But just for fun, let's imagine a scenario in which accidentally bumping a ball off the tee on the teeing ground would add a stroke to your score:

  • You address the ball, take a mighty rip—and look down to see the ball sitting untouched on the tee. Your intent was to the hit the ball, so even though you missed, it counts as a stroke.
  • Because you've taken a stroke, the ball is now in play, even though it's still sitting on the tee.
  • So you address the ball a second time and, in waggling the club, bump the ball off the tee. Guess what—now it counts as a stroke because Rule 18-2a applies. Because the ball was in play, you must assess a penalty stroke for touching a ball at rest with your equipment.

If this scenario ever happens to you, we strongly recommend taking up tennis.

Or just laugh it off and keep swinging.