Golf Illegal Cleaning the Ball Penalty

Golf Illegal Cleaning the Ball

In golf, while cleaning your ball is essential, you cannot do it whenever you want. You must mark your ball's spot before moving it, with a marker no more than 1 inch behind its original location. If the ball is moved or cleaned improperly, then there is typically a one-stroke penalty awarded.


In golf, like many sports, there are several rules to keep track of to avoid penalties; how and when you lift your ball to clean it is one of those rules, due to the cleaning the ball penalty. Like many actions in golf, a specific procedure must be followed when cleaning the ball. The only location and time that the ball can always be lifted and cleaned are on the green, assuming that was the last place the ball was marked. Only you or your respective caddy may lift and interact with your golf ball while a match is ongoing.

Cleaning the ball is a regular occurrence, and you will often see players do this outside of the green. This is only allowed assuming the ball has been marked and is not picked up due to one of the following reasons: to see if it is cut or cracked, to identify the ball, or because it interferes with play. Finally, you cannot clean the ball to see if it lies in a condition where relief is allowed.

If a player fails to follow these procedures and cleans or moves their ball when not allowed, a penalty is awarded. According to USGA rules, in most recognized leagues, the punishment for improper cleaning is a one-stroke penalty added to the offender's score.


The penalty for improper cleaning a golf ball varies depending on the type of match being played. In a non-competitive setting, such as with friends, this rule is rarely enforced. In pro settings and competitions, regardless of the level of play, the procedure is followed to the letter. Suppose a player in stroke play cleans the ball improperly. In that case, there is a one-stroke penalty assessed to the offending player’s score. If the competition is in match play format, illegal cleaning of the ball warrants a forfeit of the hole by the offending player.


  • A player is on the green and decides their ball is dirty. They then grab the ball and clean it without marking the ball's original location.
  • A player is looking for their ball and decides to clean the one they found to see if it's theirs.
  • A player grabs their ball off the fairway because they thought it was cracked and decides to clean the ball while inspecting it for any potential issues or damage.

Similar Penalties to Illegal Cleaning the Ball


What is illegal cleaning of a ball in golf?

Illegal cleaning of your ball in golf refers to a player improperly cleaning their ball during play in a match. The ball is always allowed to be cleaned on the green or if it is already picked up and not in play, but outside of that you cannot pick up the ball in other instances. Exceptions for when a ball may not be cleaned are when a ball is being inspected for a cut or crack, trying to identify the ball, seeing if it interferes with play, or seeing if the ball qualifies for relief.

What are the consequences of illegally cleaning the ball in golf?

The penalty for illegally cleaning a ball during match play is different for stroke play matches and match play formats. In stroke play, officials typically assign the offending player a one-stroke penalty on the course if the ball was picked up to be cleaned improperly. In match play, the offending player will be forced to concede the hole their opponent(s). 

How do you legally clean a ball in golf?

The proper way to clean your respective ball without incurring a penalty is all about when you try to clean the ball. For example, cleaning a ball before a tee shot or after marking your ball on the green are excellent locations and scenarios for you to clean your ball legally. It is always best to ask your opponents or partners while playing to see their preference regarding the rule, but in match or stroke play, you must follow the proper procedures.