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The Rules of Golf Explained

Like any sport, there are rules you have to follow to make sure the game is played fairly and competitively. This tutorial covers the essential golf rules you should know in a simplified format as well as proper golf etiquette.

If you’re looking for more golf tutorial articles like this one, check out our golf tutorial on putting as well as this updated golf rules article for changes made in 2017.

*Disclaimer* This page is a short and brief introduction to the rules of golf and over time rules may change. Be sure to check with the USGA or purchase a recent pocket rule book for under $5.

RESOURCE: Golf Practice Plans to Follow with Proven Drills

Golf Tutorial & Golf Rules

  • The Ball
  • The Stroke
  • Hazards
  • Out of Bounds
  • Lost Ball
  • Unplayable Lie
  • Cart Path
  • Putting Green

The Ball

Golf consists of playing one ball from tee box to green counting the number of successive strokes until the ball is in the hole. It must be played as rests meaning no moving the ball to better your position.

The two exceptions to these two sentences are:

  1. If you lose your ball during the hole then you can replace it with a new ball but must adhere to rules discussed below about whether or not you’ll incur a penalty stroke for replacing your ball.
  2. There are instances you can move the ball from where it rests without penalty but if you intentionally move it you may incur a penalty. More is discussed below on this as well

The Stroke

A golf stroke is a forward motion of the golf club. To generate power, the golfer usually starts with a back stroke before completing the forward stroke. In fact, a back stroke is required to consider it a legal golf stroke because spooning and scraping the ball is not allowed.

Stopping the forward stroke on the way down does not constitute as a stroke. You must count a stroke when you make contact with the golf ball. Practice swings are allowed and are not strokes you must count unless you accidentally hit the golf ball during the motion.

If the ball falls off the tee or moves from wind before the stroke, then it is not a penalty and must be replaced before completing the stroke. Failure to replace the ball can result in a penalty.

Golf Hazards Rule

When you end up in a hazard you must know the specific golf rules that apply to them that must be followed to avoid making a mess of penalty strokes.

You’ll hear the term “hazard” thrown around by golfers for all kinds of things though like getting behind a tree or going into think tall grass.

Anything hazardous to your score will illicit this word from your playing partners! But technically speaking, the two hazards you have to know the rules for are water hazards and bunkers.

Water Hazards

  1. Yellow Marked Water Hazards
  2. Red Marked Lateral Water Hazards

If you run into a part of the course that is marked by yellow lines then it’s a hazard regardless of if it has water or not.

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For yellow marked hazards you must either play the ball as it lies for no penalty, go back to where you hit it from and replay it for a penalty stroke, or drop the ball close to the hazard line but back in play for a penalty stroke. Here are the official rules from USGA.org

1. play the ball as it lies without penalty (Rule 13-1); or under penalty of one stroke;

2. play a ball as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played (see Rule 20-5); or

3. drop a ball behind the water hazard, keeping the point at which the original ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard directly between the hole and the spot on which the ball is dropped, with no limit to how far behind the water hazard the ball may be dropped.

For red lateral hazards you can’t drop the ball behind the water since it runs laterally (parallel) with the hole. In this case you have to drop the ball within 2 club lengths on the side of the lateral hazard that the golf ball entered it from and drop it at the point of entry.

For official rules or more specifics check out USGA.org

Out of Bounds Golf Rules

Out of bounds is usually marked on a golf course and it will be marked in white lines or stakes. If you see your ball in a persons yard and can’t find white lines or stakes marking out of bounds then it’s likely still out of bounds and the golf course just hasn’t decided to spend the effort marking their course.

When you hit the ball out of bounds you can’t play it as it lies. You must play another ball from the spot you were at when you hit the ball out of bounds. Usually this is the tee box but it can also be a spot in the fairway or rough.

You must add a penalty stroke as well on top of replaying the shot which is why the out of bounds situation is generally considered a 2 stroke penalty. One stroke for going out of bounds, and a second stroke is burned having to re-hit and giving up the distance.

If you’re unsure of whether or not your ball is out of bounds you can play a second ball called a provisional ball just in case so that it saves you the trip from having to walk back and hit again if you discover your ball is indeed out of bounds.

Rules regarding the provisional ball though are that you must search for your out of bounds ball first and determine it out of bounds before playing from the spot that your provisional ball ended up. If you hit the provisional ball to the green and then find your first ball is still in bounds you cannot play your first ball and instead have to count the penalty stroke and count the strokes of the provisional.

An example to simplify this rule:

Golfer A is teeing off and hits his drive to what appears to be out of bounds. Therefore he tells his playing partners he will hit a provisional ball just in case his first ball is truly out of bounds. His provisional ball lands in the fairway. After walking ahead to his first ball he sees it’s out of bounds. Now he must play his provisional ball the rest of the hole.

Since he hit stroke 1 out of bounds he incurred a penalty stroke putting him at 2 strokes. Then he hit a provisional ball off the tee so that is stroke 3. He is sitting in the fairway about to hit stroke 4 to the green. Make sense? Cool cool.

Resource: Ultimate Putting Guide + Practice Drills & Worksheets

Lost Ball Rule in Golf

A lost ball is similar to the out of bounds rule. In the event you can’t find your ball then you must go back to the spot you last played from and replay the shot. You incur a penalty shot for replacing the ball and must count the replay shot as well so you’ve just added two additional strokes to your score like in the out of bounds situation above.

Unplayable Lie Golf Rule

An unplayable lie can occur penalty free or for a penalty.

Penalty free situations involve standing water and plugged golf balls. When the ball is in a water puddle, not a water hazard, it is considered standing water. This can happen if a heavy rain occurred recently and left puddles on the fairway, in the rough, in the bunkers, or on the green. Standing water is also when you’re in the rough or fairway and water gushes up your shoes a reasonable amount.

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For standing water you can move the ball to the nearest point of relief away (meaning dryer ground) penalty free. If you are in a bunker then you have to move the ball elsewhere in the bunker but cannot move the ball outside of the bunker.

Plugged golf balls can happen as well when the ground is wet. In this case you can move your golf ball next to the plugged spot on normal ground penalty free. It wouldn’t be fair to make you hit the ball out of a plugged lie because it may never come out.

Unplayable lies that result in penalties usually occur when you have objects in your way such as trees, bushes, tall grass, and others.

If you have no golf shot from this position or don’t want to risk needing multiple attempts to get the ball to a playable position again then you can take an unplayable lie penalty for one stroke and move the ball to nearest point of relief.

Cart Path Rules

If you end up on the cart path you can move the ball off penalty free or play it as it lies but risk ruining your golf clubs. You must drop the ball within a clubs length from the cart path and on the side the ball is closest too currently as it sits on the cart path.

Putting Green Golf Rules

On the putting green you cannot hit the flag with your golf ball or else it’s a penalty stroke. This is the reason that golfers’ remove the flag when putting.

If someone lays the flag down on the green and your ball hits it still; it’s a penalty stroke. Make sure to remove the pin so that it doesn’t interfere with anyone’s putts.

You also should be putting based on who is furthest away from the hole first and person closest last.

Your score stops when you get the ball in the hole so you can’t just pick your ball up once it’s on the green. You must putt out meaning make it into the hole.

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During match play, golfers are allowed to tell their partner that they can pick the ball up if it’s within a few inches of the hole and going to be a guaranteed make because this saves time from not making them putt such a short putt. Stroke play you have to count all strokes and therefore finish out the hole properly.

If your ball hits another player’s ball then it’s a penalty stroke on you. They have to replace their ball to it’s position prior to being hit by yours or else they’ll incur a penalty if they play it from the altered position.

Golf Etiquette Rules

For golf etiquette we’re going to just reel of a bunch of bullet points of different rules you should abide by to be a respectful golfer and embody proper golf etiquette.

  • When other players are hitting you should remain still and silent
  • You don’t want to be right behind someone or in their visual line when they are hitting as this can cause a distraction
  • The player furthest away from the hole should be taking their turn first
  • The person who scores the lowest on a hole should get to tee off first on the next hole
  • Taking out the flag for your playing partner without them asking is good etiquette and required anyway before they can putt
  • Wait to play your shot until players ahead have cleared to avoid accidentally hitting into them
  • Play up to speed with your partners and up to the speed the course requires. Faster pace is better in golf.
  • You can save time by thinking about your shot as you walk to it and not when you finally get to it
  • Limit yourself to just a few practice swings
  • Don’t make practice swings near your partners when they are focusing on their shot and are up next
  • Shake hands and remove hats at the conclusion of your round
  • Be respectful when discussing rules and penalties
  • Play with honesty even if your partner missed a stroke of yours or thought you had a lower score than you actually had.

That concludes today’s tutorial on golf rules and etiquette. If you want to learn more in depth rules here is the link again to USGA, which is the governing body that sets the golf guidelines and rules.

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