A Beginner’s Guide to Golf Rules and Etiquette

You want to head to the first tee for the first time, you say! If you have a set of golf clubs and have visited the driving range at least a few times, you’re almost ready! The last step before hitting the links is to review some basic golf rules and etiquette so you can fit in with the country club crowd on your first trip out.

We will cover:

  • The basic rules of the game of golf
  • Proper etiquette and safety measures when on a golf course
  • A glossary of common golf terms
  • the benefits of this understanding and information.

Being a beginner at golf is stressful. From struggling to hit the ball to keeping up with the pace of play to knowing where the next hole is and remembering to drink plenty of water…all while keeping score for yourself and a playing partner, there’s a lot that goes into it! 

Once you get into a rhythm, though,  you’ll see there is plenty of time in between shots. It’s important to take advantage of that time and use it wisely to hydrate, write down your score, prepare for your next shot, and if you are near or on the green, look around and identify which direction the next tee box is in. 

Golf is an extremely nuanced game with hundreds of specific rulings and decisions based on unique situations and course conditions. As a beginner, there are a handful of common rules that are more important to know when first being introduced to the game than others. The more you play, the more you’ll pick up on, too!

Basic Rules of Golf:

  1. Unless noted otherwise, you must play the ball ‘down,’ which means hitting it from exactly the lie that you find it in.
  1. A player may have up to 14 clubs in their bag, but no more than 14. You may carry as many golf balls as you want to- and you are allowed to change your golf ball after the completion of any hole (unless it’s damaged).
  1. Making a strike: you must strike/hit the ball. No scooping, shoving, or double tapping (on purpose) is allowed without penalty.
  1. You may mark, lift, and clean your ball before replacing it if it lies on the putting green. 
  1. When teeing off from the tee box, you must tee the ball up between the tee markers, within 2 club-lengths of them but not in front of them. 
  1. Make sure that you are playing your golf ball! Draw an identifying mark on your golf ball with a permanent marker and identify it to your playing partners before beginning play. Hitting the wrong ball is a two-stroke penalty.
  1. Understand the different types of penalty areas and how to proceed with taking relief from them.
  1. Out of bounds is marked with white stakes or white paint. You are not allowed to hit your ball out of bounds. You must hit again from the position of your previous shot, under a penalty of one stroke. 
  1. If your ball comes to rest on a cart path or your stance is on a cart path, you are entitled to free relief, taken within one club-length from your nearest point of full relief, but no closer to the hole.
  1. If you attempt to hit your shot, and you miss… that does count as a stroke, unfortunately! 
  1. From the start of your pre-shot routine, you have 45 seconds to make contact with the ball. 

Like any other sport, as a beginner golfer, start at an appropriate level so you can relax and have fun! As you improve, move back a set of tees to lengthen the course or begin keeping score on a scorecard. If you’re just starting out, it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid the busy times and days at the course. This lessens the likelihood that you’ll be put in a stressful situation, like holding up the groups behind you as you learn the game. To start, try playing just a few holes on a weekday afternoon versus making a tee time on a Saturday morning. 

With golf, sometimes the unwritten rules are just as, if not more, important than the written ones. Golf has a lot of unspoken etiquette that can be intimidating to walk into.

Standard golf courtesy or unwritten rules of etiquette:

  1. The golfer whose ball is furthest away from the hole hits first. If that’s not you, make sure you are not standing in that golfer’s line (directly behind or in front of them) as they are hitting. Also, stay 90 degrees to one side in case they hit it offline or sideways!
  1. Be as quiet as possible when others are hitting their shots.
  1. Be ready to play when it is your turn. Waiting until it is your turn to begin your pre-shot routine is one reason why golf can move slowly at times.
  1. If you are driving the golf cart, make sure to keep it on the path when there are signs saying so. If a course allows driving in the fairway, enter the fairway from a 90-degree angle from the path to your ball, as much as possible. On par 3s, you are not allowed to leave the cart path with the car and do not drive anywhere near the green complexes.
  1. Make sure to arrive at the tee at least 10 minutes before your tee time.
  1. Be careful where you walk and how you walk on the putting green! The grass is much more delicate, so running, jumping, or scraping your feet will cause damage. Make sure to know where the others in your group are putting from and avoid walking between their ball and the hole.
  1. Always watch your ball until it stops moving! Looking for lost balls takes a lot of time, and if you cannot find it, it is a penalty.
  1. If you see that your shot is headed anywhere near another person – yell “FORE” as a warning to take cover.
  1. Review the dress code before heading to a course, typically, collared shirts, sleeves, and certain lengths for shorts are outlined.
  1. Raking bunkers after you hit out of them, repairing your fairway divots with sand, and repairing ball marks made on greens are always appropriate etiquette practices on the golf course and on practice facility grounds

Being able to ‘talk golf’ is also important! Knowing basic golf terms and what they mean can help you connect to the sport and your friends and family who play. The first ever round of golf was played in 1764, so there have been many updates, changes, and inventions over time that have impacted the sport. We will stick with present-day golf terminology. 

Golf Terminology:

  1. Drive: The shot you hit from a tee box
  1. Driver: The longest club in your bag. It is a ‘wood’, and because of the way it is made, it should go the farthest of all of your clubs when hit well.
  1. Irons: This is your 9-iron through your 4-iron. The 9-iron goes the shortest and highest, and the 4-iron goes the farthest and the lowest.
  1. Wedges: These are the clubs that go the shortest and the highest, and that you will most likely use around the green.
  1. Putter: The club you use on the greens to putt the ball to the hole.
  1. Rough: The longer grass that can be found running vertically down the side of the fairway
  1. Fairway: The shortest grass that runs the length of the hole
  1. Bunker: A sand bunker. It can be near the green or along the side of the hole.
  1. Par/Birdie/Bogey/Double Bogey: The scoring system for golf. ‘Par’ is what the course has decided the adequate number of shots is to take to complete a given hole. Par 3s are the shortest and should take golfers one shot to reach the green, Par 4s should take golfers two shots to reach the green, and Par 5s take golfers three shots to reach the green. Two putts are assumed when deciding ‘par.’ A ‘birdie’ is when your score on a hole is one under par, and a bogey is when your score is one over par. 
  1. Lie: how the ball is sitting on the ground. Is it a good lie or bad lie? A good lie means that the ball can be hit cleanly. A bad lie means the ball might be sitting in deep rough or on a mud patch and will take more skill to hit.

Attending a professional golf tournament also requires some etiquette-specific knowledge. Being a spectator at a PGA or LPGA Tour event is exciting; you want to make sure you are doing your part as a responsible patron. Paying attention to play is the best way to determine what you should be doing. Are they about ready to hit the ball? It is time to not move and to be quiet. As a general rule, if the players are walking, you can be walking too. Give the players space, too, usually there are ropes set up for this, but sometimes there aren’t. Clapping or cheering a player on is perfectly acceptable between shots. 

At golf tournaments, there are typically plenty of food and drink options in addition to fun entertainment, but be careful not to get too loud; it can get you kicked out of the event! Also, make sure that your phone is off or on silent. Standing at certain angles to a player, or getting way out ahead of a player as they are hitting their drive can be an unsafe decision. Even the best players in the world can hit the occasional bad shot, so you want to pay close attention to where the ball is after it has been hit.

Obviously, golf is played outdoors. Be prepared to play or spectate by checking the weather beforehand. You’ll need a hat and sunglasses if it’s warm, a bottle of water, appropriate clothing layers for the weather, sunscreen, hand warmers if it is very cold, an umbrella if there is a chance of rain, a few bandaids for any impending blisters, and bug spray. These items will make your experience a lot more enjoyable than that of those who are not prepared. 

There is also appropriate golf etiquette when you are on the practice areas at a golf course. Making sure you are aware of where those are around you is important for safety and etiquette. The golf course staff wants the practice areas to have as similar conditions as possible to the course itself. This means that doing anything that tears up or damages the grass on a green, or taking divots and not finding a way to replace them, is not proper golf etiquette. 

Keeping the practice area as nice, or nicer, than when you found it helps the next person who comes to practice. If you just want to go to the course to hit some golf balls on the driving range, make sure you are still in accordance with the dress code. Typically, private golf courses and country clubs have a stricter code for dressing to play and practice than public golf courses do, but you still want to be prepared and appropriate. 

If you want to practice putting before you play, or just have a practice session, there are certain things to be aware of that can damage a putting green. Standing in one place near a hole and hitting several repetitive putts is damaging to the green surface. If you move your feet and you can see a darker shade of green, that’s your sign that you have damaged the grass.

The best way to practice putting is to keep moving around the green. If you really need to practice from a stationary place, put a towel down under your feet and keep checking to make sure the grass looks the same as the grass around it. Taking 3-5 golf balls out of your golf bag to practice putting is acceptable. If there is a chipping practice area, usually the golf course will supply golf balls to utilize in this area. It is a no-no to take these balls and use them on the golf course! 

It can be overwhelming and awkward to feel like you have so much to learn. Being out of time or having to hurry on a golf course can be stressful. Turning around to see the group behind you waiting or waving their arms in the air in anger would raise anyone’s heart rate! Being able to keep up and not feel that your time is being infringed on the golf course is a large part of enjoying your round. 

The good news is the rules of golf are the same across the entire world. Once you get them down, knowing and abiding by the rules gives you an accurate measure of your golfing abilities anywhere you go to play.  Knowing the rules can also help play move along faster and impress upon your fellow golfers that you know what you are doing! It also helps to know the rules and basic terminology when spectating or watching golf on TV. 

Learning how to hit a ball crisply from the fairway, using your sense of touch on and around the greens, driving the ball far and straight, getting out of a bunker on the first try, and figuring out how far each of your clubs travels all take time lots of repetition. The Rules of Golf and the proper golf etiquette, though, are a great launching pad that takes less time, effort, and skill than the intricacies and technical sides of the game. 

Good luck, play well, and enjoy your time on the links!