Golf Rules at a Glance

A golfer tees up his ball
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These Golf Rules at a Glance are designed to give beginners to the game a quicker look at key elements of the rules. The official Rules of Golf take up around 100 pages of a booklet published by the USGA and R&A. So these Golf Rules at a Glance are a sort of introduction to, or a gateway to, the full Rules of Golf.

Here we summarize, in plain English designed to be easy to understand, to be simpler, the rules of our game. Because we're making the rules easier here, this summary should never be used to settle disputes or disagreements; always consult the full rules for that. Also, see the Golf Rules FAQ for discussion of sticky situations.

The summaries of each golf rule are provided by rules expert and historian John Hutchinson, who runs the Historical Rules of Golf website.

Now, on to your quick guide to the rules:

Rule 1: The Game

  • The holes on the course must be played in order (1 through 9, or 1 through 18) unless the committee says otherwise.
  • You must always play by the Rules. You are not allowed to change or ignore them.

Rule 2: Match Play

  • In match play, each hole is a separate contest. If you win the first hole, you are "one-up"; if you lose it, you are "one-down"; if you halve it, you are "all-square."
  • You have won the match when you are more holes up than there are left to play. For example, if you are three-up and there are only two holes left to play, you have won “three and two”.
  • Anyone you are playing against is your "opponent."

Rule 3: Stroke Play

  • In stroke play, the competitor with the lowest total score for the round (or rounds) is the winner.
  • You must play your ball into the hole before starting the next hole.
  • Anyone you are playing with is a “fellow-competitor”.
  • It is not possible to play match play and stroke play at the same time.

Rule 4/Rule 5: Clubs and the Ball

  • You may carry no more than fourteen clubs.
  • You may not change balls during the play of a hole unless a Rule allows it. However, if you damage your ball or it goes out of shape, you may change the ball after first consulting your opponent or fellow competitor.

Rule 6: Player’s Responsibilities

  • Read the notices given to you by the tournament officials.
  • Always use your correct handicap.
  • Know your tee-time or starting time, and be there ready to play at that time.
  • Make sure you can identify your own ball (put a mark on the ball in case someone else is using an identical ball).
  • In stroke play, make sure your score for each hole is correct and sign your card before returning it.
  • Don’t unduly delay play – keep up with the group in front. Keep playing unless there is danger from lightning, you become ill, or an official tells you to stop.

Rule 7: Practice

  • You may not hit a practice shot while playing a hole, or from any hazard. Normally, practice is not allowed on the course before a stroke event but is allowed before a match. However, a committee may alter this rule so always check the conditions of competition.

Rule 8: Advice on How to Play

  • During a round, you may not ask anyone except your caddie or partner for advice on how to play. However, you may ask anyone about the Rules or the position of hazards or the flagstick.
  • You may not give advice to your opponent or fellow-competitor.
  • Don’t position any marker to indicate your line of play.

Rule 9: Advising Opponent on Strokes Taken

  • In match play, you must tell your opponent the number of strokes, including penalties, you have taken if you are asked.

Rule 10: The Order of Play

  • The player who has the lowest score on a hole has the right to play his/her ball first on the next hole. This is called the "honour."
  • While playing a hole, the player whose ball is farthest from the hole plays first.
  • In match play, if you play out of turn, your opponent may make you replay your shot. This is not so in stroke play.

Rule 11: Teeing Ground

  • Tee your ball between the tee-markers or a little behind them. You may tee your ball as far as two club lengths behind the markers.
  • If your ball accidentally falls off the tee before making your first stroke, you may replace it without penalty.

Rule 12: Searching for and Identifying Ball

  • A hazard is any bunker (a hollow area containing sand) or water hazard (lake, stream, drainage ditch, etc).
  • Anywhere on the course, if sand (or loose impediments in a hazard) completely cover your ball, you may remove enough of the sand or impediments during a search to be able to see a part of the ball.
  • You may lift your ball to identify it anywhere on the course. You must tell your opponent or fellow competitor before you lift your ball to identify it.

Rule 13: Playing the Ball as It Lies

  • You must play the ball as it lies. You may not move it to a better spot.
  • You may not improve your lie by pressing down behind the ball. The club may be grounded only lightly behind the ball.
  • You may not improve the area of your stance, intended swing or line of play by bending or breaking anything growing, such as tree branches or long grass.
  • In a bunker, you may not touch the sand. In a water hazard, touch the ground or water with your club before or during your back swing.
  • In any hazard, you may not remove loose impediments (natural things such as leaves or twigs) but you may remove obstructions (artificial objects such as bottles or rakes.)
  • You may rake parts of the bunker before playing your ball solely for the purpose of caring for the course and keeping it tidy, and for no other reason. It would be good practice not to rake close to your ball or on the line of intended play.

Rule 14: Striking the Ball

  • You must strike the ball fairly with the head of the club. You may not push, scrape or rake the ball, nor accept any assistance or use any artificial aid in making your stroke. Neither may you use an 'anchoring point' against your body in making a stroke.
  • You must not hit your ball while it is moving (except in water).

Rule 15: Playing a Wrong Ball

  • If you play a ball that is not yours, you lose the hole in match play or incur a two-stroke penalty in stroke play.

Rule 16: The Putting Green

  • If any part of your ball is touching the green, it is on the green.
  • When your ball is on the green, you may brush away leaves and other loose impediments, but otherwise, do not touch your line of putt.
  • You may repair ball marks or old hole plugs, but do not repair marks made by spikes or shoes before playing.
  • You may not test the surface of the green by rolling a ball or scraping the surface.
  • Always mark your ball by putting a small coin or another marker behind it when you want to pick it up to clean it or get out of another player's way.
  • If your ball overhangs the edge of the hole you can wait ten seconds to see if it drops in. If it falls in after 10 seconds, add a penalty stroke to your score.

Rule 17: The Flagstick

  • If your ball is played from off the green, there is no penalty if your ball strikes the flagstick, provided no one is attending it.
  • If your ball is on the green, do not putt with the flagstick in the hole. Either take the flagstick out or ask another player to hold it and take it out when you play your ball. In match play, if you putt and your ball hits the flagstick when it is in the hole, you lose the hole. In stroke play, you must add two penalty strokes to your score.

Rule 18: Ball is Moved

  • If you or your partner touches or moves your ball on purpose or accidentally, add a penalty stroke to your score and replace the ball. If you don’t replace it, add two penalty strokes.
  • If someone or something else moves your ball there is no penalty, but you must replace it.
  • If the ball is moved by wind or water, you must play it as it lies.

Rule 19: Ball in Motion Deflected or Stopped

  • If your ball hits you, your partner, your caddie, or your equipment you are penalized one stroke and you must play your ball as it lies.
  • In match play, if your ball hits your opponent, his caddie, or his equipment, there is no penalty; you may play the ball as it lies or replay the shot.
  • In stroke play, if your ball hits a fellow competitor, caddie, his equipment or anything else there is no penalty and the ball is played as it lies.
  • If your ball hits another ball and moves it, you must play your ball as it lies. The owner of the other ball must replace it. If your ball is on the green when you play and the ball that your ball hits is also on the green, you are penalized two strokes in stroke play. Otherwise, there is no penalty.

Rule 20: Lifting and Dropping the Ball

  • If you are going to lift your ball under a Rule and the Rule requires that the ball is replaced, you must put a ball-marker by the ball before you lift it.
  • When you drop a ball, stand erect and hold your arm out straight when dropping it.
  • If a dropped ball hits the ground and rolls into a hazard, out of a hazard, comes to rest more than two club-lengths from where it first struck a part of the course, nearer the hole or, if you are dropping away from an immovable obstruction or ground under repair, etc., back where the obstruction or ground under repair still interferes with your stance or swing, you must re-drop. If the same thing happens when you re-drop, you must place the ball where it struck the ground when it was re-dropped.
  • If you play a ball from a wrong place, you lose the hole in match play or two penalty strokes in stroke play.

Rule 21: Cleaning the Ball

  • You may clean your ball when you lift it, with a few exceptions: when you are checking if it is unfit for play, identifying it, or if it either interferes with or assists another player's play.

Rule 22: Ball Interfering with or Assisting Play

  • If another ball interferes with your swing or is on your line of play, you may ask the owner of the ball to lift it.
  • If your ball is near the hole and might assist another player, you may lift your ball.

Rule 23: Loose Impediments

  • Loose impediments are natural objects that are not growing or fixed - such as loose leaves, twigs, fallen branches, stones, and insects. You may remove a loose impediment except when your ball and the loose impediment lie in a bunker or water hazard. (Exception see Rule 12-1)
  • If your ball moves as a result of removing a loose impediment, you incur a penalty of one stroke unless your ball is on the putting green.

Rule 24: Obstructions

  • Obstructions are artificial or man-made objects. Bottles, cans, rakes, etc., are movable obstructions. Sprinkler heads, shelters, cart paths, etc., are immovable obstructions.
  • Movable obstructions anywhere on the course may be removed. If the ball moves when moving an obstruction, there's no penalty and the ball must be replaced.
  • You may drop your ball away from an immovable obstruction if it interferes with your swing or stance. Find the nearest point not nearer the hole where the ball could be played without interference with your swing or stance. Drop the ball within one club-length of that point. Note: It is good practice not to pick up the ball until you have established the nearest point of relief.

Rule 25: Casual Water; Ground Under Repair; Animal Holes

  • Casual water is any temporary water caused by rain or over-watering. Ground under repair is any damaged area, which the Committee has marked as such.
  • If your ball or your stance is in casual water, ground under repair or a burrowing animal hole, you may either play the ball as it lies or find the nearest place not near the hole which gives you relief, and drop the ball within one club-length of that place.
  • If your ball is in casual water, etc., and you cannot find it, determine where the ball entered the area and drop a ball within one club-length of that place without penalty.
  • If your ball is on the wrong putting green, find the nearest place off the green, not nearest the hole, and drop the ball within one club-length of that place.

Rule 26: Water Hazards

  • Water hazard margins are identified by yellow stakes or lines. Lateral water hazard margins are identified by red stakes or lines.
  • If your ball is in a water hazard or a lateral water hazard, you may play it as it lies. If you cannot find it or do not wish to play it, add a penalty stroke and do one of the following:
    • drop and play another ball from where you last played;
    • drop a ball behind the water hazard as far back as you wish on a straight line from the hole, keeping where your ball last crossed the hazard margin between the hole and where you drop the ball;
    • if it’s a lateral water hazard, you may also drop a ball within two club-lengths of where the ball last crossed the hazard margin, no nearer to the hole.

Rule 27: Ball Lost or Out of Bounds

  • A ball is lost if it is not found within five minutes after you first begin to search or you have put another ball into play.
  • A ball is out of bounds when all of it lies beyond the inside line of objects such as white stakes, or a fence or wall that marks the boundary of the course.
  • If your ball is lost or out of bounds, you must add a penalty stroke to your score and play another ball from where you played your last shot (known as “stroke and distance”).
  • If you think your ball may be lost or out of bounds, you may play a provisional ball from the place where your first ball was played. You must tell your opponent or fellow-competitor that you are playing a provisional ball and play it before you leave the area to look for the first ball. If you cannot find your first ball or if it is out of bounds, you must count all the strokes with the first ball and provisional ball, add a penalty stroke and play out the hole with the provisional ball. If you find your first ball in bounds, you must continue to play with it and pick up the provisional ball.

    Rule 28: Ball Unplayable

    • If your ball is under a bush or in some other bad situation and you decide you cannot play it, add a penalty stroke and do one of the following:
      • Go back to where you played the last shot and play a ball from there;
      • Go back on a straight line as far as you wish, keeping where the unplayable ball lay between the hole and where you drop the ball;
      • Measure two club-lengths from where the unplayable ball lay, drop a ball and play from there.

    Rules 29, 30, 31, 32: Other Forms of Play

    • Threesomes, foursomes: Partners play alternately at one ball. If you play out of turn you lose the hole in match play (or incur two penalty strokes in stroke play). Penalties do not alter the order of play.
    • Three-ball, four-ball, better-ball: Each player plays his own ball. A player may play alone if his partner cannot be there. Partners may choose to play in any order.
    • Stableford: A stroke play event using a points-scoring system rather than total strokes. It is not necessary to hole out on every hole.