The rules of golf can be confusing to the beginner and frequent player alike. The USGA (web site) writes and interprets the rules of golf and sells the definitive handbook. But, many people find reading a rules book to be tedious.
A common question from beginning golfers is “How closely should the rules be followed?” Keep these things in mind:
- When playing in any type of competition or tournament – or when playing to establish your handicap – always adhere strictly to the rules.
- When playing an informal round with friends, discuss before you begin the round whether or not rules will be relaxed.
- Never modify a rule of golf in any way that slows the pace of play or endangers anyone on the course.
In informal rounds of golf, rules are most often broken to speed play. For example, in “ready golf”, players may play out of turn to avoid waiting for someone who is far from their ball or who has returned to the cart to get a club. Beginning players sometimes relax the rules involving lost balls and unplayable lies to speed play and add to everyone’s enjoyment of the game.
Rules for the most frequently encountered situations
The following is far from being complete or definitive. These are simply reminders to infrequent golfers who are heading out to play.
- Lost balls. If your ball cannot be found – with a five minute maximum search time – drop a ball from where the lost ball was hit and take a one stroke penalty.
- Out of bounds. If your ball goes out of bounds – as defined and marked by the course on which you are playing – drop your ball where you last hit it and take a one stroke penalty.
- Unplayable lies. It is solely your decision that your ball cannot be played (for example, if it is too close to a tree). In this case, drop your ball within two club lengths – but no closer to the hole – and take a one stroke penalty.
- Water hazards. If your ball enters a water hazard, drop a ball behind the water hazard – anywhere on a line from the hole to where the original ball crossed the water – and take a one stroke penalty. Or, drop a ball from where your original ball was hit and take a one stroke penalty.
- In a sand trap. Do not touch the sand – with your club, with your hand, with a rake – before hitting your ball. You may not remove natural objects (leaves, sticks, rocks), but you may remove man-made objects (plastic cup, rake). If you declare an unplayable lie in a sand trap, you must drop the ball in the sand trap.
- On the green. You may mark your ball and then lift/clean it. You may remove loose objects (leaves, sticks, trash), but do not touch or press the ground between your ball and the hole. It is your choice whether the flagstick be removed or left in place, and you may ask someone to tend the flagstick. Once you are on the green, it is a two-stroke penalty if your ball hits the flagstick or another ball.
- Unless contradicted above. Never touch your ball after your tee shot, unless you are dropping a ball after taking a penalty. You may move natural or man-made objects (sticks, trash) without penalty. If your ball strikes something (a tree, a rock, another ball), play your ball where it lies with no penalty. If you play the wrong ball, take a two stroke penalty.