Basic Rules of Golf Explained for Beginners in Plain English

​Golfers love rules and some guys can be real sticklers for them. By that, I mean they ​have arguments and carry a pocket rule book to prove they're right over the tiniest of innocent infringements. That's a minority of guys but generally we all like to play by the book as best we can.

The official rule book is 100 pages long and a bit boring to sift through and know which are the most essential. So we've summarized the most important ones to ensure you don't commit any mortal sins on the course. You may even get invited back to play again!

​Note that we're covering the rules for strokeplay here. That means you count all your shots and must put the ball in the hole to complete the hole.

Rules: Equipment


Clubs and balls

  • Clubs: You can carry a maximum of 14 clubs. If you have a 15th, leave it in the car to avoid complications. The 14 clubs can be a combination of anything you like.
  • Ball: You must finish a hole with the ball you started it with. You can change a ball between holes but not during a hole. However, if you lose a ball during a hole, you can use any other ball as the new ball in play.

Rules: Tee box/teeing ground

  • You must tee the ball up behind the line created by the tee markers. You can tee it up anywhere between the two markers and you can tee it as far back a​s the length of two drivers. So if your driver is 45 inches, you can tee up to 90 inches behind the imaginary line. Never in front of the tee markers.
  • If the ball falls off the tee before you swing at it, it doesn't count as a shot. Just put it back on the tee and roll your eyes at the lame joke someone will crack when they say 'one'. Hilarious. 
  • If you swing at the ball and miss it completely, that counts as one shot. If it falls off the tee from the wind you generate, you must play it from that position without putting it back on the tee - that was your first shot.
  • Order of play on the tee is determined by the score from the previous hole. The lowest scorer hits first and in order of lowest to highest score until everyone has hit. The exception to this is if your friends play 'ready golf'.

Rules: During play of a hole

  • You must play the ball as it lies. You're not allowed to kick it or move it to a better spot and neither is your long-toed caddie!
  • ​You can't make the lie better so be sure not to press your club down very hard behind the ball to try flatten the ground. Also ​don't press behind the ball with your foot to make it easier to hit the ball! This rule is broken by a lot of people!
  • No breaking or bending branches to allow you to swing easier at the ball.
  • When you're in a bunker always remember to only touch the sand when you hit the ball. No practice swings touching the sand. Don't ground the club in the sand behind the ball. Also no raking before your shot or using your fingers in the sand.
  • In a water hazard, sometimes there is no water and you can play out of it. If your ball is inside the red or yellow lines of a hazard, remember the same rules in the bunker apply in the water hazard. No grounding the club, no touching the grass on the back swing, no fingers or hands to move anything like leaves or stones. ​​
  • You can't place anything in front of your ball for aiming or have someone stand in front of you to aim at them.
  • You can pick up sticks, stones, leaves, rocks, boulders, feathers, dead grass, pine needles that are around your ball but make sure not to move your ball because then that's a penalty. Use your hands to move the impediments because dragging your feet and changing the surface is not allowed.

Practice shots

  • You can take a practice swing at fresh air but you can't actually hit a ball before your shot. You can hit an acorn on the ground or a stone if you like but no golf balls.

Order of play

  • The player furthest from the hole is supposed to play first. This is a good rule to follow initially in a new group of players. Someone will tell you that they play 'ready golf' which means whoever is ready can play without too much concern for order of play. If you do play 'ready golf', make sure you don't play while someone who is further from the hole is playing.

Hitting the ball

  • You need to hit the ball with one strike. Scooping is not allowed. Pushing the ball with extended contact like a hockey puck is not allowed.
  • Only hit a ball that is standing still. Don't hit moving balls unless it's in the water. It gets very complicated counting shots and penalties. Just don't do it!
  • Identify your ball before you play it - if you hit any other ball but yours, you will get a 2 stroke penalty. 

Rules: On the greens

​If any part of the ball is touching the green, it means you're on the green and can put a marker behind the ball and pick it up to clean. Well done!


Putting & touching the green

  • Only when you're on the green, can you move away stones, sand, gravel, leaves and other loose impediments on your line. Otherwise don't touch the line of your putt.
  • You can repair old ball marks on your line but not spike or foot marks. Ridiculous I know, but it's the rules.
  • Don't scrape or rub the surface of the green with your hand or club to feel grain or texture of the green.
  • You can't move impediments on on the surface of the green when you're off the green and chipping onto it.

Try use a small coin to mark your ball on the green http://cmp.callawaygolf.com/

  • Sometimes golfers will ask you to move your marker left or right of where it is because it interferes with their line. Place the heel of the putter head next to the marker and move the marker to the toe of the putter. Remember to replace the marker to the original position before you play!
  • Always ​replace the ball as close to the identical position it was in before you marked it. Another rule a lot of golfers break when they move the ball an inch or so closer to the hole! Get caught doing this, and you'll have no friends on the course!
  • If your putt stops just on the edge of the hole, you can wait 10 seconds to see if it goes in. If it takes longer than 10 seconds, you take a penalty shot.

The flag stick

  • ​If your ball hits the pin when you're off the green, that's no problem as long as no one is touching the flag at the time.
  • Make sure the flag is out of the hole when your ball approaches the cup when you are on the green. Have someone hold the pin and take it out for you before the ball arrives or take the pin out completely before your shot. If the ball hits the pin while you're on the green, you'll be penalized.

Rules: Talking to other players


Giving and asking for advice

  • You can only ask your caddy for advice on how to play the hole. This means you can't ask another player which club he hit, or how you should putt the ball or which club you should use etc. For social rounds, this doesn't really apply and is probably the most broken rule in golf so gauge who you're playing with and listen to them speak to each other before engaging in breaking this rule.
  • Anyone can hold the flag for anyone else. You can also ask for information that is public knowledge like where the water hazards are and distances on the sprinklers your friend is standing next to.
  • You can't give advice to anyone who is not your partner in a competition even if they ask; no matter how much you love them.
  • If you play in betterball competitions, you ​and your partner can advise each other.

Ball moves by accident or by God

  • ​If you or your partner in a betterball moves your ball on purpose of by mistake, add a penalty shot and replace the ball. If you fail to replace it, add a 2 stroke penalty.
  • If someone else or an animal moves your ball, there's no penalty. You must replace it then carry on as usual.
  • If water or wind moves your ball, you play it from the new position! Don't put it back! NO PENALTY.

Rules: Dropping & marking balls not on the green


Penalty drops

  • When you drop a ball, stand up straight and drop the ball with a straight arm at shoulder height and don't put any spin or action on the ball. Just a straight drop.
  • If your ball rolls into the hazard after a drop, make sure you retrieve it and drop it again. You must take full relief from obstacles or trouble so your stance mustn't be hindered by the thing you're dropping away from. If after 2 drops, the ball still rolls into the hazard or area you dropped from, place the ball on the spot it landed on when you dropped it last.
  • Make sure you watch where the ball crosses the water hazard and drop at that point or behind that point in line with the flag as far back as you like. There's nothing that grinds golfers more than a guy who cheats with his drops!

Free drops

  • ​You may drop away from temporary water that breaks the surface of the ground and is not marked as a hazard. No penalty.
  • You may drop ​away from areas marked GIR - Ground Under Repair. No penalty.
  • You're allowed to drop ​away from burrowing animal holes. No penalty.
  • ​If you land on the wrong putting green, you must drop it off the green 1 club length from the edge and play from there. No penalty.

How to drop a ball

  • When you drop a ball, stand up straight and drop the ball with a straight arm at shoulder height and don't put any spin or action on the ball. Just a straight drop.
  • If your ball rolls into the hazard after a drop, make sure you retrieve it and drop it again. You must take full relief from obstacles or trouble so your stance mustn't be hindered by the thing you're dropping away from. If after 2 drops, the ball still rolls into the hazard or area you dropped from, place the ball on the spot it landed on when you dropped it last.
  • Make sure you watch where the ball crosses the water hazard and drop at that point or behind that point in line with the flag as far back as you like. There's nothing that grinds golfers more than a guy who cheats with his drops!

Marking a ball not on the green

  • ​If another ball is in your way or interfering with your swing, you can ask the guy playing it to mark and lift it.
  • If someone asks you to mark and lift the ball not on a green, mark it with a coin or a tee peg and pick the ball up. You're not allowed to clean it so just hold it and replace when he's done. 

Rules: Obstructions

  • Man-made objects not part of the earth such as bottles, cans, rakes, stakes etc., are movable obstructions. Sprinkler heads, shelters, cart paths, etc., are immovable obstructions.
  • You can move the immovable obstructions but make sure your ball doesn't move!
  • If an immovable obstruction is hindering your stand or swing, you can mark the ball, pick it up and drop it away so your swing is unimpeded at the nearest point of full relief. There is no penalty unless a rule of the specific golf courses forbids it.

Rules: Ball in the water, lost, out of bounds or unplayable


Water hazards

  • Water hazards are defined by yellow stakes or painted lines. Lateral water hazards are identified by red stakes or painted lines.
  • You can play the ball inside the hazard if you like or you can:
         1. Drop a ball where you played the last shot and add one additional penalty                 shot.
         2. Drop a ball in line with the hole and the place you crossed the hazard and go           as far back as you like.
         3. If it's a lateral (red staked) hazard you can drop within 2 club lengths of                    where your ball crossed the line of the hazard.
  • You can't hit a provisional ball (check out of bounds below) if you think your ball is in the water. This rule is not understood by many golfers. If you think it's in the water, you have to re-hit or drop the ball at the water.
  • In a water hazard, sometimes there is no water and you can play out of it. If your ball is inside the red or yellow lines of a hazard, remember the same rules in the bunker apply in the water hazard. No grounding the club, no touching the grass on the back swing, no fingers or hands to move anything like leaves or stones.

Lost & out of bounds

  • ​If you hit a shot and think your ball might be lost in some bushes or similar problem area, or you suspect it could be out of bounds, you can hit a ball from the same position and call it "provisional". Then you can go look for the original ball and if you find it, you can play it and pick up the provisional ​with no penalty or you can deem the original unplayable and play the provisional ball with a one stroke penalty. You can also deem the ball lost at any stage and just play the provisional with a one stroke penalty.
  • You must tell the people you're playing with 'this is a provisional ball'. 
  • ​Definition of lost ball: you can't find it in under 5 minutes or you declare the ball lost. 
  • ​Definition of out of bounds: When the entire ball lies outside the white line or stake line signifying the out of bounds border.

Unplayable

  • If you see your ball and you think you can't play it because it's under a bush or stuck in a tree, you can deem it unplayable, take a penalty shot and:
      1. Drop a ball on the line that runs from the hole to where your ball was lying.              You can drop as far back as you want on that line.
       2. Hit a shot from the same place you hit the last shot.
       3. Measure 2 club lengths from where the ball is lying and drop it there.

You can take a look at the full rules of golf here and here.

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