Meet the Golf Course

A general view of the Torrey Pines South Golf Course
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

What is a golf course? In the official rule book, a golf course is defined as "the entire area of play within the edge of any boundaries set by the Committee," and the rules state that "the course is made up of the five defined areas of the course." The dictionary definition of "golf course" is "the ground or course over which golf is played."

But if you're a beginner, those definitions probably don't help much.

So: Golf courses are collections of golf holes. A standard round of golf consists of playing 18 holes, and a "full-sized" golf course contains 18 holes. The golf course includes elements of the holes such as teeing areas, fairways, and putting greens, plus rough, bunkers and penalty areas.

In this article, we'll introduce you to those different parts that make up the whole of a golf course.

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Start With a Few Golf Course Basics

Golfers approach the 14th green at Marine Park Golf Course.

Michael Roberto / The Image Bank / Getty Images


An 18-hole golf course typically occupies around 100 to 250 acres of land (older courses tend to be more compact that newer courses). Courses of nine holes in length are also common, and 12-hole courses are being built, too.

A full-size, or "regulation" golf course, ranges from (typically) 5,000 to 7,500 yards in length, meaning that is the distance you cover as you play all the holes from tee to green.

The "par" for a golf course is the number of strokes an expert golfer is expected to need to complete play, typically 69 to 74, with par-70, par-71 and par-72 most common for 18-hole courses. Most of us aren't expert golfers, however, so "regular" golfers might need 90, 100, 110, 120 strokes or more to complete a golf course.

There are also "par-3 courses" and "executive courses," both of which are comprised of shorter holes that take less time (and strokes) to play.

The holes on a golf course are numbered 1 through 18, and that is the order in which they are played.

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The Golf Hole

An aerial view of three golf holes.
Several golf holes as seen from above.

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The term "hole" has two meanings in golf. One is the, well, hole in the ground on each putting green — the "cup" into which we are all trying to place our golf balls.

But "hole" also refers to the entirety of each tee-to-green unit of a golf course. As noted on the previous page, a full-size golf course contains 18 holes — 18 teeing grounds that lead, via each hole's fairway, to 18 putting greens.

A golf hole generally comes in three varieties:

  • Par-3: Up to 250 yards for men and 210 yards for women
  • Par-4: 251 to 470 yards for men and 211 to 400 yards for women
  • Par-5: 471 yards to 690 yards for men and 401 to 575 yards for women

Par-6 holes are sometimes encountered, too, but they are scarce.

The par for each hole is the number of strokes it is expected an expert golfer will need to complete play of that hole, which always includes two putts. So a par-3 hole is one short enough that the expert golfer is expected to hit the green with his or her tee shot and take two putts. (The yardages listed above are guidelines, not rules.)

A golf hole always begins at the teeing area (which is also called a tee box or teeing ground), and always ends at the putting green. In-between is the fairway, and outside these areas is the rough. Hazards — bunkers and bodies of water called penalty areas — might show up on any hole, too.

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The Teeing Area

Quail Hollow Teeing Ground
Two tee markers demarcate the teeing ground on this hole at Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina. Scott Halleran / Getty Images

Every hole on a golf course has a starting point. The teeing area is that starting point. The teeing area, as the name implies, is the one place on a golf course where you are allowed to "tee up" your ball — to place the golf ball on top of a tee, lifting it off the ground. Almost all golfers, and particularly beginners, find this advantageous.

The teeing area is denoted by a set of two tee markers. Typically, there are multiple tee markers, each set a different color, on each hole. The color corresponds to a line on the scorecard and signifies the length, or yardage, that you are playing. If you are playing the Blue tees, for example, there is a line marked "Blue" on the scorecard. You will play from the Blue tees that appear on each hole's teeing area, and mark your scores on the "Blue" line of the scorecard.

The teeing area is the space between the two tee markers, and extending two club-lengths back from the tee markers. You must tee the ball within that rectangle, never in front of our outside of the tee markers.

Teeing areas are also called tee boxes., and in the Rules of Golf prior to 2020 they were called "teeing rounds."

A typical golf course has three or more teeing areas per hole, but some have as many as six or seven on each hole. Once you've chosen the teeing area from which you are playing, you stick with those tees throughout the round.

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The Fairway

A golf course view showing the fairway.
This view from behind a teeing area shows the well-defined fairway running away from the tee box and toward to the green in the distance.

PBNJ Productions / Getty Images


Think of the fairway as the path from the starting point of the hole (the teeing area) to the end point of the hole (the hole on the putting green). It's the route you want to follow when playing each hole on a golf course, and it's the target you want your ball to hit as you play your first stroke on each par-4 or par-5 hole (on par-3 holes, which are short, your goal is to hit the green with your first stroke).

Fairways are the connections between teeing areas and putting greens. The grass in the fairway is mowed very short (but not as short as on the putting green), and fairways are often set off and easy to see because of the contrast between the height of grass in the fairway and the taller grass — called the rough — on either side of the fairway.

The fairway doesn't promise a perfect situation for your golf ball, but keeping your ball in the fairway as you play toward the green does vastly improve your odds of finding the best playing conditions.

As you stand on the teeing area of a par-4 or par-5 hole, your goal is to hit your ball onto the fairway, advancing the ball toward the green, avoiding the danger of the rough, and giving yourself the best chance of success on your next stroke.

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The Putting Green

Bethpage Black Hole 6
This putting green at the Bethpage Black course in New York is surrounded on different sides by bunkers and by rough. David Cannon / Getty Images

So far we've seen the teeing area and the fairway, the starting point and mid-point, respectively, of each golf hole. The putting green is the terminus of each hole. Every hole on the golf course ends at the putting green, and the object of the game is to get your golf ball into the hole that is on the putting green.

There are no standard sizes or shapes for greens; they vary widely in both regards. Most common, however, is a shape that is rounded or oblong. As for green size, the greens at Pebble Beach Golf Links, one of the game's most famous courses, are considered small at around 3,500 square feet each. Greens of around 5,000 to 6,000 square feet are fairly average.

Greens have the shortest grass on a golf course because they are designed for putting. You need short, smooth grass for putting; in fact, the official definition of "putting green" in the Rules of Golf is that area of a golf hole "that is specially prepared for putting."

Putting greens sometimes are level with the fairway, but often are raised slightly above the fairway. Their surface can include contours and undulations (which cause putts to "break," or veer off a straight line), and can pitch slightly from one side to another. Just because the green is specially prepared for putting doesn't mean you get a perfectly flat, easy putt.

You are allowed to pick up your golf ball once it is on the surface of the green, but you must place a ball marker behind the ball before lifting it. The play of a hole is over as soon as your ball drops into the cup where the flagstick is located.

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The Rough

Rough - Oakmont Country Club
Look closely at the right side of this image from Oakmont Country Club and you'll see two different "cuts" of rough. The lighter grass on the left is the fairway; immediately next to the fairway is the first cut, and far right is deeper rough. Photo by Christopher Hunt; used with permission

"Rough" refers to those areas outside the fairways and greens where the grass is generally taller or thicker or left unmanicured — or all three. The rough is a place you don't want to be because it is intended to make it tougher for you to hit a good shot when your ball is in it. After all, you are trying to hit the fairway and then hit the green. If you wind up in the rough, you get punished for that mistake by finding your ball in a disadvantageous spot.

The grass that makes up the rough can be any height, or in any condition (good or bad). Sometimes rough outside of fairways is mowed and maintained by greenskeepers; sometimes the areas of rough on a golf course are left natural and unkempt.

Areas of rough around putting greens are usually maintained by greenskeepers, cut at certain heights, but can be very thick and highly penal.

Many golf courses have roughs of different severity depending on how far off-target your shot is. If you miss the fairway or the green by just a couple feet, for example, the grass might only be slightly higher than the fairway or putting green grass. Miss by 25 feet, though, and the grass could be higher still.

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Bunkers - Old Course at St. Andrews Hole 14
The so-called "Hell Bunker" on the No. 14 hole at The Old Course at St. Andrews is one of the most famous bunkers in golf. David Cannon / Getty Images

Bunkers are areas on a golf course that have been hollowed out — sometimes naturally but usually by design — and filled in with sand or a similar material comprised of very fine particles.

Bunkers can be located anywhere on the golf course, whether next to or in fairways or adjacent to putting greens. They come in many different sizes, from under 100 square feet to some that are huge and might stretch all the way from the teeing area to the putting green. But more typical are bunkers from 250 to 1,000 square feet.

The shape of bunkers also varies widely, with no guidelines set forth in the rules and limited only by the designer's imagination. Perfect circles, oblongs, kidney-shaped, and much more adventurous designs are common.

The depth of bunkers also varies widely, from almost level with the fairway or green to 10 or 15 feet below the surface of the surrounding area. Deeper bunkers are more difficult to play from than shallower bunkers.

Bunkers, generally speaking, are more difficult to play out of, and that is especially true for beginners and higher-handicap golfers. So trying to avoid them is important.

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Bodies of Water On the Golf Course

Two golfers on a green that is next to a water hazard or penalty area.
Sometimes golfers have to play around or over a body of water on a golf course.

Jordan Siemens / Digital Vision / Getty Images


Basically, any water on the golf course that is something greater than a rain puddle or other temporary source (leaky pipes, watering systems, etc.) is a "penalty area": ponds, lakes, streams, creeks, rivers, ditches.

("Penalty area" is a relatively new term in golf, introduced in an update to the official rules in 2020. Prior to that, bodies of water on the golf course were known as "water hazards.")

Obviously, penalty areas are things you want to avoid on the golf course. Hitting into one usually means a lost ball, and always means a penalty stroke or strokes (unless you try to hit your ball out of the water, which is not a good idea). Sometimes golf course designers put a pond or creek in a position where the only option is to hit over it. And sometimes that water will run alongside the fairway or to the side of a green, where it still might pose a threat to a wayward shot.

As with putting greens and bunkers, the size and shape of water hazards vary greatly. Some are natural elements, such as streams. Many golf course ponds and lakes are manmade, however, and so are shaped as the golf course designer wants them. These manmade bodies of water are often more than just cosmetic, too, with many of them serving as catchments for rainwater, holding water for later irrigation use around the golf course.

And those — golf holes, teeing areas, fairways, putting greens, rough, bunkers and penalty areas (water) — are the major elements that make up a golf course.

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Other Golf Course Elements

Driving Range
The driving range is one of the other elements sometimes found at golf courses. A. Messerschmidt / Getty Images

Here are a few more things golfers encounter as we play our way around a golf course:

  • Driving range/practice areas: Many, but not all, golf courses have both a driving range and a practice putting green. Some also have a practice bunkers. Golfers can use these areas to warm up and practice before teeing off on the golf course.
  • Cart paths: Prepared, often paved, pathways for the use of motorized golf carts.
  • Out of bounds: "Out of bounds" areas are often outside the golf course itself; for example, on the other side of a fence marking the boundary of the course. But "out of bounds" areas are sometimes found within golf courses; they are areas from which you should not play. Hitting the ball out of bounds is a 1-stroke penalty and the shot must be replayed from the original location. Out-of-bounds areas are usually marked by white stakes or a white line on the ground. Also, check the scorecard for info.
  • Ground under repair: A part of the golf course that is temporarily unplayable due to repairs or maintenance issues. Typically, white lines are painted on the ground around a "GUR" to designate it, and you are allowed to remove your ball from the area.
  • Starter's shack: Also known as a "starter's hut." If a course has one, it's somewhere near the first teeing ground. And if a course has one, you should visit it before teeing off. The "starter" who occupies the starter's shack calls groups to the first tee when it is their turn to begin play.
  • Restrooms: Yes, many golf courses provide restrooms for golfers out on the course. But not all!