Golf, at the pro level, is a complicated game.

Rules abound, and some of the rules can be very specific. Breaking those rules can have dramatic consequences (just ask Russell Henley).

Have you ever heard someone mention the one ball rule in golf tournaments?

Well, as the name suggests, in some tournament competitions golfers are only permitted to use one type of ball for their entire round.

Obviously, if a ball is lost or damaged and the player needs to replace it, that’s fine. They don’t need to keep their original ball for the whole round, they just need to replace the original ball with the exact same make and model golf ball as the one they started with.

What is the one ball rule in golf tournaments?

So who is Russell Henley?

Russell Henley is a pro golfer who experienced the wrath of this rule in dramatic fashion.

Back in 2019, during the Mayakoba Golf Classic, Henley was given an 8 stroke penalty after discovering that he accidentally switched to the wrong ball in the middle of his round. Nobody saw the switch, but Russell realized after his round that he played holes 9-12 with a substituted ball (something other than the Titleist ProV1x that he started with).

To his credit, Henley alerted PGA Tour officials and took the general penalty, which dropped him from seven-under par to one over par.

He then missed the cut by two shots. Brutal.

That’s probably the best (or worst) application the one ball rule in golf tournaments.

The One Ball Rule in Greater Detail

The One Ball Rule isn’t usually in effect when you’re playing at a local golf course with your friends.

This, and other golf rules, are more common when competing in prestigious PGA and USGA tournaments.

However, there are exceptions. U.S. based Ryder Cup competitions choose not to apply this rule.

There’s a case to be made that the ability to switch mid-round to a different ball with different compression actually requires more skill.

Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s Chief Championships Officer, had this to say on the topic:

“…if a player is skilled enough to be able to hit and adapt his/her game to different compression or makes of golf ball from hole to hole, then he/she should be able to do so…”

Regardless, if you’re playing in a one ball golf tournament, you need to stick to one type of ball for the duration of the round.

Again, if there’s a lost ball, you just need to replace it with the same type of ball.

Let’s check out the official description of this rule taken from the official USGA regulations via their Rules Hub:

“When changing balls, the player is permitted to substitute a ball of another brand or type unless the Committee has adopted the One Ball Condition of Competition (see Appendix I; Part C; Section 1c). This optional condition (usually referred to as ‘The One Ball Rule’) is generally adopted only in events that are limited to professional golfers or highly-skilled amateur golfers. Generally, this condition of competition is not adopted in club-level competitions.”

Players are notified beforehand when they will be playing under the One Ball Rule. This allows the player and the player’s caddie to go through their golf bag to sure all of their balls are the same.

In the majority of tournaments, golfers are responsibile for self-declaring any rule violations.

The USGA’s official rules say it this way:

“you are responsible for applying your own penalties if you breach a rule so that you cannot gain any potential advantage over your opponent in match play or other players in stroke play.”

Again, when you’re playing at your local golf club and you launch a ball into a water hazard, it’s OK to change things up and shake those bad vibes, but at the pro level, things can be a bit more serious.

Even still, there is no ball inspection before a major tournament. Officials don’t have the time to look over everyone’s golf ball situation. It is a player’s responsibility to perform their due diligence prior to the competition.

Let’s go back to the 2019 case with Russell Henley. As indicated by the PGA Tour Communications team, he was in the middle of signing balls for a crowd of enthusiastic fans when he realized that one taken from his bag was different from his usual type.

The difference he identified was minuscule: a tiny hyphen printed onto the ball, where usually there was not one. Of course, being a respectable player and all-around stand-up guy, he went to the on-site rules official to declare a potential violation.

Tour pros such as Henley typically keep new balls in one pocket and put used ones in a separate place afterwards.

Whilst it’s not against the rules for players to carry different kinds of balls around with them, even with the One Ball Rule in effect, playing with them is a different story.

Because he discovered the anomalous ball, both he and the rules committee judged that he had in fact played with this different ball during the competition, albeit entirely by accident.

The repercussions of using a different brand or model of ball during play are the administration of penalties: two strokes for every hole it is believed that the ball was used during, for a maximum of eight possible strokes in total.

Henley’s situation was an unusual one: he had no idea how the ball had gotten into his bag.

In this instance, his violation was considered to break Rule 20-3, which refers to “situations not covered by the rules,” because it was not intentional and he self-reported the incident.

You might think that, because it was a genuine error, Henley wouldn’t be punished for it. Sadly, however, to be fair to the other players in the game, he ended up being given a two-stroke penalty for holes 9, 10, 11 and 12, totalling eight strokes added to his game overall.

This caused him to plummet over 80 positions on the leaderboard, and unfortunately, he was outside of the cut line ultimately. That’s a big drop!

It could have been much worse though. On another day, in a worse mood, the committee could have given an instant disqualification right there and then, which is a far bigger stain on one’s career than being docked a couple of points for an honest mistake.

Other Pros That Have Been Penalized by the One Ball Golf Tournament Rule

  • Phil Mickelson – 2005 (Presidents Cup in South Korea)
  • Paul Azinger and playing partner Chip Beck – 1991 Ryder Cup (they were accused of switching balls from one tee to the next)

Unless you’re a professional or highly-skilled golfer then you probably don’t need to worry about the one ball rule.

To reiterate previous points, you’ll only find the one ball policy implemented in the most prestigious and high-stakes competitions.

If you do ever find yourself playing at the highest levels, you may want to consider some of the world’s most expensive golf ball options.

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