Basic Golf Rules & Etiquette Explained: A Beginner’s Guide

Every sport has rules, and golf is no different.  However, golf tends to have a higher amount of rules than most other sports, making it difficult to know all of the rules.  Heck, even golfers who have played the game for several decades are often unaware of some of the intricate rules.  (Side note:  The official USGA rule book is 100 pages in length!!!)

To a beginning golfer just learning the ropes, all of the game’s rules can be overwhelming.  Trust us. It is quite normal to feel a bit confused when you first start playing golf.  This guide will go over the most basic golf rules and explain why they are important. 

Importance of Golf’s Rules & Etiquette

The rules matter in golf more than any other sport.  Why?  Because golf is the only sport out there where the players are keeping their own score!  Integrity and transparency are of the utmost importance in the game of golf.

Golf is often referred to as a gentleman’s game because of the integrity that must be enforced while playing it.  Integrity means following the rules and respecting the game’s etiquette at all times, even when no one else is watching.  This is one reason why the game of golf teaches us so much about life in general.

Another reason why knowing and adhering to the rules are important in golf is the pace of play.  If you don’t know the basic rules, you will probably end up asking lots of questions and making the other players in your group wait longer than normal to play their own shots. This is known as poor golf etiquette.

Lastly, when each golfer in the group knows the rules, the match flows at a much smoother pace.  Everyone has a better time on the course, and awkwardness is kept to a minimum.

Basic Golf Rules & Etiquette

1. 14 Clubs or Less in Your Bag

This is one of the oldest rules of golf.  In fact, the USGA and R&A put this rule into effect in 1938!  No one really knows why they settled on 14 as the magic number, but that is the rule nonetheless.

There are two elementary ways to make sure you never break this rule.  One, count the clubs in your bag before you start your warmup routine.  If you are over the limit of 14, take enough clubs out to make your bag legal.

The easiest way to adhere to this rule is to never put more than 14 clubs in your golf bag.  This is how I personally make sure I will never break this rule.  I keep excess clubs in my closet at home, never in my golf bag.

RELATED: “How many golf clubs can you carry?”

2.  Finish the Hole with the Ball You Teed Off With

Once you tee off with a certain ball, you have to finish that particular hole with that same ball.  You can change your golf ball out, but only before you start playing a new hole.

3.  You Must Tee Off Behind the Tee Markers

This one seems so obvious, but I have seen it broken regularly.  The two markers on the tee box are not just there for cosmetic reasons.  You must tee up your ball behind the markers on each hole’s tee box.  A one-stroke penalty is assessed if a golfer tees up in front of the markers.

Bonus Etiquette Tip:  When a player in your group is teeing off, never distract them by being in their line of sight.  Make sure to stay as quiet as possible and be careful not to be in their peripheral vision.

Bonus Tee Box Rule:  If you swing and miss, yes, it does count as a stroke, unfortunately (It’s okay, we have all been there).  The only exception is if it was only a genuine practice swing.  Don’t take it too personally when your buddies razz you about it. 

4.  Play the Ball As It Lies

This rule is almost self-explanatory, but we will go a little more in-depth with it.  You have to play your ball as you find it.  You can never improve your lie (not even when stuck behind a tree, we see that foot-wedge you just used, haha).

The only exceptions to this rule are when your ball ends up on the cart path or an area marked as ground under repair.  In those rare cases, the golfer gets a free drop with no penalty.

5.  While in the Bunker, Never Ground Your Club

Hey, we all love days at the beach but hate it on the golf course!  When you find yourself in one of those pesky bunkers, be careful not to ‘ground’ your club.  What does ‘ground’ mean?

You know how you can set your club down comfortably on the ground behind the ball in the fairway or rough?  That is known as grounding the club, and unfortunately, you cannot do that while in the sand.  You have to let the club hover just over the sand before hitting your shot.  Grounding your club in the sand results in a dreaded one-stroke penalty.

6.  Out of Bounds Rules

You may hear someone on the course refer to a shot as being ‘OB,’ meaning out of bounds.  It is a brutal double whammy when this happens because not only is the golfer given a one-stroke penalty, he or she also has to go back to the point of your previous shot (OUCH!).  Normally, out of bounds is marked with white lines or a white stake in the ground.  This same rule applies to when you lose your golf ball.  Essentially, the out-of-bounds rule and the lost ball rule are the same.

Bonus Rule / Tip:  If you think your shot may have gone out of bounds but you are not completely sure, hit a ‘provisional’ shot.  A provisional shot is hit in case you cannot find your golf ball.  This helps save time because if you don’t find your ball, you have to go back to your previous spot and re-hit.  Hitting a provisional is still a one-stroke penalty because of the lost ball.  Also, make sure that you announce to your group that you are hitting a provisional shot.  

7.  Ball in the Water Rules

Hitting a ball into the drink is a nightmare and usually results in a penalty stroke.  However, if you can see your ball floating on top of the water and not fully submerged, you can hit the ball out of the water with no penalty. (Remember PGA Tour pro Wesley Bryan stripping down to his boxer briefs to hit his ball out of a creek earlier this year? LOL).  If you decide to hit a water ball, keep in mind that you may risk ruining your club, your golf shoes, and possibly even your dignity!

When your ball goes into the water, look around to check for any red or yellow stakes.  Here are the rules for each color of stake:

  • Red stake – You can take a drop at where your ball last crossed into the water (one-stroke penalty)
  • Yellow stake – There may be a drop zone where you must hit from in this case.  However, if there is no drop zone, you are allowed to take a drop from anywhere behind where the ball entered the water.  This is helpful if you wanted to back up several yards to find a more favorable surface.

8.  Unplayable Lie Rule

No matter how long you have been playing golf, you will hit some weird shots from time to time that results in some terrible lies.  That little white ball can surely find some strange places to end up.  During one of my latest rounds, I ended up in pine straw so thick that I could barely even see my golf ball.  The unfortunate result meant that I had to declare the lie unplayable.

The unplayable lie rule is a one-stroke penalty, but luckily you do not have to hit from your previous spot (unless you really want to, which is unlikely).  The most common drop option is finding a nice spot to hit from within two club lengths from the unplayable lie.  The kicker is that you cannot drop your ball any closer to the hole.

If there is no viable spot to drop your ball within two club lengths, you can employ the ‘line of sight’ drop rule for an unplayable lie.  Figure out the line between the hole and where your ball entered the unplayable lie.  You can then go back as far as you want to, as long as it is away from the flag and not closer to it.

9.  How to Mark Your Ball on the Green

The only time you are allowed to pick up your golf ball without a penalty stroke (with rare exceptions like free relief situations) is when you are on the green.  Use either a coin or poker chip (or any circular item) and place it just behind where your golf ball is.  This is a nice advantage because you can now clean your ball off and line it up however you like.

Bonus Etiquette Tip:  While on the green, keep an eye out for any divots you could fix (especially the divot that your ball may have caused).  This is common golf courtesy and good course management.  You are also allowed to repair spike marks.

10.  No Practice Shots During an Official Round

You may be surprised to learn that you cannot practice while playing an official round of golf.  Practice swings are perfectly fine and acceptable, but hitting actual shots is prohibited.  This rule was probably put in place to keep up a faster pace of play.

11. Order of Play Rule

As a general rule and to practice good golf etiquette, the golfer who is furthest from the flagstick plays first.  However, some folks prefer to play ‘ready golf’ where the order of play doesn’t matter.  ‘Ready golf’ is helpful for faster players, but make sure the entire group is okay with it.

Bonus Order of Play Rule for the Tee Box:  The person who had the best score on the previous hole gets to tee off first on the next hole.  This is called ‘the honors.’  If all players in the group shoot the same score on a hole, the order of teeing off remains the same as the last hole.  Many golfers will draw straws or play some quick games of ‘paper, rock, scissors’ to decide the first hole’s order of tee-offs.

12.  New Flagstick Rule

A couple of years ago, the PGA announced an interesting rule change regarding the flagstick.  Golfers can now leave the flagstick in while putting on the green.  In the past, it was a one-stroke penalty if you left the flagstick in while putting and your ball struck it.  

This rule change was a huge welcome to some golfers, as many love to leave the flagstick in to act as sort of a ‘backboard’ while putting.  Many famous PGA golfers love to leave the flagstick in while putting, including Bryson DeChambeau and Adam Scott.

A Final Word on The Basic Rules of Golf

The game of golf is packed with lots of different rules.  Each rule has a distinct and viable reason behind it.  Usually, a rule is put in place to eliminate any unfair advantages or quicken the pace of play.  

Knowing the basic rules of golf can give you and your group of playing partners a more enjoyable time on the course.  We know that reading an official rulebook can be boring and tiresome.  We hope this basic rules breakdown helps you on your journey to playing great golf.

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Joe Morelli

Joe Morelli is the founder of TopRankGolf, a passionate golfer with 25 years of experience playing and coaching golfers around the world. He's dedicated to helping golfers learn and enjoy the game of golf.