Golf Rules and Etiquette

“To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.”

– P.G. Wodehouse

Other sports don’t require as much honesty as golf, primarily because they have spectators, referees or in tennis, line judges. So honesty, fair play and good conduct are expected on the course and essential to playing an honorable game. That means that everyone must understand the rules in order to not make a faux pas on the course.

Basic Golf Rules

  • You or your caddie cannot take any action outside of regular play that will affect the movement of the ball.
  • Play all holes in order unless instructed to do otherwise by club management.
  • Always stick to the rules. Don’t agree with your fellow players to play by your own “house” rules.

Match Play:

  • Each hole is a separate contest and is scored as “one up” if you win, “one down” if you lose, and if you halve it you are “all-square”.
  • You win the match when you are “up” more holes than there are left to play.
  • Everyone you are playing against is called an “opponent” in match play.

Stroke Play:

  • Everyone you are playing against is referred to as a “fellow-competitor”.
  • The competitor with the lowest score for the entire round is the winner.
  • Each competitor must play until they reach the hole before moving on to the next hole.


  • You are limited to carrying 14 clubs in your golf bag.
  • It’s bad form to borrow another player’s club to play a hole unless they offer.
  • Make sure you always have enough balls and tees for the entire 18-hole course. New players especially will want to have extra balls in case they get lost in a water hazard.
  • Always have a divot tool with you to replace any ballmarks on the green or divots on the fairway.

The Ball:

  • Before play begins, announce what ball you are playing and mark your ball.
  • Make sure you have enough balls to complete 18 holes.
  • You may replace (substitute) your ball if it is cracked. Announce it before you do it.
  • While playing, out of bounds balls, lost balls, playing the wrong ball or unplayable balls, all incur a penalty. Make sure you know your options and penalties for each—usually one stroke.


  • Check to see what color the stakes, or lines, are around the hazard. There are more options with red stakes than yellow. It is to your advantage to know the rules and penalties for each.
  • If you take relief from a hazard it is always a one-stroke penalty, but there are many different options and knowing them can save you strokes.

Basic Golf Etiquette

  • Quiet, please! Never talk during another player’s swing.
  • Generally, most public courses do not have set rules for cell phone use. Common sense prevails—if you have to have your phone on, put it on vibrate and talk well out of earshot of any player. Most private courses do not allow cell phones on the course or in the clubhouse. Use is limited to emergencies only.
  • Do not yell out following a shot. There are other people on the course who may be within earshot.
  • Be aware of your shadow on the putting green. Don’t stand in a place that causes your shadow to be cast across another player or that player’s putting line.
  • Never walk through a playing partner’s putting line. Your footprints might alter the path of a partner’s putt. Step over the putting line, or walk around (behind) the partner’s ball.
  • Tipping in golf often comes into play. Consider tipping cart attendants (usually a dollar per bag), the locker room attendant, the on-course refreshment cart person, and the attendant who cleans your clubs and places them either on a rack or delivers them to your vehicle.


  • Play “ready golf”. The player who is ready to strike the ball first, whether on the tee box, on the fairway, in the rough, even on the putting green, usually announces, “I’m ready”, or “I’m hitting”, or “I’ll go”, making sure it is safe to hit.
  • Fill out the scorecard on the next tee box, not beside the green where you just finished putting.
  • Take every caution to avoid returning to the cart. Carry an extra ball, and extra clubs in case of chipping.
  • Attempt to stay one stroke behind the group in front of you, not behind you.
  • Allow others to play through if your group is unable to keep up with those ahead.

Taking Care of the Course:

  • Minimize damage wherever possible.
  • Repair divot holes you have made and pitch marks on greens.
  • Bunkers should be smoothed or raked after exiting.
  • Balls should not be removed from holes with club heads.
  • Leave the course in better shape than before you played it.


  • Be safety conscious at all times, careful to never endanger others.
  • Be disciplined, courteous and sportsmanlike…never throw a club!
  • Keep your hands and feet inside a moving golf cart.
  • Alert other players by shouting “fore” if you’ve mishit a ball.

For a comprehensive guide to the rules of golf, review the USGA Golf Rules.

Tee Times:

  • If you book the tee time, make sure that you inform any new golfers to arrive at least a half hour early.
  • If you didn’t book the tee time, show consideration and arrive early enough to warm up without causing a delay in your group teeing off.
  • Remember that the tee time is the time that you actually tee off at the first hole, not the time that you start loading equipment into the golf cart.
  • Choose who has “honors” at the first tee by whatever means the group chooses.
  • At each consecutive tee, the person with the lowest score on the previous hole tees off first. If there’s a tie, it’s based on the order of the previous hole for the tied players.