Now we all love golf and to come to this page there is a fair chance that you love it too (or certainly want to love it). It’s a great game for so many reasons. We can play between the ages of eight and eighty, and those lucky enough can go on even longer! We are in the open air in lovely surroundings and we get to spend time with our friends and family. It’s good for our physical and mental wellbeing, and we all realise how important that is in our daily lives.

But to the outsider, golf can seem stuffy and riddled with rules. Don’t do this, you can’t do that. Golf has hundreds of rules and all bar a select few know all of them. But most of us know enough to be able to enjoy this fantastic sport and pastime. For those who are just starting their golfing journey, we at AMERICAN GOLF are determined to help. That’s why we have put down some of the basic rules and etiquette that will allow everyone to embrace the game, enjoy it and most importantly of all, feel comfortable on the course.

Golf’s Three Rs:

The basic rules of golf should all start after understanding the basic tenet of the game. In the case of playing golf, that can be read as ‘Respect, respect, respect’.

A fundamental part of golf’s appeal down the years has been the element of respect that runs through the game. That means respecting the golf course and the environment in which we are in. And respecting our playing partners and people who may be playing behind us or indeed on subsequent days.

What to wear:

Another one of the basic rules that people want to know about in golf is what to wear. Now we have written a whole blog on golf’s dress code but we will try and keep this simple.

Each golf course will have its own specific rules about dress code with some clubs being stricter than others in terms of what they deem to be permissible, but here are a few basic pieces of golfing etiquette that we should all try to match.

DO wear golf shoes. They can be spiked or spikeless, but they must be specifically designed to wear on a golf course.

DO wear a polo neck t-shirt. T-shirts with no collar are not really ‘in’ on the course.

DON’T wear denim. A denim jacket, jeans, denim shorts. Best keep them in the wardrobe at home.

DON’T wear beach shorts. If it’s a hot day and we want to show off our legs, let’s choose a nice pair of shorts.

Number of clubs:

One of the easiest places to start is with the number of clubs allowed in our bag. The maximum number we can have is 14. It does not matter how many clubs we have up to 14 – six, eight, ten, whatever, but no more than 14. It also does not matter how we get up to 14, in terms of whether we pack our bag with lots of woods or hybrids, three different wedges, more than one putter. It’s all about the number.

As Ian Woosnam found to his cost when leading the 2001 Open, 14 is the magic number when he discovered a 15th club in his bag on the second tee and had to suffer a two-shot penalty.

Protect the course:

One thing we must all quickly learn is that as golfers, we have a duty of care to the fairways, tees and greens on any golf course.

Tees: This is turf that we want to protect more than any other. For tees, we should not bring trolleys or buggies onto the tee-off area. And while it can be difficult, especially on par-three holes, we must do our best to replace divots so that the teeing-off area can be maintained for people playing behind us.

Fairways: It is impossible to be on the fairway (or in the rough) and not take a divot with some of our shots. Sometimes we take a large, clean divot; sometimes the divot can break up into several pieces. But where we can, we must ensure that we put our divots back in the ground as neatly as possible. It is not difficult, it only takes a few seconds and it is fair to other players coming behind us.

Bunkers: All of us will end up in a bunker at some point. Now it’s essential that we rake bunkers as thoroughly as possible after using them. Again, it is a question of care for our course and respect to our fellow golfers.

Greens: The most sacred spot on any golf course. The putting surfaces are the pride and joy of any greenkeeper and should be treated as such by us golfers as part of our basic golf etiquette.

NEVER take a trolley onto the green and definitely NEVER drive a golf buggy onto the green.

NEVER put our golf bag down on the green.

If we are fortunate enough to leave a pitch mark when our ball lands on the putting surface, endeavour to repair it and try to leave the green as we find it. Holing putts is hard enough to do at the best of times on immaculate putting greens. Let’s not make the task any harder by not ensuring the green is in perfect condition for ourselves and other golfers.

Pace of play:

The pace of play is another part of the basic etiquette of golf. While no player should be rushing their shots, a certain speed should be maintained during a round of golf.

For two players, playing 18 holes in three hours should be realistic. A three-ball should take no more than three-and-a-half hours, while a four-ball should be aiming to get round 18 holes in under four hours. Of course, there are things that can delay us like looking for golf balls but those timings should be a rough marker.

To make sure we can achieve these timings, we should ensure that we walk at a reasonable speed, we are ready when it is our turn to play, ie, we have a rough idea of the club we are going to use and we have our glove on.

There should be a hole’s difference between groups on the course. If the people in the game behind us are waiting to play every shot, then we should allow them to play through us. That is the right and respectful thing to do, as it can be very frustrating to be stood on the tee or the fairway all the time waiting to play a shot.

Own our errors:

In golf, we have to be our own harshest critics. If we take a swing and miss the ball, that counts as a shot (it’s called a fresh air – as we hit the air and not the ball). It’s not nice and a bit embarrassing but it counts as a shot. (However, if the ball falls off the tee of its own accord, that does not count as a shot).

If we touch the sand in the bunker before we take our shot, that also counts as a shot.

What golf has relied on through the years is on the honesty of the individual. As part of basic golf etiquette, we have to be harsh against ourselves to maintain our own integrity and that of the sport. The last thing we want is to gain a reputation for not playing by the rules as a player can quickly become the talk of the locker room or the clubhouse for the wrong reasons.

On the tee:

Whatever colour tees we are playing off (white, yellow, blue, red), we must place our ball level or behind the markers. We cannot place our ball ahead of them. We can place our ball as far as two- club lengths of our longest club (usually the driver) behind the marker, but NEVER ahead of them.

Play the ball as it lies:

Once we have teed off, we must play the ball as we find it. That means it could be in a divot or on a downhill or uphill lie, it may even have collected a little bit of mud or a touch of grass. But we cannot touch our ball or move it into a more favourable spot, however tempting that is.

But during the winter or after a bad spell of weather, a course may introduce specific rules to protect the condition of the course. These are called local rules. Normally there will be a sign on the first tee to inform players that these are in place.


Just as on the fairway or in the rough, the same applies if we hit our ball into a bunker. We cannot touch the sand with our club to try and improve our lie. That would be a one-stroke penalty.

However, if there is a loose impediment near to our ball, such as a stone or pebble, or a rake to clean the sand, then we can move those under no penalty.

If you want we also have a piece on how to play bunker shots if you need any help with your short game.

On the green:

Unlike other spots on the hole, we are allowed to mark our ball on the green. We can put a marker down right behind our ball, lift it up, clean it and put it down exactly where it was. Here we have to be extra careful to make sure that we do not move our ball any nearer the hole than it was.

We also must mark our ball if it lies in the way of our playing partner’s ball or anywhere near the route to the hole. Firstly, we do not want to stop their chance of holing a putt or to have something in the eyeline which could be distracting.

Lost balls:

Nobody likes losing a golf ball. But it is a fate that befalls every single golfer who plays the game. In a competition, a player has a maximum of three minutes to find a ball that may be in thick rough or under a bush. If we cannot find it in that time, it must be declared as lost.

Out of bounds:

Golf courses are not unlimited pieces of land. They can be hemmed in by houses, roads, railway lines or natural barriers like rivers or the sea. Hitting outside the confines of the course is called hitting out of bounds. There will be usually small white stakes in the ground to mark where the out of bounds lies on a course.

If we are unlucky enough to hit a ball over the other side of those white stakes and out of bounds, we have to take a two-shot penalty. That is one of the basic rules of golf that we need to quickly learn.

If that happens on the tee, we hit again and that counts as our third shot on the hole. If we hit our second shot out of bounds, our next shot would be our fourth and so on.

Identify our ball:

On the first tee before we being playing, it is common courtesy to inform our playing partners what ball we are playing. ‘Titleist ProV1’ or ‘TaylorMade 3’. We should also put some kind of identifying symbol of our own on our golf ball, for example, our initials. That helps us to identify our golf ball as we are going around the course.

We cannot change our ball during a hole. We cannot pick it up on the fairway and change it. We have to wait until we have putted out and completed the hole. If we decide to do that, once again, we must state to our partners that we are changing our golf ball and what our new one is.

Man-made objects:

Now we have been reading about some of the basic rules of golf involving how and where we play the ball from, but there are a few areas we can move our ball and most involve man-made objects.

For example, many golf courses have paths near the tees or the greens that have been created for trolleys or buggies. As these are man-made objects, we can pick up our balls from those and move them to the nearest point of relief (nearest grassy area) and drop them for no penalty, no nearer the hole.

As mentioned earlier, if our ball comes to rest against a rake inside or outside a bunker, we can move the rake under no penalty, making sure that our own ball does not move in the process.

Sign and check the scorecard:

In competition rounds or putting in cards to gain a handicap, we must play with someone else as they have to mark our card. That verifies our score.

In the third round of the 2003 Open, England’s Mark Roe played the round of his life as he shot a 67 to put himself in contention to win the tournament. But at the end of the round, he realised that he and playing partner Jesper Parnevik had forgotten to swap cards on the first tee. Both players were disqualified for not signing for a correct score.

So a basic rule should be to exchange cards as we arrive on the first tee. Then after finishing each hole, put the score down for our partner, and for ourselves as the marker (in pencil). It is good courtesy to keep an eye on how many shots the person whose card we are marking is having rather than just rely on their word at the end of a hole.

At the end of our rounds, we need to check the score on each of the 18 holes and make sure that it all adds up. If our marker has put down a lower score on one of the holes, we MUST correct them and explain how we scored more. Again, that comes back to our respect for the game.

Once we have agreed what the score is, both the marker and the player sign the card to record that particular score.

All this may seem overwhelming at first. And don’t worry, we are not going to do a test to see what we can remember!

But if we can grasp these basic rules and basic points of golfing etiquette, they can be the first step towards our understanding and enjoyment of the game. There will be times when we don’t like some of the rules and others when we downright hate them, but if our love of playing golf is strong enough, they will not prevent us from coming back time after time.

About the Author

Adam Lanigan - Golf Writer

Adam is a freelance news and sports journalist who has written for the BBC, The Sunday Post, The I, The Times, The Telegraph and more. He has been writing about golf for nearly two decades and has covered 13 Open Championships and two Ryder Cups. Not only does Adam cover golf, but he has played golf for as long as he can remember. He was a member at Northenden Golf Club for around 25 years until his children arrived and his last official handicap was 11, although on any given day his form fluctuates anywhere between eight and 18.