As a beginner golfer, are the endless amount of rules beginning to confuse you?
If so, just know you aren’t alone.
While golf is an amazing sport, one thing that makes it difficult for beginners is understanding the obnoxious amount of rules that come with it. In fact, even golfers who have been playing for decades still don’t know all the rules. And if they do, they certainly don’t always adhere to them.
So if you’re just getting started in this wonderful game, don’t beat yourself up. The goal is to know the most important rules and as you become more advanced, keep learning along the way.
In this post, I’ll share why the rules are so important and 15 of the most common situations that can happen on the golf course.
Why The Rules of Golf Matter
If you’re a beginner golfer, it’s sort of accepted that you won’t know all the rules at first. And that’s more than okay, everyone has to start somewhere.
But if you want to start playing nicer courses and start playing more competitively, it’s best to know the rules.
Here’s why understanding the rules of golf matter:
- Creates a better experience for everyone in the group. It’s really frustrating when you’re playing or competing against people who don’t adhere to the rules. It can lead to some hostility between players and sometimes create a much less enjoyable experience when there’s a questionable use of the rules. Just ask PGA guys who’ve had to experience issues like Patrick Reed has had on the course.
- Helps speed up play. One of the reasons that a lot of people are going to TopGolf instead of the golf course is the amount of time it takes to play 18 holes. An average round takes at least four hours but usually about five. If you’re struggling to learn the rules as you go, it can make your round even longer so it’s best to learn them sooner and speed up play.
- Integrity. One thing that separates golf from every other sport is the high amount of integrity involved and a central principle of the game. It’s the only sport where players call penalties on themselves. Unless you’re on the PGA Tour with cameras and fans watching your every move, it’s easy to try and improve your lie or stretch the rules. If you’re caught by fellow players, it’s obviously awkward (and comes with a penalty) not to mention, the Golf Gods aren’t a fan of that kind of behavior either.
Needless to say, keep the game pure by sticking with the rules. Now, here are the most common rules that you need to know if you want to start taking your game to the next level.
15 Main Rules of Golf for Beginners
The United States Golf Association (USGA) has a big rule book but we’ll do our best to simplify everything below. While this isn’t an official rule, it’s good practice to identify your original ball on the first tee. Also, play ready golf to save time and speed up the pace of play.
1. 14-Club Rule
The USGA limit is 14 clubs per bag as you start the beginning of your round. If you have more than 14 clubs in your bag, you will receive a two-stroke penalty for every hole (or you might be disqualified) according to rule 4-4.
This shouldn’t be an issue for most players as your equipment doesn’t change week in and week out like the pros. But make sure to double-check before you leave the driving range or hit your first tee shot as this is an easy penalty to avoid.
If you’d like, you can play with less than 14 clubs but it’s not something that we recommend. Golf is hard enough with 14 clubs, don’t make it harder by not using all the weapons available.
2. Play Behind the Tee Markers
The next rule is to make sure that you always tee your ball behind the tee markers. If you’re in front of them at all (even an inch), you will receive one penalty stroke.
But don’t feel like you’re confined to the area directly in between the tee markers either. The rules of golf allow you to go to two full clubs behind the markers with your longest club (i.e. driver).
This should give you roughly 90 inches behind the tee markers. If you’re in between clubs for a certain tee shot, this is a good strategy as you can make the distance longer and a better fit for your longer club.
Additionally, you can stand outside the tee box as long as the entire ball is teed up between the markers. This might help open up one side of the fairway and play your slice easier. Just don’t get so close to the markers that you accidentally hit them as you’ll likely damage the club.
3. Play the Ball as it Lies
Like they said in Happy Gilmore, “You have to play it where it lies” …well, for the most part. In most cases, you need to play the ball from the lie you found it, but there are exceptions to the rule. You’re allotted a drop if your ball is on the cart path, near a man-made object or it’s a marked area like “ground under repair.”
If you can’t identify the ball, you are allowed to rotate the ball to confirm it’s the one you hit. Once identified, you must rotate it back in the same position as you found it and not move it.
Additionally, the USGA said, “Players should take care when near any ball at rest, and a player who causes his or her own ball or an opponent’s ball to move will normally get a penalty (except on the putting green).”
4. Out of Bounds
Out of bounds, commonly referred to as “OB” is when your ball ends up outside the course of play and is generally identified with white stakes. Or, it might be a fence, wall, or other structure of the course (make sure to check local rules on the scorecard too).
For the most part, this is usually on the outskirts of the course like a road, ditch or fence. Rarely, is out of bounds within the confines of the course but it can happen (this is known as “in course OB”).
Hitting out of bounds is a two shot penalty and you have to replay the previous shot.
When you hit a ball out of bounds, you must replay from where the previous shot was played. Instead of hitting two after your first shot goes out, you’re now hitting three from the tee box.
If you hit it OB from anywhere other than the tee box, you must try to recreate the previous shot you hit and add two strokes.
Hit a Provisional Ball
As you can imagine, hitting a ball OB can slow down play as penalty strokes add up. To avoid slowing down the pace of play, you can hit a provisional ball. If you’ve hit a shot that you think might be OB, don’t wait until you get up there to figure out.
To hit a provisional, make sure you clearly announce to fellow players that you are hitting a provisional and identify the new golf ball. Otherwise, it will count as your shot even if you find the original golf ball. If things go bad on that shot, you can hit another provisional as well.
The biggest thing is to make sure to identify your shot as a provisional, so there’s no confusion when searching for balls. Also, don’t hit a provisional ball if you think you went into a water hazard, only if you think it’s out of bounds.
Make sure to read our full article on hitting a provisional ball in golf.
5. Understanding Hazards
Hitting in the water is never fun but it’s part of golf, even to the best players. Whether it’s Jordan Speith making a 7 on hole 12 at August or Sergio making a 13 on hole 15 at Augusta, it happens!
It’s important to know how to take your drop when your ball ends up in the water. You have several options:
Playing it From the Water
If your ball isn’t fully submerged, you always have the choice to play it from the water. There is no penalty but it is usually a risky shot that isn’t easy to pull off.
Not to mention you might ruin a club or golf outfit. But if you want to play it from the water, have at it.
Lateral Hazard (Red Stakes)
If your ball ends up wet, identify the penalty area stake color as there are two main types; red and yellow. A red penalty area is a lateral hazard while a yellow stake is a water hazard.
Here is how the USGA defines them, “When you take relief from a penalty area, you get one penalty stroke. For yellow penalty areas, you have two relief options. For red penalty areas, you have three relief options (the same two relief options as you do for yellow, plus one additional option.)”
With red hazards, you can take relief in one of three ways:
- Drop in a relief area (if they have one).
- Laterally, within two club lengths of where the ball entered the water.
- Go back on the line that it crossed the water and in line with the flag (known as line of sight).
Water Hazard (Yellow Stakes)
Penalty areas marked with yellow stakes only allow two drop options. You can drop in the relief area or the line of sight. You cannot drop laterally like a red penalty area.
Most hazards are red but it’s important to double-check so you don’t get any extra penalty strokes.
6. Lost Ball Rule
You might wonder, “What happens when your ball is lost?” A few things as a ball lost hurts the wallet and scorecard.
You have to play it like the ball is out of bounds and replay the shot. If you think the ball is lost, you should hit a provisional ball to speed up play.
When searching for your ball, always double check it’s yours to avoid hitting the wrong golf ball. There is nothing worse than hitting an opponent’s ball!
7. Unplayable Lies
As a beginner, I’m sure you’re starting to find out that your golf ball can end up in some weird situations. If your ball ends up in an area that is unplayable but you can find it, you are allowed to take a drop known as an “unplayable lie.” You will receive a one stroke penalty for the drop and there are several ways to drop the ball.
For example, let’s say you find your original ball in a bush or cactus. Unlike hitting out of bounds, you don’t have to go back to the previous stroke unless you want to.
When you take an unplayable ball relief, here are the different drop options.
- Two club lengths: The first option with unplayable lies is to take a drop within two clubs of the spot as long as you aren’t closer to the hole. You can go in any direction as long as you don’t end up closer to the hole.
- Line of sight: The second option is to go find the line between where your ball ended up and where the flag is on the hole. You can then go back as far as you would like and take a drop. This could be 20 feet or 80 yards, as long as it’s not closer to the hole.
- Replay previous shot: If the first two options don’t work out, you can always go back and replay the previous shot. This is usually a last resort option as you’re sacrificing a shot and distance as if it was a lost ball.
Regardless of how you drop, try to think about where you will drop so you have a good lie on your next shot.
8. Cart Path Relief
When your ball ends up on a cart path or the cart path is interfering with your swing, you get free relief. Yes, you read that right, you get a free drop. Just make sure you tell your playing partners and then do the following.
Once you find your ball on the path, start by finding the nearest point of relief. Once you do, put a tee in the ground for that spot.
Then, take a club that you intend to use (or go with a driver for the longest club) and you get to drop within one club length of the spot. Make sure you don’t drop the ball closer to the hole!
Don’t forget that you have to drop at the nearest point of relief, even if it is a bad lie or in a shrub. That being said, you can always opt to hit off the path if you think it’s a better lie. If it’s a concrete path it’s much easier than pavement as it can damage your clubs.
9. Whiff the Golf Ball
Whiffing the golf ball as a beginner is part of golf. If you do miss the ball that you intended to hit, you receive a one-stroke penalty.
But if your ball falls off the tee or you accidentally hit during a practice swing, there is no penalty. This seems to happen to Zach Johnson a lot (watch him shank a driver off the tee peg at the Masters here).
10. No Practice Between Holes
Do you ever miss a putt and want to hit it again once you’ve finished the hole?
Unfortunately, you can’t practice shots between holes unless you’re in a match play event. Otherwise, there is a one-shot penalty in official stroke play rounds.
Surprisingly, this even includes using your wedge to hit range balls back into the range. Save the practice for before or after the round.
11. Don’t Give or Ask for Advice
As a beginner, it’s easy to want to ask other players what club they’re hitting or maybe some advice on a tough shot. If you’re playing with friends in a casual round, no worries. But if you’re trying to really take it seriously, keep score or play competitively, asking for advice is actually a one-shot penalty.
Even if you ask a player which club they used on a certain, this is a one shot penalty too. You can’t ask for advice on club selection or anything else other than a partner (if it’s a team event) or caddie. If you do have rules questions, want to know the distance or where a hazard might be, you can ask fellow players.
12. Bunker Rules
Bunkers challenge golfers and there are some things to be aware of to avoid an unnecessary penalty stroke.
First, never ground your club!
You need to hover your club above the sand, both fairway and greenside bunkers. Otherwise, you have to take a one shot penalty if your club touches the sand. This includes practice swings too.
But one thing you can do is remove loose impediments without penalty (in stroke play or match play). If there is a rock, cigarette butt, trash, or something else you can remove it from the bunker.
13. Mark Your Golf Ball
Once you are on the putting green, you are allowed to mark the golf ball with a circular object.
Make sure you mark your ball directly behind it with a coin or marker and replace your own pitch mark. If asked to move your mark for another player, you are allowed to do so; just make sure that you replace it before you putt out.
Additionally, you can repair spike marks and should always repair divots on the green. Don’t forget, you cannot mark a ball that isn’t on the green (including the fringe). The only exception to this rule is if you’re playing “Lift, clean, and place” which is common during wet, winter golf conditions.
14. Finish the Hole With the Same Ball
You must play the same ball on an entire hole, even if it gets damaged from the cart path or trees. Once the hole is complete, you can get rid of the original ball and replace it with a new ball.
Additionally, if you mark your golf ball with a sharpie, the official rules don’t allow you to update/add markings duringthe hole either. You have to wait until the hole is complete to refresh your ball markings.
Finally, if you’re a tournament double-check the “one ball rule.”
If this rule is in effect, you need to play the same brand and type of ball during the entire round. For example, if you’re playing a Titleist ProV1, you can’t switch to a Titleist AVX later in the round.
15. Sign Your Scorecard Correctly
If you’re entering the competitive arena of golf, you will exchange scorecards with one of your playing partners at the beginning of the round. During the round, you will keep their score at the top of the scorecard and yours at the bottom.
Even though someone else is keeping your score, it’s vital to keep yours as well. Because golfers are human and make mistakes. You want to double-check what the other person scored for you after the round.
After the round is over, make sure to thoroughly check the scorecard, hole by hole. I can’t stress this enough, don’t glance and confirm it until you’re 100% sure. Once you both agree on the card, two signatures are needed to make it official.
Don’t forget to sign the scorecard; not signing it will make it invalid and get you disqualified!
If you screw up and give yourself a lower score than you made, your scorecard is not valid and you are disqualified. If your score is higher than you meant, your scorecard is valid but you must accept the higher score. I’ve seen a friend get DQ’d after a final round from signing an incorrect scorecard so always sign it before leaving the scoring table.
Also, if you’ve used the scoring symbols to tally the score, go back and make sure you’ve actually added up the numbers. A circle could look like a square and vice versa.
Recent Rule Changes
2019 brought some big rule changes to the game of golf; here are three of the biggest changes in case you’ve been away from golf for some time.
Flagstick Can Stay In
Perhaps the biggest rule change in 2019 was the ability to leave the flagstick in when you’re on the putting green. Previously, if you made a putt with the flag in, you would receive a penalty shot. But now, the flag can always stay in, even from the putting surface!
Three Minutes to Look for a Ball
If you hit a ball in a bad spot, you now only have three minutes instead of five to search for it. Also, it’s common courtesy to help other players look for a ball so make sure to do so as they’re more likely to help you as well.
Ground Club in Hazards
Prior to 2019, you were never able to ground your clubs in hazards. Like the bunker, you had to hover the club withouttouching the ground. Now, if you find yourself in a lateral hazard (now known as a penalty area) you can ground your club!
Take Drops At Knee Height
Another huge change to the rules of golf is how to drop your golf ball. Whether you hit one in the water, take an unplayable or need relief from sprinkler heads, you previously had to drop the ball from shoulder height.
Now, when taking relief you must take a drop from your knees.
In fact, if you drop from your shoulders, you’re actually given a penalty shot! This is pretty crazy but it makes dropping easier as you should get a better lie dropping from a smaller distance.
Hopefully, this guide will help you avoid any rule debacle and not waste any shots for rule infractions. Remember, if you ever have a question about the rules, ask your fellow playing partners.
However, if no one in your group knows the answer, you always have the option to invoke Rule 3-3. This rule allows you to play two golf balls into the hole. Once a competitive round is complete, you can ask a rules official or club pro which score to use.
In the early stages of your golf journey, focus on some basic rules like:
- Never touch another player’s ball
- Always mark your ball with a pen so you can identify it and not play the wrong ball
- There is no penalty if you accidentally hit a shot during your practice swings and the ball moves
- Always check your golf ball so you don’t play the wrong ball during the round
- If you hit in the water, double-check the penalty area color to figure out lateral relief or other drop options
- Hit a provisional ball if think it’s lost or OB (this is proper etiquette to keep u pace of play)
- When and How to Fix a Ball mark
Also, make sure to confirm if it’s match play or stroke play and the rules change. If you still want some more help, make sure to buy other equipment like the rules of golf pocket guide for your bag. This is an easy reference that can help you during a rule’s situation.