Quick guide to the rules of golf
This guide provides a simple explanation of common Rules situations. It is not a substitute for the Rules of Golf or the Player’s Edition of the Rules of Golf, which should be consulted whenever any doubt arises. For more information on the points covered, please refer to the relevant Rule. For a glossary of terms used in this guide that may require explanation, please see the end of the guide.
“Ready Golf” means to play when you are ready - you don’t have to wait until the farthest away player has played. For example:
When the player farther away has a difficult shot and is assessing options
When a longer hitter has to wait for a putting green to clear
On the tee, if the player who is to play is delayed
By playing your shot before helping to look for a lost ball
Where possible, advise the other players that you are going to play first.
Pace of play recommendations
A round of golf is meant to be played at a prompt pace.
Your pace of play is likely to affect how long it will take other players to play their rounds, including those in your group and those in following groups. You are encouraged to allow faster groups to play through.
You should play at a prompt pace throughout the round, including the time taken to:
Prepare for and make each stroke,
Move from one place to another between strokes, and
Move to the next teeing area after completing a hole.
You should prepare in advance for your next stroke and be ready to play when it is your turn. When it is your turn to play:
It is recommended that you make the stroke in no more than 40 seconds after you are (or should be) able to play without interference or distraction, and
You should usually be able to play more quickly than that and are encouraged to do so.
In stroke play, play “ready golf” in a safe and responsible way.
In match play, you and your opponent may agree that one of you will play out of turn to save time.
Before starting your round, you are advised to:
Read the Local Rules on the score card and the notice board.
Put an identification mark on your ball; many golfers play the same brand of ball and if you can’t identify your ball, it is considered lost (Rule 18.2).
Count your clubs; you are allowed a maximum of 14 clubs (Rule 4.2).
During the round:
Don’t ask for advice from anyone except your caddie, your partner (i.e. a player on your side) or your partner’s caddie; don’t give advice to any player except your partner; you may ask for or provide information on the Rules, distances and the position of penalty areas, the flagstick, etc. (Rule 10.2)
Don’t play any practice strokes during play of a hole (Rule 5.5).
At the end of your round:
In match play, ensure the result of the match is posted.
In stroke play, ensure that your scorecard is completed properly, is signed by you and your marker, and return it to the Committee as soon as possible (Rule 3.3).
Important terms and clarifications
Abnormal course condition: An animal hole, ground under repair, an immovable obstruction, or temporary water.
Club-length: The length of the longest club of the 14 (or fewer) clubs you have during the round, other than a putter. For example, if the longest club (other than a putter) you have during a round is a 43-inch (109.22 cm) driver, a club-length is 43 inches for you for that round.
Embedded: When your ball is in its own pitch-mark made as a result of your previous stroke and where part of the ball is below the level of the ground. Your ball does not necessarily have to touch soil to be embedded (for example, grass and loose impediments may be between your ball and the soil).
Holed: When your ball is at rest in the hole after your stroke and the entire ball is below the surface of the putting green. For the special case of a ball resting against the flagstick in the hole, your ball is treated as holed if any part of your ball is below the surface of the putting green.
Immovable obstruction: Any obstruction that cannot be moved without unreasonable effort or without damaging the obstruction or the course.
Improve: To alter one or more of the conditions affecting your stroke or other physical conditions affecting your play, so that you gain a potential advantage for your stroke.
Integral object: An artificial object defined by the Committee as part of the challenge of playing the course from which free relief is not allowed.
Known or virtually certain: The standard for deciding what happened to your ball – for example, whether your ball came to rest in a penalty area, whether it moved or what caused it to move.
Known or virtually certain means more than just possible or probable. It means that either:
There is conclusive evidence that the event in question happened to your ball, such as when you or other witnesses saw it happen, or
Although there is a very small degree of doubt, all reasonably available information shows that it is at least 95% likely that the event in question happened.
Loose impediment: Any unattached natural object such as:
Stones, loose grass, leaves, branches and sticks,
Dead animals and animal waste,
Worms, insects and similar animals that can be removed easily, and the mounds or webs they build (such as worm casts and ant hills), and
Clumps of compacted soil (including aeration plugs).
Such natural objects are not loose if they are:
Attached or growing,
Solidly embedded in the ground (that is, cannot be picked out easily), or
Sticking to the ball.
Lost: The status of a ball that is not found in three minutes after you or your caddie (or your partner or partner’s caddie) begin to search for it.
Movable obstruction: An obstruction that can be moved with reasonable effort and without damaging the obstruction or the course.
Nearest point of complete relief: Your reference point for taking free relief from an abnormal course condition or wrong green.
It is the estimated point where your ball would lie that is:
Nearest to your ball’s original spot, but not nearer the hole than that spot,
In the required area of the course, and
Where the condition does not interfere with the stroke you would have made from the original spot if the condition was not there.
Estimating this reference point requires you to identify the choice of club, stance, swing and line of play you would have used for that stroke.
Obstruction (see also immovable and movable obstruction): Any artificial object except integral objects and boundary objects.
Examples of obstructions:
Artificially surfaced roads and paths, including their artificial borders.
Buildings and vehicles
Sprinkler heads, drains and irrigation or control boxes
Player equipment, flagsticks and rakes
Penalty Area: An area from which relief with a one-stroke penalty is allowed if your ball comes to rest there.
Stroke and distance: The procedure and penalty when you take relief by playing a ball from where your previous stroke was made.
Teeing area: The area you must play from in starting the hole you are playing. The teeing area is a rectangle that is two club-lengths.
Temporary water: Any temporary accumulation of water on the surface of the ground (such as puddles from rain or irrigation or an overflow from a body of water) that is not in a penalty area, and can be seen before or after you take a stance (without pressing down excessively with your feet).
Wrong green: Any green on the course other than the putting green for the hole you are playing. Wrong greens are part of the general area.
General area – Basic rules and common relief situations
The general area is described in “The Course” section above, and includes fairway, rough, bushes, trees, etc. that are not in any of the four specific areas. Common relief situations when your ball is in the general area are as follows:
Relief from loose impediments and movable obstructions
These movable natural and artificial objects are not treated as part of the challenge of playing the course, and you are normally allowed to remove them when they interfere with your play.
But you need to be careful in moving loose impediments near your ball off the putting green because you will get a penalty if moving them causes your ball to move.
Making your next stroke from where previous stroke made
This applies whenever you are required or allowed to make your next stroke from where a previous stroke was made (such as when taking stroke-and-distance relief for a lost ball or a ball that is out of bounds).
Player conduct and the Rules (Rule 1)
All players are expected to play in the spirit of the game by:
Acting with integrity – for example, by following the Rules, applying all penalties, and being honest in all aspects of play.
Showing consideration to others – for example, by playing at a prompt pace, looking out for the safety of others, and not distracting the play of another player.
Taking good care of the course – for example, by replacing divots, smoothing bunkers, repairing ball-marks, and not causing unnecessary damage to the course.
You are expected to recognise when you have breached a Rule and to be honest in applying your own penalties.
Penalties are meant to cancel out any potential advantage. There are three main penalty levels:
One-Stroke Penalty: Applies in both match play and stroke play.
General Penalty: Loss of hole in match play and a two-stroke penalty in stroke play.
Disqualification: Applies both in match play and stroke play. Note: Stableford is a form of “stroke play”.
Areas of the course (Rule 2)
There are five areas of the course. The general area, which covers the entire course except for these four specific areas:
The teeing area of the hole you are playing (Rule 6.2),
All penalty areas (Rule 17),
All bunkers (Rule 12), and
The putting green of the hole you are playing (Rule 13).
It is important to know the area of the course where your ball lies as this affects the Rules that apply in playing your ball or taking relief.
Teeing area (Rule 6.2)
When starting a hole, if you play a ball from outside the teeing area (including from a wrong set of tee-markers on the same hole or a different hole):
Match Play: There is no penalty and you play your ball as it lies, but your opponent may cancel the stroke in which case you must play again from inside the teeing area.
Stroke Play: You get the general penalty (two penalty strokes) and must correct the mistake by playing a ball from inside the teeing area. The stroke from outside the teeing area and any more strokes made before the mistake is corrected do not count. If you do not correct the mistake, you are disqualified (but in Stableford you receive no points for the hole rather than being disqualified).
Finding and identifying your ball (Rule 7)
You may fairly search for your ball by taking reasonable actions to find and identify it, such as moving or bending grass, bushes, tree branches and other growing or attached natural objects .
If taking such reasonable actions as part of a fair search improves the conditions affecting your stroke there is no penalty. But if the improvement results from actions that exceeded what was reasonable for a fair search, you get the general penalty.
There is no penalty if your ball is accidentally moved by you, your opponent or anyone else while trying to find or identify it, but your ball must be replaced.
You may identify your ball by seeing it come to rest or seeing your identifying mark on the ball.
If a ball might be yours but you cannot identify it as it lies, you may lift the ball to identify it. But, the spot of the ball must first be marked, and the ball must not be cleaned more than needed to identify it (except on the putting green).
Play the course as you find it (Rule 8)
It is a central principle of the game to “play the course as you find it”.
When your ball comes to rest, you normally have to accept the conditions affecting the stroke and not improve them before playing the ball.
As a guide, don’t improve:
The lie of your ball at rest,
The area of your intended stance,
The area of your intended swing,
Your line of play, or
The relief area where you will drop or place a ball
By moving, bending or breaking any:
Growing or attached natural object,
Integral object, or
Playing your ball as it lies (Rule 9)
It is a central principle of the game to “play your ball as it lies”.
You must play your ball at rest on the course as it lies, except when the Rules require or allow you:
To play a ball from another place on the course, or
To lift a ball and then replace it on its original spot.
If your ball comes to rest and is then moved by natural forces such as wind or water, you must play it from its new spot. But if your ball was on the putting green and it moved after being lifted and replaced, you replace it.
If your ball at rest is lifted or moved by anyone or any outside influence before the stroke is made, your ball must be replaced on its original spot.
You should take care when you are near any ball at rest, and if you cause your own ball or your opponent’s ball to move you will normally get a penalty (except on the putting green).
Bunkers – Basic rules and common relief situations (Rule 12)
Your ball is in a bunker when any part of it touches sand on the ground inside the edge of the bunker.
Your ball is also in a bunker if it is inside the edge of the bunker and rests in or on a loose impediment, movable obstruction, abnormal course condition or integral object in the bunker.
If your ball lies on soil or grass or other growing or attached natural objects inside the edge of the bunker without touching sand, your ball is not in the bunker.
Before playing your ball in a bunker, you may remove loose impediments and movable obstructions.
Before making a stroke at your ball in a bunker, you must not:
Deliberately touch sand in the bunker with your hand, a club or rake or any other object to test the condition of the sand and learn information for your next stroke, or
Touch sand in the bunker with your club:
In the area right in front of or right behind your ball (except as allowed in fairly searching for your ball or in removing a loose impediment or movable obstruction),
In making a practice swing, or
In making your backswing for a stroke.
Except as covered in the bullets above, the following actions are allowed:
Digging in with your feet to take a stance for a practice swing or the stroke,
Smoothing the bunker to care for the course,
Placing your clubs, equipment or other objects in the bunker (whether by throwing or setting them down),
Measuring, marking, lifting, replacing or taking other actions under a Rule,
Leaning on a club to rest, stay balanced or prevent a fall, or
Striking the sand in frustration or anger.
Common relief situations when your ball is in a bunker are as follows:
Putting green – Basic rules and common relief situations (Rule 13) & the flagstick (Rule 13.2)
Your ball is on the putting green when any part of it:
Touches the putting green, or
Lies on or in anything (such as a loose impediment or an obstruction) and is inside the edge of the putting green.
Your ball on the putting green may be lifted and cleaned. The spot of your ball must be marked before it is lifted and the ball must be replaced.
During a round, you may take these two actions on the putting green, no matter whether your ball is on or off the putting green:
Sand and loose soil on the putting green (but not anywhere else on the course) may be removed without penalty.
You may repair damage on the putting green without penalty by taking reasonable actions to restore the putting green as nearly as possible to its original condition, but only:
By using your hand, foot or other part of your body or a normal ball-mark repair tool, tee, club or similar item of normal equipment, and
Without unreasonably delaying play.
But if you improve the putting green by taking actions that exceed what is reasonable to restore the putting green to its original condition, you get the general penalty.
“Damage on the putting green” means any damage caused by a person or outside influence, such as:
Ball marks, shoe damage (such as spike marks) and scrapes or indentations caused by equipment or a flagstick,
Old hole plugs, turf plugs, seams of cut turf and scrapes or indentations from maintenance tools or vehicles,
Animal tracks or hoof indentations, and
Embedded objects (such as a stone, acorn or tee).
But “damage on the putting green” does not include any damage or conditions that result from:
Normal practices for maintaining the overall condition of the putting green (such as aeration holes and grooves from vertical mowing),
Irrigation or rain or other natural forces,
Natural surface imperfections (such as weeds, bare or diseased areas or areas of uneven growth), or
Natural wear of the hole.
Common relief situations when your ball is on the putting green are as follows:
The Flagstick (Rule 13.2)
You may leave the flagstick in the hole or have it removed (which includes having someone attend the flagstick and remove it after your ball is played and is in motion), but you must decide before making a stroke.
If you make a stroke having decided to leave the flagstick in the hole and your ball in motion hits the flagstick, there is no penalty you play your ball as it lies.
Lifting and replacing your ball (Rule 14.1 and 14.2)
Before lifting your ball under a Rule that requires it to be replaced on its original spot, you must mark the spot, which means to:
Place a ball-marker right behind or right next to your ball, or
Hold a club on the ground right behind or right next to your ball.
Your ball may be lifted under the Rules only by you or someone you authorise, but if your ball is on the putting green your caddie may lift it.
When your ball must be replaced after it was lifted or moved, generally your original ball must be used.
Your ball must be replaced under the Rules only by you or any other person who lifted your ball or caused it to move.
Your ball must be replaced on its original spot (which if not known must be estimated). Dropping Ball in Relief Area (Rule 14.3)
You may use any ball each time you take a drop.
You must drop a ball in the right way, which means all three of these things:
You must drop the ball (no one else may do so).
You must let go of your ball from a location at knee height so that the ball:
Falls straight down, without you throwing, spinning or rolling it or using any other motion that might affect where your ball will come to rest, and
Does not touch any part of your body or equipment before it hits the ground.
“Knee height” means the height of your knee when in a standing position.
The ball must be dropped in the relief area. You may stand either inside or outside the relief area when dropping your ball.
You have only completed taking relief when your ball dropped in the right way comes to rest in the relief area.
If you drop your ball in the right way, but it comes to rest outside the relief area, you must drop a ball in the right way a second time.
If that ball also comes to rest outside the relief area, you must then complete taking relief by placing a ball on the spot where the ball dropped the second time first touched the ground.
Penalty areas – Basic rules and common relief situations (Rule 17)
Penalty areas are defined as either red or yellow. This affects your relief options (see the diagrams below).
You may stand in a penalty area to play a ball that is outside the penalty area, including after taking relief from the penalty area.
Your ball is in a penalty area when any part of it lies on or touches the ground or anything else inside the edge of the penalty area, or is above the edge or any other part of the penalty area.
You may either play the ball as it lies without penalty (and there are no special Rules limiting how a ball may be played from a penalty area) or play from outside the penalty area after taking penalty relief.
If your ball has not been found and it is known or virtually certain that it came to rest in a penalty area you may take penalty relief under this Rule. But if it is not known or virtually certain that your ball came to rest in a penalty area and the ball is lost, you must take stroke-and-distance relief.
Common relief situations when your ball is in a penalty area are as follows:
Ball lost or out of bounds (Rule 18.2)
Your ball is lost if it is not found in three minutes after you or your caddie begin to search for it.
Your ball at rest is out of bounds only when all of it is outside the boundary edge of the course.
If your ball is lost or out of bounds, you must take stroke-and-distance relief by adding one penalty stroke and playing a ball from where the previous stroke was made (see Diagram 14.6).
Provisional Ball (Rule 18.3)
If your ball might be lost or out of bounds, to save time you may play another ball provisionally under penalty of stroke and distance. But you may not play a provisional ball when you know your ball is in a penalty area.
Before the stroke is made, you must announce that you are going to play a provisional ball.
It is not enough for you only to say that you are playing another ball or are playing again. You must use the word “provisional” or otherwise clearly indicate that you are playing the ball provisionally under Rule 18.3.
If you do not announce this (even if you intended to play a provisional ball) and play a ball from where the previous stroke was made, that ball is your ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance.
Your provisional ball becomes your ball in play under penalty of stroke and distance in either of these two cases:
When your original ball is lost anywhere on the course (except in a penalty area) or is out of bounds.
When your provisional ball is played from a spot nearer to the hole than where your original ball is estimated to be.
When your provisional ball has not yet become your ball in play, it must be abandoned in either of these two cases:
When your original ball is found on the course outside a penalty area before the end of the three-minute search time.
When your original ball is found in a penalty area or is known or virtually certain to be in a penalty area. You must either play your original ball as it lies or take penalty relief.
Unplayable ball (Rule 19)
You are the only person who may decide to treat your ball as unplayable. Unplayable ball relief is allowed anywhere on the course, except in a penalty area.
See the diagrams under “General area” and “Bunkers” for guidance on taking relief for an unplayable ball.
E-5 - Alternative to Stroke and Distance for Lost Ball or Ball Out of Bounds
Purpose: When a provisional ball has not been played, significant issues with pace of play can result for a player needing to take stroke-and-distance relief for a ball that is out of bounds or cannot be found. The purpose of this Local Rule is to allow a Committee to provide an extra relief option that allows a player to play on without returning to the location of the previous stroke.
The Local Rule is appropriate for general play where golfers are playing casual rounds or playing their own competitions. The Local Rule is not appropriate for competitions limited to highly skilled players (that is, professional competitions and elite amateur competitions). For guidance on when and how this Local Rule may be used in order for scores to be submitted for handicapping purposes, consult the rules or recommendations contained within the Handicap System operating in the local jurisdiction.
Where a Committee has introduced such a Local Rule for general play, and removes it for competitions, it should ensure that all players are aware of this before play begins.
A Committee may introduce such a Local Rule for all play on the course or only for one or two specific holes where it may be especially useful (for example, where players are unable to see the landing area and therefore may not know whether or not to play a provisional ball).
This option allows the player to drop in a large area between the point where the ball is estimated to have come to rest or gone out of bounds and the edge of the fairway of the hole being played that is not nearer the hole.
The player gets two penalty strokes when using this relief option. This means that the relief is comparable to what could have been achieved if the player had taken stroke-and-distance relief.
This Local Rule cannot be used for an unplayable ball, or for a ball that is known or virtually certain to be in a penalty area.
If a provisional ball is played and neither the original ball nor the provisional ball can be found, then the Local Rule may be applied for the provisional ball that cannot be found.
Model Local Rule E-5
"When a player's ball has not been found or is known or virtually certain to be out of bounds, the player may proceed as follows rather than proceeding under stroke and distance.
For two penalty strokes, the player may take relief by dropping the original ball or another ball in this relief area (see Rule 14.3):
Two Estimated Reference Points: (a) Ball Reference Point: The point where the original ball is estimated to have: · Come to rest on the course, or · Last crossed the edge of the course boundary to go out of bounds. (b) Fairway Reference Point: The point of fairway of the hole being played that is nearest to the ball reference point, but is not nearer the hole than the ball reference point.
For purposes of this Local Rule, "fairway" means any area of grass in the general area that is cut to fairway height or less.
If a ball is estimated to be lost on the course or last crossed the edge of the course boundary short of the fairway, the fairway reference point may be a grass path or a teeing ground for the hole being played cut to fairway height or less.
Size of Relief Area Based on Reference Points: Anywhere between:
A line from the hole through the ball reference point (and within two club-lengths to the outside of that line), and
A line from the hole through the fairway reference point (and within two club-lengths to the fairway side of that line).
But with these limits: Limits on Location of Relief Area:
Must be in the general area, and
Must not be nearer the hole than the ball reference point.
Once the player puts a ball in play under this Local Rule:
The original ball that was lost or out of bounds is no longer in play and must not be played.
This is true even if the ball is found on the course before the end of the three-minute search time (see Rule 6.3b).
But the player may not use this option to take relief for the original ball when:
That ball is known or virtually certain to have come to rest in a penalty area, or
The player has played another ball provisionally under penalty of stroke and distance (see Rule 18.3).
A player may use this option to take relief for a provisional ball that has not been found or is known or virtually certain to be out of bounds.
Penalty for Playing Ball from a Wrong Place in Breach of Local Rule: General Penalty Under Rule 14.7a."
For more, use The R&A's Local Rules Creator here.
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