Golf is not a complicated sport. The objective is to use a variety of clubs to hit your ball from a designated teeing ground into a hole, taking as few strokes as possible. One game, or round, of golf usually is comprised of 18 holes.
On your journey from the first tee to the final hole, however, you will encounter situations where the Rules of Golf come into play. Some rules are meant to penalize you; some are there to help you. To deal with every situation a golf course presents requires a full understanding of the Rules of Golf. But if you are a new golfer, you can still enjoy the game with just some basic knowledge.
The 34 official Rules of Golf fall under 11 general categories. Here is a brief look at each category, in order:
- In stroke play, the number of strokes you take during a hole is considered your score. The total number of strokes you take during a round is your cumulative score. The player with the lowest score after a designated number of holes is considered the winner.
- In match play, the player who takes the fewest strokes on each hole wins the hole. If players take the same number of strokes then the hole is said to be "halved." The player who wins the most holes during a designated round is declared the winner.
Clubs and the Ball
- You may not play with more than 14 clubs in your bag.
- A ball is unfit for play if it is visibly cut, cracked or out of shape. A new ball may be substituted during a round, but only with approval from a competitor or playing partner.
- You are responsible for counting your strokes on each hole during a round, including penalty strokes. After each hole, the person designated to maintain the scorecard marks each player's score for that hole. In competition, you are responsible for checking the score for each hole and signing the scorecard at the end of each round. If a mistake is discovered later, the golfer whose score is incorrect is disqualified, not the person who marked the score.
- You are allowed no more than one caddie at any one time.
- You must maintain a steady pace of play or you risk a two-stroke penalty in stroke play, or loss of a hole in match play.
- Play can be suspended under threat of lightning or by agreement of tournament officials.
- Practice is not allowed on the course during stroke play.
- You may seek advice during a round only from your playing partner and/or caddie.
Order of Play
- The order of play from the first tee is determined by a draw or by mutual agreement.
- The golfer or team with the lowest score on a hole is afforded "honors" to tee off first on the next hole. If there is a tie, order of play is the same as it was on the previous tee.
- After each player hits a tee shot, the ball farthest from the hole is played first. This rule is often modified to speed up play, as long as it doesn't give one player an unfair advantage.
- You must start each hole from the designated teeing ground that is defined by a pair of tee markers. You can set the ball on a tee or on the ground within two club-lengths behind the markers.
- There is no penalty if the ball falls off the tee or is knocked off the tee during the address routine.
Playing the Ball
- You may search for your ball and identify it as yours, as long as you don't improve its lie.
- Play the ball as it lies. This means hitting from the spot where your ball landed, unless local rules state otherwise. Only on a green are you allowed to mark and replace your ball.
- You may remove loose impediments such as leaves and moveable stones around the ball, except in staked hazards, as long as the ball is not disturbed.
- You must use a true stroke to advance the ball. You can't just push, scrape, or spoon the ball forward with a club. There has to be a backswing—no matter how short—and a forward motion of the club.
- A player hitting the wrong ball incurs a two-stroke penalty.
The Putting Green
- You may remove sand, soil or other loose impediments from your line of putt, as long as you don't alter the putting surface.
- You may lift and clean your ball as long as you replace it in the same spot.
- You may request that the flagstick be attended, removed, or held up to indicate the position of the hole, but if the ball strikes the flagstick you are assessed a two-stroke penalty.
Ball Moved, Deflected or Stopped
- If you, your partner, caddie, or equipment cause the ball to move while it is in play, you incur a penalty stroke. This includes causing the ball to move while moving a loose impediment, such as a fallen branch.
- If your ball is accidentally deflected or stopped by an outside agency, including a referee, marker or observer, the ball is played where it lies, without penalty.
- If your ball in motion strikes another player's ball, there is no penalty and the ball is played as it lies. The exception is when both balls are on the green. Then, if your putted ball hits another player's ball, you are penalized two strokes.
Relief Situations and Procedures
- A lifted ball's position must be marked by placing a ball marker or by placing a small coin immediately behind the ball. The ball must be replaced in the same position.
- If your swing is restricted by a manmade obstruction, such as a cart path, or your ball settles in an area designated as "ground under repair," you are allowed to place the ball within a club length of where the ball came to rest, but no nearer to the hole, without penalty. This is known as "taking relief."
- A penalty stroke is assessed if your ball goes out of bounds or is lost. Depending on the circumstance, you will have to take another shot from your original position, or be allowed to "drop" a ball near where your ball was lost. Dropping is a method of putting a new ball in play by standing erect, taking the ball in your hand, and extending your arm to the side at shoulder level, then dropping the ball. Where the ball lands and comes to rest is where it must be played, unless it rolls into a hazard or touches you or your equipment. Then it can be re-dropped without penalty.
- If your ball becomes embedded in its own pitch mark, outside a hazard, you are allowed to lift, clean and drop it without penalty, unless the ball is in a hazard. Then it must be played as it lies.
- If your ball is lost in a water hazard, you are penalized one stroke. Your options include playing a ball from where the original ball was played or dropping a ball behind the water hazard along the line in which the ball entered the hazard.
- When a ball appears to be hit out of bounds or lost outside a water hazard, but you have some doubt, a provisional ball can be played from the original point. If the first ball is found in play, the provisional ball is picked up without penalty. If the first ball is not found, the provisional ball becomes the primary ball, and you incur a penalty stroke.
- You can declare your ball "unplayable" anywhere outside a water hazard. You take a one-stroke penalty and have the option of playing from your original position, dropping a ball within two club lengths of where the ball landed, but no nearer to the hole, or placing the ball anywhere along the imaginary line behind the point where the ball lay and the hole.
Other Forms of Play
- You can compete as part of a team, in twosomes, threesomes, or foursomes, using a variety of formats. Three-ball competition involves three golfers playing against each other, thus creating three distinct matches. Best-ball is a match in which one golfer plays against the better ball of two, or the best ball of three players. Four-ball is a match in which two golfers play as a team against the better ball of two other players.
- There are also competitions in which golfers compete against a fixed score at each hole. For example, Stableford competition involves a system that rewards points in relation to par. A bogey is worth 1 point, a par 2 points, a birdie 3 points, etc. The player with the highest point total is the winner.
- A designated committee determines the conditions of any competition, including the boundaries of a course, starting times and how handicaps are applied.
- The committee settles disputes and makes decisions based on the Rules of Golf and local rules.
The Rules of Golf apply in every circumstance, no matter how unusual. Because of the nature, so to speak, of a golf course, golfers can encounter a variety of situations. Here are just a few:
- If your putted ball stops on the lip of the hole, you can wait over the ball no more than 10 seconds for it to drop; if you wait longer, you incur a one-stroke penalty, even if the ball eventually drops in the hole.
- If a squirrel or other animal somehow disturbs your ball or takes off with it, you are not penalized. The animal is considered an outside agency. The ball can be replaced near the spot where it last rested.
- If while putting, your ball is deflected by a worm or insect, you must play the ball from where it stops.
- If your ball stops next to a pinecone in a bunker, you are not allowed to move the pinecone. You must either hit the ball as it lies or declare an unplayable lie with a one-stroke penalty.
- If you see a ball hidden beneath leaves or other debris in a water hazard or bunker but can't readily identify it, you are allowed to remove as much of the material as needed to see the ball. There is no penalty if the ball moves in this situation, but it must be replaced.
- If a leafy plant obstructs your backswing, you can't uproot the plant, tear away the leaves, or bend it to improve your swing. If you do, it's a two-stroke penalty.