Getting Started: A Beginner’s Guide to the Rules of Golf

basic rules of golf

Although golf has many rules, there are basic rules of golf that everyone should know. Knowing these rules ensures beginners won’t get penalized for any avoidable reasons.

The basic rules of golf allow you to get by on your average round. You likely won’t run into any situations these rules don’t cover.

So, knowing the basic rules means you can go out and enjoy the game without worrying about getting penalized. Our list will help you get the basics down and allow you to confidently walk onto the course.

These are the basic rules of golf.

15 Basic Rules of Golf Beginner’s Should Know

Following these rules ensures you’ll get through almost all your rounds without hassle.

1. 14 Clubs Max

You can’t have more than 14 clubs in your bag during a round. Before you start, make sure you have 14 clubs or fewer.

Breaking this rule in a competition can cost you a two-stroke penalty for each hole you carried more than 14 clubs. Also, it can even lead to disqualification.

It’s easy to stay on the right side of this rule. Always double-check your bag before you tee off at the first hole.

Some golfers like to switch between different clubs more often than others. It’s a good idea to never put more than 14 clubs in your bag if you’re one of them.

Keep your extra clubs in your garage instead of your bag. You lessen the chance of forgetting about additional clubs in your bag that way.

2. Tee Off Behind the Markers

You must tee off behind the markers on the tee box – and your ball needs to be between them, too. You get a one-stroke penalty if you break this rule.

However, you don’t need to tee up directly at the front of the marked area. Sometimes the turf on the tee box gets cut up, and you’re better off finding a fresher patch behind the markers.

You can place your ball two driver lengths behind the markers. That gives you about 90 inches to work with if you want to go back further.

Also, we should note that you don’t need to stand between the markers. Your feet can be outside the marked area as long as you tee the ball up within it.

3. Play the Ball as it Lies

Within the general play, you need to play the ball where it lies. For instance, you can’t lift your ball in the rough and place it for a better lie. Also, you can’t move the ball if it’s lying behind a tree.

play golf ball as it lies golfer hitting behind tree

However, there are some instances where you get a free drop (a drop without a penalty stroke). You get a drop when your ball rests on a cart path, in an area marked ‘ground under repair,’ and on an unnatural obstruction like a sprinkler head. Also, you get a drop if these things interfere with your stance.

You can rotate a ball to check to see if it’s yours, but you must not lift it. Only rotate it to see any markings before rotating it back to its original position. You get penalized if you cause the ball to move, so take care when checking it.

4. Marking Your Ball on the Green

On the green, you can mark your ball and pick it up. It’s the only time in general play when you can lift your ball.

Place a ball marker or a coin directly behind the ball to mark where it lies. Then, you can lift your ball and clean any grass or dirt from it.

golfer marking his golf ball on the green

You can move the marker if it interferes with another player’s putt. You can move it one putter head (or more) to the left or right. Just make sure you put it back before replacing your ball.

5. Bunkers

When you find yourself in one of those pesky bunkers, be careful not to ‘ground’ your club.  What does ‘ground’ mean?

Do you know how you can comfortably set down your club 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 must hover the club just over the sand before hitting your shot. Grounding your club in the sand results in a one-stroke penalty.

6. Finish the Hole With the Same Ball

You must finish the hole with the same ball (unless you lose it, of course). Even when the ball gets scuffed or scratched, you must complete the hole before replacing it.

However, there is an exception to this rule. You can change your ball during a hole when it gets cut or cracked, making it unplayable.

In that case, you can replace the ball with a new one. Make sure you replace the new ball in the exact position the old one rested.

7. Out of Bounds

Out of bounds is when your ball leaves the area of play on the golf course. White stakes usually mark the limit of the golf course, and players commonly refer to the ground beyond the white stakes as ‘OB.’

Generally, OB runs around the perimeter of the golf course. It separates the golf course from adjoining properties or roads.

You get a two-stroke penalty when you hit out of bounds.

The original shot needs to be played again. Let’s say you hit a drive OB, so you need to play the tee shot again, and it’s now your third shot on that hole.

Let’s say you hit it OB from anywhere else on the course. You must drop a ball in the same position and play again, adding two strokes as a penalty.

It’s always best to hit a provisional ball if you think your original one went OB. That means you won’t slow down play.

Without hitting a provisional, you’ll need to return to your original position if you don’t find the first ball. That slows everything down.

Make sure to declare you’re hitting a provisional ball to the group. You can then play the original ball if you find it. Not declaring a provisional means you must play the second ball even if you find the first one.

8. Hazards

Water on the golf course is a common hazard you’ll run into. It’s never fun hitting the ball into the drink, but it happens, so you need to know what to do.

You can play from the water when the ball isn’t fully submerged. But we don’t recommend this option because it’s risky for your score and you.

Taking a one-stroke penalty drop is your best bet. You have two options for this, depending on how the hazard is marked.

Red Stakes

golf red stake out of bounds

A hazard with red stakes is a lateral one. That means you have three options when taking a drop.

  • Drop in a drop zone (if they have one)
  • Take a lateral drop within two club lengths where the ball entered the hazard.
  • A line-of-sight drop, where you can go back from where the ball entered the hazard and in line with the flag. You can go back as far as you like.

Hazards with red stakes aren’t always water ones. Red stakes can also mark other types of hazards like waste ground. However, the rules for dropping are the same when the hazard is marked red.

Yellow Stakes

golf water hazard and stake

Yellow stakes on a golf course mark a water hazard. You only have two options when taking a drop.

  • Drop in a drop zone
  • A line-of-sight drop

You cannot drop laterally from a water hazard marked with yellow stakes.

Hazards with red stakes are more common than yellow ones. Always check which type of hazard you’re in because taking the wrong drop can cause more penalties.

9. 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 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.

Declaring an unplayable lie is a one-stroke penalty. You have three drop options:

  • Two club lengths – take a drop two club lengths from the spot, no closer to the hole.
  • Line of sight – find 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.
  • Replay the previous shot – you can replay your shot if the other two options aren’t good. This is the last resort and rarely happens on the course.

10. Lost Ball

You’re going to lose golf balls on the course. It’s a reality no one can escape from, so you need to know what to do when it happens.

Sometimes you have a good idea that your ball will be lost. In that case, you should hit a provisional ball as if you hit out of bounds.

You can then continue with the provisional ball if you don’t find the original one – you have three minutes to look for a ball before declaring it lost. Hitting a provisional ball speeds up play, so always hit one if there’s a possibility of a lost ball. It’s a two-stroke penalty, like out of bounds.

However, sometimes a ball seems to disappear without a trace. It doesn’t seem like a lost ball, so you don’t hit a provisional. You need to retake your previous shot when that happens with a two-stroke penalty.

11. Cart Path Relief

You get relief when your ball stops on a cart path. Also, you get a drop if it interferes with your stance.

Cart path relief is a free drop. So, you continue playing as normal once you drop the ball.

Dropping from a cart path:

  • Identify the nearest point of relief
  • Mark that spot with a tee
  • Measure one club length from the tee
  • Drop your ball within that area, no closer to the hole.

12. Swing and Miss

Beginner golfers are going to occasionally miss the ball. It counts as a shot if you try to hit the ball and miss it.

However, it doesn’t count as a shot if you hit the ball accidentally. For instance, there’s no penalty if you unintentionally hit the ball during a practice swing.

13. No Practice Shots Between Holes

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.

For instance, you can’t practice a putt after you finish a hole. You can only do that if you’re playing a match-play event.

Practicing between holes results in a one-stroke penalty.

14. Don’t Give or Get Advice

Sometimes it’s tempting to ask for or give advice on the course. Beginners might want to check what club a playing partner hit or ask the best way to play a shot.

However, that’s against the rules in an official game. It results in a penalty shot.

Also, it’s a penalty if someone tells you what club to hit or gives you other advice. The only exceptions are if you’re talking to your caddie or are playing in a team event.

15. Sign Your Score Card Correctly

In competition, you’ll swap scorecards with another player. They’ll mark yours, and you’ll mark theirs.

Not only should you mark their scores on the card, but you should also mark your own scores in the section provided. That ensures you can double-check the scores after the round.

Once you’ve confirmed the scores, you need to sign the cards. Every card needs two signatures to become official – the players and the markers.

Always make sure the cards are signed correctly. You get disqualified if you don’t do so.

Recent Rule Changes

Golf has had some recent rule changes in the past few years.

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.

Ground Club in Hazards

Before, you had to play shots from a hazard like in the bunker. You couldn’t ground your club, instead hovering it over the surface. But now you can ground your club in a hazard.

Three Minutes to Find a Lost Ball

You now only have three minutes to find a lost ball. Previously, you had five minutes to search for a lost ball.

You must declare a ball as lost if you don’t find it within three minutes. This rule helps speed up play.

Drop at Knee Height

When taking a drop, you now need to drop it from knee height. You previously had to drop it from shoulder height before the rule change.

Dropping it from knee height gives you an advantage. It means the ball has a better chance of resting in a good lie.


The game of golf is packed with lots of different rules. Each rule has a distinct and viable reason behind it. Usually, rules are 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.

This breakdown of the basic rules of golf explains all the rules you need to know to get started. You likely won’t come across any situation it doesn’t cover.

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Joe Morelli

Joe Morelli is the founder of TopRankGolf, a passionate golfer with decades of experience playing this amazing sport. He's dedicated to helping golfers learn, improve and enjoy the game of golf.