Golf is a game that’s played by everyone; seniors, juniors, men, women, amateurs, pros, and “sticklers for the rules.”
We’ve all encountered them out on the course; they’ve got their book of rules the size of the English dictionary in their back pockets, and they’re just waiting for the smallest of violations to crack down on you. Okay, I might be slightly exaggerating, but it’s serious stuff when it comes to the rules of golf.
In reality, 99% of golfers play by and show the utmost respect to golf’s rules, regulations, and traditions. Rules and regulations form the bedrock of all sports, but golf, in particular, holds the game’s traditions in the highest esteem.
If you’re not familiar with the rules of golf, you might be surprised to learn the official book on rules and regulations is over 100 pages long. If you’re a beginner, at some stage, you will need to read the rules in your spare time; and although I joked earlier on, keeping a pocket-size book of the rules in your golf bag is a smart play.
Playing your first few rounds of golf can be intimidating, but to be honest, golfers are a friendly bunch, and you’ll find more than enough people willing to lend you a hand when needed.
Just a note before we get started: the rules I’m covering in this guide refer specifically to “Strokeplay.”
Strokeplay means that you need to count all your shots and hole out. For “matchplay,” some of the rules transfer over, but the vast majority are entirely different, and unless you’re a top amateur, you won’t be playing matchplay anytime soon.
Right, let’s get started!
Rules For Equipment
- 1 Rules For Equipment
- 2 Rules For Teeing Off
- 3 Rules Of Play During A Hole
- 4 Rules For The Greens
- 5 Rules For Communicating With Your Playing Group
- 6 Rules For Marking And Dropping
- 7 Rules For Dealing With Obstructions
- 8 Rules For O.O.B, Hazards And Unplayable
- 9 The Final Hole
The maximum amount of clubs you can carry on the course is 14. You can carry less than 14 if you wish. There are no steadfast regulations on the makeup of the 14 clubs you take; if you want to, you could carry 13 wedges and a putter, although I wouldn’t recommend that.
You must start and finish the hole with the same ball. The only exceptions are hitting the ball in a water hazard or losing it. However, you may change the ball after you’ve finished the hole; you’ll see the pros doing this, especially if the ball is scuffed.
Rules For Teeing Off
- You need to tee up behind the imaginary horizontal line created by the two tee markers. You can go as close to the markers as you like, and you can tee up as far back as 90inches; the easiest way to check is by measuring with your driver, which is generally 45inches in length. Like tennis, you MUST be behind the line when you tee off.
- A common occurrence is the golf ball falling off the tee before making your swing. When this happens, no penalty is incurred, and you’re free to place the ball back. The most irritating part of this is the inevitable wisecrack from someone in the group yelling out “one.”
- Unfortunately, the shot counts if you “whiff” the ball, which is golf terminology for a swing and a miss. You cannot put the ball back on the tee; you must play it where it lies; remember, you’re now playing your 2nd shot.
- Who tees off first in a group of four is decided by the lowest score on the previous hole. The player with the lowest score tees off first, with the highest score going last. There are exceptions to this rule if playing casually, with most groups allowing whoever’s ready to play first. The player furthest from the pin plays first from the fairway and on the green.
- Good etiquette in golf forms the game’s foundation; Remember, when your playing partners tee off, you should stand to the side of the teeing area, staying still and out of their peripheral vision. This shows good manners and allows them to tee off with no distractions.
Rules Of Play During A Hole
- Under no circumstance are you allowed to move your ball by hand or foot to find a better lie. This rule is taken most seriously; moving your ball is considered the worst form of cheating in golf and is rightfully frowned upon.
- You are not allowed to use a tee when playing from the fairway. You’re also not allowed to flatten out the lie directly behind your ball; this is an honest mistake many beginners make.
- If you find yourself in the bushes, you’re not allowed to snap branches to make your shot easier.
- Never ground your club while playing out of the bunker. Using the rake to improve your lie is also a big no-no, as is touching the sand with your hands to check the consistency. However, you can clean up any rocks or leaves that might be sitting behind the ball, but again be careful not to touch the sand.
- Practice swings and touching the sand in “waste bunkers” are allowed, but check where they are before starting the round.
- Water Hazards, on occasion, will be dry, in which case you can ground your club and play out of them. Although in the North of Australia and places like Florida, I’d strongly advise against going in any water hazard.
- You cannot place any tool or device in front of your ball to help with direction and accuracy.
- When moving impediments that are close to your ball, be sure not to move the ball as this would incur a 1 shot penalty. Examples of obstructions you can move are leaves, pebbles, gravel, feathers, and pine needles. Never “kick” them, as this is considered poor etiquette.
- If you have an “unplayable lie” behind a tree or bush, you’re best advised to take a drop because you cannot break branches. Simply pick up your ball, drop it two clubs lengths from the original position and play from there. Oh, and don’t forget to add the 1 shot penalty for picking up.
- You’re allowed to take as many practice swings as you like, just not so many that you slow the group down. Remember you cant “hit” another ball; you can only “shadow swing.”
- You can ground your club in the fairway but never in bunkers unless they’re designated explicitly as “waste bunkers.”
O.O.P or Order of Play
- Order of play is one rule in golf that is quite flexible in a casual setting, meaning not in tournaments or club golf days. In tournament play, the player with the lowest score on the previous hole tees off first.
- From the fairway, the player furthest from the green plays first.
- Once the group is on the green, the player furthest from the pin plays first.
- You’ll find that when playing casually, this rule typically flies out the window, and whoever is ready first can let the others know and play their shot. Just ensure you’re not playing at the same time as others in your group.
Playing The Ball
- You must only hit it once when playing with the ball, and “scooping” the ball is strictly prohibited, as is playing a hockey-style stroke where the ball is “caressed.”
- Your ball must be at a complete stop before you can make contact; if you hit a moving ball, a 1 shot penalty is incurred.
- Before playing your shot, double-check that you’re playing your ball; playing the wrong ball will lead to a 2 stroke penalty; the easiest way to mitigate this is by clearly marking your ball before the start of play.
Rules For The Greens
Like in tennis, when any part of the ball touches the line, it’s considered “in,” golf also applies the same rule around the greens. If your ball is only slightly touching the green, then it’s considered to be “on” the green. This is a lucky break because it allows you to pick the ball up and clean off any dirt from the previous shot.
- While on the green, you’re free to move pebbles and other impediments from the line of your putt. You can use a divot tool to fix spike and ball marks between the line of your ball and the pin; take your time but be careful not to delay play.
- Never touch or feel the grain of the grass or putting surface; this is a big no-no.
- More often than not, your ball might be impeding the line of your playing partner, in which case you’ll need to “mark” your ball. Simply place a ball marker or small coin directly behind the ball to mark your ball.
- It’s imperative that you return your ball to the same position when it’s your turn to putt. Many golfers try to “sneak” an inch here or there; unfortunately, most are never invited to play again; golf is a game of tradition and etiquette; there’s no room for cheating.
- Sometimes your ball hangs on the lip of the cup; when this happens, you can wait 10 seconds; if the ball drops in before then, lucky you; if not, you’ll need to add the extra shot.
- Finally, the most important thing to remember while on the green is being cautious not to stand on the line of your playing partner’s putt. This is another, you guessed it, big n-no, as your spikes could leave marks directly on their line. Taking note of where everyone is when first walking onto the green is the best way to avoid this problem.
If you play from off the green and your ball strikes the pin, there is no penalty unless someone is touching the flagstick. In the past, you were unable to putt with the pin in, however, a recent rule change now permits it, saving time and, most importantly, no more penalty.
Rules For Communicating With Your Playing Group
- When it comes to tournament golf, you cannot ask other players in your group questions like what club they hit, how you should play the hole, or what line to putt on. The only person who can give you advice during the round is your caddy. Like some other rules in golf, this particular rule does not apply to a friendly social round with your friends.
- Your caddy is only there to carry the bags and give advice. They are not allowed to aid you in lining up your putt and or shot. They are also not allowed to stand directly behind and provide you with direction and alignment advice.
- There are some exceptions to the rule. For instance, you are permitted to ask others in your groups for information on the placement of hazards and yardages; most golf courses have the yardage printed on the sprinkler head, so if a partner is standing nearby, you can ask them to check.
- While on the green, any player in the group can hold the pin for any other player without penalty.
- As with not being able to accept advice, you’re also not permitted to give advice; again, use judgment here; if it’s tournament play, then adhere to this rule; however, it can be ignored for social play.
- Betterball style golf does allow you to give and take advice even during serious tournament play.
Unintentional Movement Of Your Ball
- When looking for your ball, you have three minutes to find it. If you can’t find it, you must go back to the tee and hit it again; this also incurs a 1 shot penalty.
- Sometimes an animal might move your ball; yes, I’ve had a bird pick up my ball and drop it back down the fairway; luckily, there is no penalty. Your partner’s ball might also hit your ball on occasion; there is no penalty for this; simply pick up your ball and replace it to its original position.
- If your ball moves by the forces of mother nature, like wind, no penalty is incurred, and you play the ball from where it now lies. Do not pick it up and replace it to where it sat.
Rules For Marking And Dropping
- Dropping the ball is straightforward; it’s simply a matter of dropping from knee height and ensuring the ball makes no contact with you or your bag. In years past, you had to drop from shoulder height, which made dropping quite tricky and often led to a worse lie.
- After dropping your ball sometimes, it can roll back into a water hazard; if this happens, you can pick up the ball and drop it again without penalty. You need to take relief, and your stance cannot be impeded on. If, after two attempts, your ball ends up in the hazard, then place it on the exact spot where it landed on your last drop.
- You must watch precisely where your ball entered the water because you’ll need to drop from the same spot. Unfortunately, this is another area where players can cheat as they try dropping either closer to the hole or giving themselves a better angle. Either way, it’s not on. It’s best to ask your playing before you make the drop and make sure that everyone agrees.
Drops With No Penalty; Or “Free Drops.”
- You are allowed to take a free drop if you see standing water that’s clearly visible on the ground. You can also take a free drop if you see water or mud while taking your stance. When dropping, make sure you drop to the side or the back of the standing water; you cannot drop the ball closer to the pin.
- While playing, you sometimes see signs with the letter GUR which stands for Ground Under Repair. If your ball lands inside the roped-off area, you can retrieve it and drop free of penalty, but not closer to the flagstick.
- If your ball lands near or, God forbid, in an animal burrow, you can retrieve it and drop it without penalty.
- A wayward shot can sometimes land on the green of another hole. You can pick up the ball and drop it one club length off the green in this situation. Under no circumstances do you ever play it off the green, as you’ll leave a divot and won’t be popular when you get back to the clubhouse.
Marking Your Ball
- On occasion, the ball of your playing partner might be hindering your swing or putt, in which case you can ask him to move the ball and mark it with no penalty to either player.
- If a ball hinders your swing on the fairway, you can also pick it up and mark it, preferably with a tee. An important note is that you cannot clean it after picking up the ball.
- Depending on how the ball lies, sometimes you’re unable to identify whether it’s actually your ball; in this case, you can mark the ball and pick it up to check. If it is your ball, replace it and play from there.
Rules For Dealing With Obstructions
- You can move things like cans and bottles or other manmade products like a rake someone might have left out of the bunker; these are classified as “movable obstructions.”
- “Immovable obstructions” are things like sprinkler heads and cart paths which you can take a free drop if they hinder your stance.
- If your ball rests up against a dwelling or building, you can take a free drop but check the rules of your local course because it can vary from club to club.
- When removing obstructions such as manufactured bottles and cans, avoid moving the ball; otherwise, you’ll incur a 1 stroke penalty.
- Sprinkler heads and other “immovable objects” interfering with your swing incur no penalty; simply mark your ball and drop it so you can swing unimpeded. There is some ambiguity with this rule as different clubs have “local rules,” so check with the pro shop before heading out for your round.
Rules For O.O.B, Hazards And Unplayable
- Waters hazards are always clearly marked with yellow rope, painted lines, or, more often than not, stakes. Contrary to that are “lateral hazards,” which are denoted by red lines and painted stakes.
- You are not required to pick the ball up; you do have the option of playing the ball from where it lies.
- You can also return to your last shot and play it again; however, this will incur a 1 stroke penalty.
- You can also take a drop and go back as far you like as long as your stay in line where the ball crossed the hazard.
- A lateral hazard, you can simply drop the ball, ensuring it’s no more than two club-lengths.
- On occasion, you’ll find the hazards may be dry, in which case you can enter and play from there, especially if you have a good lie.
Out Of Bounds
- If you think your tee shot has sailed out-of-bounds, you can play another shot, called a “provisional ball,” just in case you can’t find your first tee shot. If you do find your first ball, you can simply pick up your provisional ball with no penalty.
- If you can’t find your first tee shot or it’s “unplayable,” you can play the provisional, but you’ll need to add a 1 stroke penalty.
- It’s considered good etiquette to let others in your group know that you’re playing the provisional ball; it’s always good to be transparent with your scoring.
- A lost ball is simply defined as a ball you cant find within the allotted 3 minutes.
- Regarding, Out-Of-Bounds, your ball must be entirely outside the designated O.O.B. area.
- If you find your ball trapped in a bush or under a tree, you can consider it “unplayable,” in which case you can take a drop and add a 1 shot penalty.
- You must drop the ball on the same line and cannot move it any closer to the hole; you can, however, go back as far as you like as long as you hold the line.
- You also can walk back to the tee and play your shot again.
The Final Hole
Golf can be an intimidating game to play, especially for those who are just starting out. But don’t let that put you off; golfers are passionate about the game, and the vast majority will help you learn the rules.
Remember, you don’t need to know all the rules, and as long as you’re familiar with the rules and regulations covered in this guide, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying stress-free golf.