Golf can be a fun and entertaining pastime, but learning all the rules that go along with it can be intimidating to new players. Many casual golfers, whether intentionally or accidentally, fail to follow every rule to the letter, and that is usually acceptable in situations where players only want an afternoon of fun.
Serious golfers, however, may expect their golfing buddies to take the game as seriously as they do, and expect everyone in the foursome to learn and follow every rule. Therefore, new golfers should decide whether they want to take up golf as a fun pastime or a serious hobby. That single decision determines how critical it is to learn and remember every golf rule.
There is no doubt that when it comes to golf rules, there is a lot to learn. Most players make countless mistakes before they get it completely right. However, determined players can eventually learn all the ins and outs with a little time and patience. This guide outlines some basic rules that new golfers need to know and understand to start enjoying the game of golf.
Five Key “Beginner” Rules of Golf
Officially, the rule book for golf is 182 pages long, and lists 34 rules of golf. For beginners, Golf Digest has narrowed that hefty list down to five key rules that golfers should focus on when first learning to play the game.
Rule #1: Do Not Move the Ball
The key phrase to remember for golf is, “As it lies.” There are exceptions for balls that roll out of bounds or into hazards, as well as for a few other scenarios, but the rule of thumb is that a ball cannot be touched (or kicked, or nudged, or tapped, or anything else) and must be played from its exact resting spot after a shot; in other words, “as it lies.”
On putting greens, balls can be picked up and moved to get them out of the way of other players. However, a small marker must be placed directly under the ball before moving it, to mark its exact position. Golfers must then place their balls back on the green in precisely the same spot, before putting.
Generally speaking, golf should be thought of as a completely hands-free sport, apart from the exceptions already noted (and holding the club, of course).
Rule #2: Do Not Touch Any Other Balls
It goes without saying that the balls of your companion golfers should also not be touched, but it can be tempting to pick up and pocket other stray balls on a golf course. The rule, however, is to leave stray balls alone. For one thing, they might belong to other players on the course who just have not caught up with their balls yet.
Rule #3: Play Balls from Other (Wrong) Holes
As distressing as it might be, the “as it lies” rule is still in effect even if a ball ends up on the wrong fairway or green. The only exception is if there are lines, stakes, or other markers indicating the other fairway is out of bounds. If the other fairway is out of bounds, the ball is replayed with a one-stroke penalty.
If the ball can be played from its resting position on the other hole, players have to be careful not to get in the way of other players who are appropriately playing that hole. The players on the other hole should be allowed to play first, unless they elect to wait.
Rule #4: Five Minute Time Limit to Search for a Ball
Players should not spend more than five minutes searching for a ball. If the ball cannot be found within that time, the golfer must take a one-stroke penalty and play again from the original position of the shot (or as close as possible).
If players are uncertain of the exact location of the original shot, the hitting player can do a ball drop by holding the ball in his/her hand with the arm extended straight out at shoulder level and dropping the ball. This should be done in the general area of the original shot.
Rule #5: Play Within the Boundaries of the Golf Course
A ball that lands outside the boundaries of the golf course is not played “as it lies.” The player takes a one-stroke penalty for hitting a ball out of bounds, and the ball is replayed from as close as possible to the original hitting position. As with lost balls, this may require a ball drop.
Boundary lines for golf courses are usually indicated by white lines or stakes, although other types of boundary markers may also be used.
Golf Etiquette for Beginners
Beyond the scope of the technical rules of golf, there are the important “rules” of golf etiquette. Golf etiquette is the unwritten code of behavior expected by other golfers on a course. Golf has long been considered a “gentleman’s game,” and golfers should heed the appropriate etiquette if they want to be respected. The critical rules of golf etiquette are discussed in the sections below.
Do Not Fall Behind
No one likes a slowpoke, and although golf is not exactly a fast-paced game, fellow golfers on the course do not like players who cannot keep up. A few practice swings should be done between turns so that players are ready to hit their balls relatively quickly when their turn arrives. Many golfers play that short putts of less than two feet “given” to players, in order to speed up the game. If that is the case, players should not waste time playing short putts, even for additional practice.
The rule of thumb is that a subsequent group should stay about half a hole behind the preceding group of golfers.
Take Turns in the Appropriate Order
Some groups of golfers play “ready golf,” which simply means that whoever is ready to hit can go, without regard to a specific order. Most golfers, however, follow traditional guidelines, which allow the golfer with the best score on the previous hole to go first on the next hole, followed by the person with the next best score, and so on. For follow-up shots on the same hole, the person farthest from the hole goes first, and so on.
On the green, the person closest to the hole is in charge of the flagstick for the hole. This includes removing the flagstick once all the golfers can see the hole, and replacing the flagstick once the entire group is ready to move to the next hole.
Remember to Yell, “Fore!”
Nothing is more menacing than a hard-as-a-rock golf ball sailing through the air at high speed. If a ball flies off the intended trajectory and there are any other golfers in the vicinity, golfers should yell, “Fore!” very loudly and very clearly. This is the standard warning recognized by all golfers, and it gives them a chance to protect themselves from a ball that might be headed in their direction.
Take Good Care of the Golf Course When Playing
Keeping golf courses in tip-top shape requires a lot of effort on the part of groundskeepers and golfers alike. Golf carts should only be driven on cart paths, unless permission has been granted to drive on the grass. Divots in the turf and ball marks on the green should both be repaired before golfers move on to the next hole. Divots can often be tapped back into place, and some golfers carry special seed mixes to fill in holes.
Additionally, sand bunkers should be raked after balls are hit from bunkers. Footprints and other disruptions left in the sand can make bunker shots even more challenging for the next golfer unlucky enough to land there.
Stand in the Correct Place
Golfers should always make sure no one is within striking distance when they are lining up their shots and preparing to swing. However, it is equally important that players waiting their turn should not stand too close to the hitter’s swing zone or in other positions that might interfere with the hitter’s concentration. Standing several yards away, slightly behind and to the side of the ball is usually a good position. Extra caution and awareness is needed when a player is hitting from a bunker, as bunker shots can be extremely unpredictable.
Players should always stay out of the line of sight when other players are hitting balls on the green, and they should never step on the path between another player’s ball and the hole.