The rules of Golf

To the uninitiated, the rules of Golf can be somewhat baffling. When commentators and players talk with ease about bogeys, albatrosses and eagles it is understandable that newcomers to the sport often feel overwhelmed. Fortunately, mastering the basics is easily achievable.

Unlike many other sports, the rules of Golf are standardised and you will have no need to read countless rulebooks in order to understand every facet of the sport. Amateur and professional players alike tend to adhere to the Royal and Ancient Rules of Golf as dictated by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. These rules are comprehensive and clearly written and are an essential resource for those seeking a rulebook which covers almost all possible eventualities. A summary of the basic principles of Golf is provided below for those looking for an introduction to the sport:

The aim of the game

Put simply, the aim of Golf is to put a ball into a series of holes (usually eighteen) distributed across a Golf course. Either three, four or five strokes are permitted to put the ball into each hole. This is referred to as ‘par’ and is determined by factors including the distance to the hole. Players must attempt to finish each hole either on or below par. It is possible to play Golf alone, or in pairs or teams.

There are two forms of play:

  • Match Play – The player/team who wins the most holes during the round wins the match. Essentially, this means that a player will play against his or her opponent for each hole, rather than against the course.
  • Stroke Play – The winner will be the player/team who finishes the round in the fewest strokes.

The rules are largely the same for both Match and Stroke Play, but there are a few slight variations.

The course

Golf courses usually have eighteen holes, although smaller courses, (which usually have nine holes) are also common. Golf courses are made up of a variety of different ground. The main features of a golf course are summarised below:

  • The Teeing Ground – This, predictably, is the place where players tee off.
  • The Fairway – Much of the area covering a Golf course will be comprised of well-maintained land with short grass.
  • The Putting Greens – Like the fairway, the putting greens are regularly mowed and maintained. Ideally, a player will keep his or her ball confined to the fairways and putting greens. The hole, often marked by a flag, will be found on the putting green.
  • Hazards – Hazards are designed to hinder the progress of players. Almost all golf courses have bunkers of sand as hazards. Once a ball has landed in a bunker, it can be very difficult to hit it clear without losing a number of strokes. These are often placed around putting greens. Some golf courses also have ponds, or on larger courses even lakes, as obstructions.
  • The Rough – The areas of the course known as ‘the rough’ are the regions that are allowed to grow more wildly than the fairways and putting greens. Thick grass, shrubland or woodland often make up the rough.
  • Out of bounds – A ball which is out of bounds is outside the confines of the course. The beginning of an area which is out of bounds will always be clearly marked. A ball which is in the rough or in a hazard is not out of bounds.

The Basic Principles of Golf

Teeing off

Play must begin from the teeing ground (sometimes known as ‘the tee’) and is known as ‘teeing off’. If a player does not play from the teeing ground, it is usual practice for the stroke to be replayed. In fact, in Stroke Play, a two-stroke penalty may result from a failure to tee off from the correct area.

The player who tees off first is said to have “the honour”. In competitive games, the player or team which receives the honour first is often decided by a coin toss or by drawing names. In friendly games, it is more usual for the players to decide between themselves who will go first.

The player or team which wins a hole usually takes the honour for the next. It is therefore possible for a single player or team to retain “the honour” for the duration of the round.

The order of play

Generally, the ball furthest away from a hole is played first. If this convention is breached deliberately or accidentally the other players can demand that a stroke be retaken. When the balls are accidentally played in the incorrect order in amateur Golf, however, it is usual (depending, of course, on the competitiveness of the participants!) to continue without replaying the strokes.

Similarly, whilst the rules state clearly that a player can strike the ball only once, and that missing the ball after swinging one’s club counts as a stroke, amateur players engaged in a casual match are often willing to overlook this, and will not always insist on penalising an opponent.

The golden rule of Golf

One of the most important rules of Golf is that the ball must always be played from where it lies. Altering the land on which the ball lies, or moving the ball, is against the rules.

There are few circumstances in which it is acceptable to move a ball from its position. If a ball may obstruct another player’s shot, however, that player is within his or her rights to ask for it to be temporarily lifted. That said, the player asked to move his/her ball must replace the ball before taking the next shot.

Sometimes, however, it is plain that a player will not be able to play a ball from where it lies. If, for example, the ball lies at the bottom of a large, deep lake, the player may reasonably declare that his or her ball is a lost cause! A player may also consider that a ball is ‘unplayable’ if it has landed in a very awkward position, such as directly behind a tree or in the middle of a shrub. It is always the prerogative of the player to declare when his or her own ball is unplayable.

Once a ball has been declared to be ‘unplayable’ a player will usually opt to ‘take a drop’. This means that the player forfeits a stroke in order to drop the ball into a playable position. This is done by the player, who will hold the ball at shoulder height, extending his/her arm fully before dropping the ball. This is permitted on the condition that the ball is dropped as close as possible to its original location (usually no more than a club length) and no closer to the hole.

There are few circumstances in which it is acceptable to move a ball from its position without incurring a stroke penalty. There are, however, two notable exceptions. Firstly, a player whose ball has landed in a hole or obstruction caused by burrowing animals, such as a rabbit warren, is permitted to drop his or her ball without penalty. Secondly, a ball which lands in ‘casual water’ which is defined as water which does not usually lie on the course, such as a puddle, can be moved without penalty.

Occasionally, a ball may also be moved temporarily at the request of another player. If a ball may obstruct another player’s shot that player is within his or her rights to ask for it to be temporarily lifted. This is not the same as a drop, however, as the player asked to move his/her ball must, replace the ball before taking his/her next shot.


As described above, each hole on a Golf course is designated as a “par three,” “par four” or “par five.” This means that each player/team has either three, four or five strokes to put the ball in the hole. If a player manages to finish the hole in the exact number of strokes permitted, he/she is said to be “on par”. Some other common words used in scoring include:

  • Albatross – Three under par
  • Eagle – Two under par
  • Birdie – One under par
  • On par
  • Bogey – One over par
  • Double Bogey – Two over par
  • Triple Bogey – Three over par

The score at the end of the round depends upon whether players have decided to use Match or Stroke play. If they opt for Match Play, the score will be determined by how many holes each player/team has won. If each player/team completes a hole in an equal number of strokes, the score for that hole is halved. If a player/team wins the majority of the holes on the course, it may not be necessary to complete all eighteen holes. It is possible, for example, to win a round on an 18-hole course in as few as ten holes (as there are not enough holes remaining for the opponent to achieve parity).

If the players opt for Stroke Play, the score will be determined by how many strokes each player/team used to complete the course. As players play against the course during Stroke Play and only compare their score with that of their opponent/s after the final hole, all holes are always played.


If you play at an amateur club, you are likely to be assigned a handicap by the club committee on the basis of your scores. Handicaps are often assigned to players in amateur clubs in order to ensure that games between players of varying abilities can still be competitive. Handicaps are adjusted frequently to reflect recent performance.

The concept of a handicap can be confusing to newcomers to the sport. Imagine that a course is a par 72 and your handicap is 20. Imagine also that during your most recent round, you completed the course in 92 strokes. Under the handicap system, your handicap number (in this case 20) would be subtracted from your final score (that is, the number of strokes you used to cover the course) which would give you a net score of 72. If, on your next round, you managed to cover the course in 90 strokes, the club committee might decide to reduce your handicap slightly, perhaps to eighteen or nineteen. This would mean that on your next round, you would have to perform better in order to receive the same net score.

Note that the handicap system is only used in amateur golf. Professionals always begin games “from scratch”, with no handicap and a score of zero.


The importance of proper etiquette on the Golf course should not be underestimated. As the section on etiquette in the R & A Rules points out, golf is one of the few sports which is usually played without an umpire. Instead, players are expected to “do what is in the spirit of the game”; namely, to play fairly.

You should always remember that, for most, playing Golf is a cherished hobby used as a means of escaping the stresses of everyday life. For this reason, someone who causes a bad atmosphere on the fairways will quickly make himself or herself unpopular at a Golf club. There is no need, however, for newcomers to worry that they will cause offense by doing something deemed not to be “in the spirit of the game” unintentionally, as most problems can be avoided with the application of a little common sense. Some things which are likely to cause particular offense are listed below:

  • Be aware of what is going on around you – If you are about to take a couple of practice swings, first make sure that there is no-one standing in the vicinity who could be injured by your club. Never take a practice swing with a pebble or stone as a substitute for a Golf ball; in addition to damaging your own clubs, you may injure other players if you accidentally hit a stone towards them.
  • Remember that your group is not alone on the course – You should be aware that there may be other groups waiting behind you. While golf is a sociable game and it is common to take time over each hole, try not to linger if there is someone waiting to play the same hole. Conversely, if you are waiting behind another group in order to play your next hole, try not to be impatient and wait for the group to clear the hole before you move forwards.
  • Always leave the course in the same (or better) condition as you found it in – If you remove a piece of turf from the ground during a swing (known as a divot), make sure you replace it carefully. As players who follow you will also be bound by the golden rule of Golf – that the ball must be played where it lies – a ball which lands on the damaged spot might be difficult to play. Similarly, if your ball falls into a bunker, make sure you rake the area you have used when you move on.
  • Be considerate towards the other members of your group – If another player in your group, particularly your partner, loses a ball, it is considered polite to help them find it. Also, as umpires are not generally used in Golf and players are usually trusted to keep track of their own stroke count, it is important to be honest and sportsmanlike at all times. Other players will often know if you are twisting the truth to your advantage, and a reputation for bending the rules will not help your standing in a club.
  • Do not distract other players – If someone is taking a shot, it is polite to remain silent until they have finished. It is also good etiquette to try to remain out of a player’s line of sight when they are taking a shot. Remember that movement even in a player’s peripheral line of sight can be extremely distracting. You should also take care to remember this if you ever decide to attend a tournament as a spectator. Keeping to the areas reserved for spectators and remaining quiet and still while players take shots demonstrates respect for the players involved.
  • Never deliberately sabotage another player’s game – The original rules of 1744 stated that “at holing, you are to play your ball honestly for the hole, and not play upon your adversary’s ball, not lying in your way to the hole”. This principle is just as important today as it was over three centuries ago. In other words, if you notice that your interests would be better served by knocking your opponent’s ball further away from the hole than taking a shot at the hole yourself, you should always resist the temptation to be mean-spirited!
  • Use your common sense – Behaviour that is annoying in most everyday situations will be considered no less irritating on a Golf course. Constantly pausing to answer a mobile phone with an obnoxious ring tone, for example, is likely to rub your fellow players up the wrong way!

Golfing Terms

  • Caddie/Caddy – A person employed by a Golfer, whose responsibilites include carrying the player’s clubs and advising on club choice and strategic decisions.
  • Career Grand Slam – The rare feat of winning all four major professional championships during the course of a Golfing career. To date, only five players have managed it: Ben Hogan; Jack Nicklaus; Gary Player; Gene Sarazen; and Tiger Woods.
  • Double Eagle – An alternative term to indicate a score of three under par.
  • Drive – The first shot, taken from the teeing ground.
  • Fore – Players often shout “Fore!” to warn others on the course that a ball may be flying towards them.
  • Front Nine – The first nine holes of a Golf course.
  • Hole in One/ Ace – A hole in one is exactly what its name implies; the (very rare!) feat of putting the ball into a hole in a single stroke.
  • Hook – A badly played shot which curves slightly to the left.
  • Inward Nine – The final nine holes of a course.
  • Lie – The ‘lie’ is the place where the ball rests.
  • Mulligan – A mulligan is the name often given to a second chance awarded after a small mistake, as opposed to insistence on a stroke penalty. Mulligans are usually only awarded during friendly games and (for obvious reasons!) are extremely uncommon in professional Golf.
  • Putt – A shot usually taken on the green, generally using a club called the ‘putter.’
  • Whiff – A colloquial term which refers to swinging for the ball and missing it; so-called because it mimics the sound of the club moving through the air.