Ball in Play: What the Term Means (with Rules Definition)

A golf ball in play, sitting just off the fairway on a golf hole
Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images

A "ball in play" is the golf ball you have in play, of course, even if you have illegally substituted one ball for another.

A ball is considered in play from the moment you make a stroke at it from the teeing ground until you hole out. The exceptions are when it is lost, out of bounds or lifted, or another ball has been substituted.

"Ball in play" is a term used frequently throughout the Rules of Golf, and there are a lot of penalties for doing things you aren't supposed to with a ball in play.

So unless you are certain that you are allowed to lift a ball or otherwise influence a ball in play (other that making a stroke), don't mess with it.

Definition of 'Ball in Play' in The Rules of Golf

Here is the official definition of "ball in play" as it appears in The Rules of Golf (written and maintained by the USGA and R&A):

A ball is "in play" as soon as the player has made a stroke on the teeing ground. It remains in play until it is holed, except when it is lost, out of bounds or lifted, or another ball has been substituted whether or not the substitution is permitted; a ball so substituted becomes the ball in play.

A ball in play that has been marked but not lifted remains in play. A ball that has been marked, lifted and replaced is back in play whether or not the ball-marker has been removed.

If a ball is played from outside the teeing ground when the player is starting play of a hole, or when attempting to correct this mistake, the ball is not in play and Rule 11-4 or 11-5 applies. Otherwise, ball in play includes a ball played from outside the teeing ground when the player elects or is required to play his next stroke from the teeing ground.

• Exception in match play: Ball in play includes a ball played by the player from outside the teeing ground when starting play of a hole if the opponent does not require the stroke to be canceled in accordance with Rule 11-4a.

(Official definition ©USGA, used with permission)

Here are just a few of the many situations in which "ball in play" comes into effect within the Rules of Golf:

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