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Basic Rules of Golf

There are over 150 pages in the official USGA Rules of Golf book. I’ve pulled the most pertinent rules the average weekend warrior will likely come across, including some newly added rules.
Golf Rules Official

The full USGA rules of golf book is well over 150 pages long. For the average weekend warriors, that’s a bit much. The average golfer has too much to think about when playing golf so I will provide an easy (and much briefer) overview of key rules to remember when playing socially. I have noted which rules were recently added in 2019 so be sure you’re aware of these newer rules.

14-Club Rule

You are allowed to carry no more than 14 golf clubs in your golf bag. Less is fine.

Dropping Procedure

When dropping a ball now for relief or penalty, you are to drop it from knee high

Penalty areas

(new in 2019) – This is the new way of saying water hazard going forward. It’s basically the general term now when you see red or yellow stakes/lines defining a body of water or other areas. When you hit your ball in there you have the following options:

Red/Yellow Stake Options

  • Find it and play it from where it lies
  • Replay the previous shot from same spot and add ONE stroke to that hole
  • Drop ball on the line between the hole and where the golf ball last crossed the penalty area no closer to the hole and add ONE stroke to that hole

Additional Red Stake Only Option

  • Take lateral/sideways relief with two club-lengths (usually the Driver, not any putters) of where your ball crossed into the penalty area

You can learn more about the details around how to handle penalty strokes when hitting the ball into the water and penalty area.

Out of Bounds or Lost Ball

Out of bounds is when your ball goes out of play either over the course property or a designated local course boundary. These can be defined with white stakes or a boundary fence.  A lost ball is when you believe your ball is in-bounds but can not find it. You have THREE minutes from the player searching the ball until the search is abandoned and play is resumed.

For local rules during social play…

  • (new in 2019) Determine where your ball crossed the boundary fence or spot you think your ball is lost, find nearest fairway edge adjacent to it and you can drop two club-lengths from that spot and add ONE stroke to that hole

For higher level of players and competition

  • Take stroke and distance – play another shot from the previous spot (provisional ball) and announce that you are hitting that ”provisional” ball in case you don’t find your golf ball in bounds or can not find it. Add ONE stroke to that hole

Immovable Objects  / Abnormal Course Conditions / Embedded Ball

When you think you got unlucky where your ball goes or something is in your way, you know there is something you can do to make it better without taking a penalty for it so let’s go over a few “good” rules that you will get free relief.

  • If your golf ball touches a condition or object that is ‘handmade”
  • Your stance is impeded on a condition or object that is “handmade”
  • If there is water in an area that has accumulated not in a penalty area

So if you are on the course and the above happens, this is the proper procedure

  • Take a stance with a club that gives you full relief nearest to the improper condition no nearer the hole. 
  • Mark where your clubhead is and you can then take ONE club-length relief from there and drop the ball.

A rule of thumb when taking a drop procedure is easy to remember…

  • ONE club-length relief is when you are not adding a stroke on that hole..YAY!
  • TWO club-length relief is when you are taking a penalty and adding a stroke..BOO!

Here are examples of these terms to remember when taking free relief…

  • Immovable objects: cart path, sprinkler box, bench, hole sign
  • Abnormal course condition: ground under repair, water accumulation, flower bed, burrowing animal, 
  • Embedded ball: Ball is embedded into the ground from it’s own pitch mark (pitch is repaired and replaced at same spot on putting green)

Unplayable Lie

If you find your ball and don’t or can’t play your ball, you have the option to deem it as unplayable. Here are your options:

  • Replay previous shot from same spot and add ONE stroke to that hole
  • Drop ball on the line between the hole and where the golf ball lies no closer to the hole and add ONE stroke to that hole
  • Drop anywhere within two club-lengths of where the ball lies no closer to the hole

Ball Falls off Tee

No penalty and re-tee it unless you whiffed it with the purpose of hitting it.

Damaged Marks/Sand on Putting Green

(new in 2019) You can repair marks or remove sand/soil on the putting green only.

Ball Gets Stuck in Tree

You have 2 options if your ball gets stuck in a tree.

  1. Play the ball as it lies: Allowed if the tree is still in bounds, this is possible in some circumstances such as your ball lying cleanly on a visible root or on a branch. But be careful that you do not move any part of the tree that may cause the ball to move prior to your shot. Also be sure not to damage yourself or your club. It may no be worth the risk.
  2. Declare the ball as unplayable and get relief with a one-stroke penalty. Relief can come in the form of re-hitting the shot from the previous spot, taking a drop 2 club-lengths from where the ball lies, or dropping the ball in-between where the ball currently lies and your previous shot (as far back as you want and within 2 club lengths of that line).

Ball At Rest Moves

Accidental movement anywhere other than putting green:

  • No penalty when searching for the ball and it is moved in the process. Replace it to original spot
  • If you move your ball by accident, there would be a penalty and replace ball to original spot. Add ONE stroke to that hole score
  • If your ball is moved by another player, caddie, partner or an animal (outside influence), there is NO penalty.  Replace ball to its original spot

Accidental movement on the putting green:

  • If you accidentally move your ball on the putting green like with a practice stroke or when marking the ball, there is NO penalty
  • If your ball moves on the putting green by natural forces like wind before you mark your ball, you are to play it as it lies at the new location. NO penalty
  • If your ball moves on the putting green by natural forces like wind after you marked your ball, you are to replace the ball to its original spot. NO penalty

Ball Lands on a Different Putting Green

Determine closest spot off of the green no nearer the hole, take ONE club-length and drop it.  NO penalty.

Golf Etiquette on the Green

While not always considered hard and fast rules, proper golf etiquette on the putting green must be followed for sportsmanship and respect to your playing partners and those playing behind you. This includes not walking across the putting line of others, fixing your ball marks and congratulating your partners when they hit a great shot.

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Picture of V Tongwarin

V Tongwarin

Visanu Tongwarin or “Coach V” is a Class A PGA Teaching Professional at Legacy Ridge Golf Course and Walnut Creek Golf Preserve in Westminster, Colorado. V's brings his passion for teaching the game of golf to all levels of golfers from running children clinics to training state champions and seasoned professionals.