Basic Golf Rules: A Quick Intro to the Rules of Golf

These Golf Rules at a Glance are Your Plain-English Summary

A golfer tees up his ball
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These golf rules at a glance are designed to give beginners to the game a quick look at key elements of the rules. Here we summarize, in plain and easy to understand English, the rules of the game.

Did You Know?

The official Rules of Golf take up around 100 pages of a booklet published by the USGA and R&A.

Think of what follows as an introduction to the complete Rules of Golf, which can found in full on the USGA website and on the R&A website. This summary should never be used to settle disputes or disagreements; always consult the full rules for that.

The summaries of each golf rule are provided by rules expert and historian John Hutchinson, who runs the Historical Rules of Golf website.

Now, on to your quick guide to the rules:

Rule 1: The Game, and Standards

  • Play the course as you find it; play the ball as it lies.
  • You must always play by the Rules. You are not allowed to change or ignore them. And play by the spirit of the game — always be honest.

Rule 2: The Course

  • There are five different parts to a course: The "teeing area," where you start; "penalty areas"; "bunkers"; the "putting green," where you will finish the hole; and the "general playing area," which is everywhere else on the course. 
  • There may also be "no play zones" within the course (such as an environmentally sensitive area, as an example), if designated so by the golf course itself.

Rule 3: The Competition

  • In stroke play, the competitor with the lowest total score is the winner. You must play your ball into the hole in progress before starting the next hole.
  • In match play, each hole is a separate contest. You have won the match when you are more holes up than there are left to play. For example, if you are three-up and there are only two holes left to play, you have won “three and two."
  • It is not possible to play match play and stroke play at the same time.
  • Know your tee time or starting time, and be there ready to play at that time.
  • Always use your correct handicap.

Rule 4: The Player’s Equipment

  • You may carry no more than fourteen clubs.
  • Equipment that gives you any kind of artificial assistance is subject to certain restrictions.

Rule 5: Playing the Round

  • In stroke play, make sure your score for each hole is correct and sign your card before returning it.
  • Don’t unduly delay play – keep up with the group in front. Keep playing unless there is danger from lightning, you become ill, or an official tells you to stop.
  • You may not hit a practice shot while playing a hole. Normally, practice is not allowed on the course before a stroke event but is allowed before a match. However, a committee may alter this rule so always check the conditions of competition.

Rule 6: Playing a Hole

  • Begin by playing a ball from the teeing area and play until you have holed out on the putting green, unless other play formats allow you to cease play earlier.
  • Tee your ball between the tee markers or a little way behind them.
  • You may not change balls during the play of a hole unless a Rule allows it. However, if you damage your ball or it goes out of shape, you may change it.
  • Make sure you can identify your own ball (put a mark on the ball in case someone else is using an identical ball).
  • If you play a ball that is not yours, you lose the hole in match play or incur a two-stroke penalty in stroke play.

Rule 7: Ball Search

  • You may fairly search for your ball, but don’t do anything to deliberately improve its lie.
  • If you need to identify your ball, mark it first before lifting. Should you accidentally move it during this process, replace it without penalty.

Rule 8: Play the Course As You Find It

  • You must accept the conditions where your ball ends up. After all, you hit it there!
  • You can, however, reasonably move loose impediments and obstructions.
  • Don’t position any marker to indicate your line of play.

Rule 9: Play the Ball As It Lies

  • If your ball at rest moves, and you don’t know what caused it, play from the new resting place. If you or anyone else, or some outside influence, moves the ball, it must be replaced.
  • If you find it impossible to play from where the ball lies, there will be some form of relief available, which may or may not come with a penalty.

Rule 10: Making a Stroke, Advice, Caddies 

  • You must strike the ball fairly with the head of the club. You may not accept any assistance or use any artificial aid in making your stroke. Neither may you use an "anchoring point" against your body in making a stroke.
  • You must not hit your ball while it is moving (except in water).
  • Don’t give advice to another player, except your partner, nor ask for advice from anyone other than a member of your side.
  • Your caddie may point out a line of play before your stroke, but not stand on the line of play (or directly behind) when you take your stance (except while attending the flagstick).

Rule 11: Ball in Motion Hits…

  • Any person, including you, your equipment or any outside influence accidentally, there’s no penalty, play the ball as it lies. This does not apply to a ball deliberately deflected or stopped.

Rule 12: Bunkers

  • A bunker is a prepared area containing sand. 
  • Before playing, you may move loose impediments or movable obstructions, but don’t touch the sand near your ball

Rule 13: Putting Green

  • The putting green is a specially prepared area around the flagstick. 
  • You may brush away leaves and other loose impediments, but otherwise, do not touch your line of putt.
  • You may repair ball marks, old hole plugs, or marks made by spikes or shoes before playing.
  • Always mark your ball by putting a small coin or another marker behind it when you want to pick it up to clean it or get out of another player's way.
  •  When putting you may have the flagstick removed or left in place, as you wish.
  •  If your ball overhangs the edge of the hole you can wait ten seconds to see if it drops in. If it falls in after 10 seconds, add a penalty stroke to your score.

Rule 14: Ball Marking, Lifting, Replacing, Dropping

  • If you are lifting a ball to be replaced, mark the spot first. The original ball must be replaced unless the Rules allow a substitution.
  • If the original lie is altered, replace the ball in the nearest similar lie, or recreate the lie if in a bunker.
  • If your ball is to be dropped, you may use any ball, including the original ball, and drop from knee height into the relief area.
  • If you make a mistake in replacing, dropping or substituting, you may lift your ball and correct the mistake before making a stroke.
  • If you have played from a wrong place, continue play but give yourself the general penalty unless you think there was a serious breach of the rule, in which case play from the correct place or risk disqualification.

Rule 15: Free Relief — Movable Items

  • Obstructions are artificial or man-made objects. Bottles, cans, rakes, etc., are movable obstructions. Sprinkler heads, shelters, cart paths, etc., are immovable obstructions. 
  • Loose impediments are natural objects that are not growing or fixed, such as loose leaves, twigs, fallen branches, stones, and insects.
  • You may remove a loose impediment or movable obstruction anywhere on the course. Be careful not to move the ball when removing loose impediments.
  • Movable obstructions anywhere on the course may be removed. If the ball moves when moving an obstruction, there's no penalty and the ball must be replaced.

Rule 16: Free Relief — Non-Movable Items, Abnormal Conditions

  • Relief is allowed from animal holes, ground under repair, immovable obstructions or temporary water.
  • Interference exists if your ball touches any of these areas, or if they interfere with your intended stance or area of intended swing.
  • You may drop your ball away from an immovable obstruction if it interferes with your swing or stance. Find the nearest point not nearer the hole where the ball can be played without interference with your swing or stance. Drop the ball within one club-length of that point. Note: It is good practice not to pick up the ball until you have established the nearest point of relief.

Rule 17: Penalty Areas

  • Penalty area margins are identified by red or yellow stakes or lines.
  • If your ball is in a penalty area, you may play it as it lies. If you cannot find it or do not wish to play it, add a penalty stroke and do one of the following: a) drop and play another ball from where you last played; b) drop a ball behind the area as far back as you wish on a straight line from the hole, keeping where your ball last crossed the margin between the hole and where you drop the ball; or c) if it’s a red area, you may also drop a ball within two club-lengths of where the ball last crossed the margin, no nearer to the hole.

Rule 18: Ball Lost, Out of Bounds, Provisional

  • If your ball is lost or out of bounds, you must add a penalty stroke to your score and play another ball from where you played your last shot (known as “stroke and distance”).
  • A ball is lost if it is not found within three minutes after you first begin to search or you have put another ball into play.
  • If you think your ball may be lost or out of bounds, you may play a provisional ball from the place where your first ball was played. You must inform your opponent or fellow-competitor that you are playing a provisional ball. If you cannot find your first ball or if it is out of bounds, you must count all the strokes with the first ball and provisional ball, add a penalty stroke and play out the hole with the provisional ball. If you find your first ball in bounds, you must continue to play with it and pick up the provisional ball.

Rule 19: Unplayable Ball

  • You may declare your ball unplayable anywhere on the course except in penalty areas. Add a penalty stroke and then do one of the following: a) Go back to where you played the last shot and play a ball from there; b) Go back on a straight line as far as you wish, keeping where the unplayable ball lay between the hole and where you drop the ball; or c) Measure two club-lengths from where the unplayable ball lay, drop a ball and play from there.
  • If you declare you ball unplayable in a bunker, the ball can be dropped within the bunker, or outside the bunker at a cost of two strokes.

Rule 20: Resolving Rules Issues

  • If there’s no rules official available, instead of delaying play you can: a) In match play agree with your opponent how to proceed, agree to seek a ruling from an official later, and continue play with the issue undecided; b) In stroke play, such agreement is not allowed; raise any issue with the committee before handing in your scorecard.
  • Or if uncertain how to proceed, you can complete the hole with two balls and work out which one is to count later — stroke play only.

Rules 21, 22, 23, 24: Other Forms of Play

  • Stableford: A stroke play event using a points-scoring system rather than total strokes. It is not necessary to hole out on every hole.
  • Threesomes, foursomes: Partners play alternately at one ball. If you play out of turn you lose the hole in match play (or incur two penalty strokes in stroke play). Penalties do not alter the order of play.
  • Three-ball, four-ball: Each player plays his own ball. A player may play alone if his partner cannot be there. Partners may choose to play in any order.