Rules of Golf

A Guide on How to Play Golf

Golf is one of the most popular participation sports in the world, and its history, largely still in the form we know it today, dates back nearly 500 years.

“Golf is a good walk spoiled” – so writer and author Mark Twain is alleged to have said.

He was clearly referring to the fact that, in the game of golf, players spend considerably more time walking around a course than they do in the central business of hitting a ball with a club as far as possible, towards the ultimate target to trying to get it into a small hole.

But it’s the very fact that there is so much time between shots in golf, which allows so much more social interaction between the players to take place between the players, completely legitimately, that is why golf holds such appeal for so many people. 

Well, there’s that, plus that fact that, in essence golf is such a simple game in terms of rules, yet so fiendishly hard to master…

The Aim of a Game of Golf

Using a set of clubs of different weights and specifications, each player is trying to hit a small ball from off a tee – a small peg with a cup shape at one end and a sharp prong at the other intended to be driven into the ground, and to give the golfer a firm platform on which to place the ball.

The tee is placed at a set starting point on each hole, and eventually each player tries to hit their ball into a hole, taking as few shots to do this as possible.

The ‘hole’ is a small physical hole in the ground, which on each hole is marked by a flag planted on its rim in the ground, to enable players to see it from a long distance. The word ‘hole’ is also used to describe each individual section of the course between the tee and the hole. 

A standard golf course consists of 18 holes, but you might also find some courses with half this number – they have usually been built in this way because of a lack of space for a full-sized course.

In any game of golf, the series of holes must be played in a specific order, usually dictated by the layout of the course. For this reason, the holes are usually numbered, 1 to 18 for ease of reference.

What Equipment do You Need to Play Golf?

This is the most tightly regulated aspect of the game, with the management of different courses, and organisers of various tournaments, often specifying the make, model and number of clubs which a player is allowed to use.

The clubs are the implements which a player uses to hit the ball. They can be made of a variety of materials, but there are strict rules governing the pattern of the grooves on the face of each club – the part of the club which strikes the ball.

The governing body of the sport, the Royal & Ancient, a golf club based in Kent, England, also has very strict criteria governing the size and weight of the balls themselves.

Balls: The rules of golf stipulate that a golf ball used for any tournament must weigh no more than 1.62 ounces (45.93 grams), have a diameter of not less than 1.68 inches (42.67 mm), and must also meet set criteria for its velocity and distance capabilities and its symmetry. 

Clubs: A golf player may carry a maximum of 14 different clubs in his bag. You can start a round with fewer clubs than this, and are permitted to add clubs to your bag during a round, provided that you always have 14 or fewer clubs in use. 

Each club will have different properties related to the size and composition of the head (the area at the bottom of the club shaft which is used to strike the ball). These clubs are categorised as follows:

Drivers: This is the only type of golf club which is not designed to be used to hit a golf ball from directly off the ground. In other words, they are the clubs which are used for hitting the ball directly off the tee, for the first shot on each hole.

The objective of what’s commonly called the tee shot is simple – to hit the ball as far and as straight as possible, and to avoid any natural or man-made obstacles on each hole. But this isn’t the only criterion governing a successful tee shot; alongside this, you also have to consider where you want the ball to land so that your subsequent shots give you the best possible chance of hitting the ball onto the green and, ideally, getting it as close to the hole as possible.
Woods: A wood is a type of golf club designed to be used to hit a golf ball from directly off the ground, in the process lifting the ball far enough off the turf so that it travels as far as possible in the intended direction and towards the hole. Of course, in hitting the ball, it is allowed to bounce off the ground and roll to a stand. In modern golf clubs, it is usually only the head which is actually made from wood. The rest of the club is usually made from a similar metal or composite to the rest of your clubs.
Putters: A putter is a type of golf club with a much narrower head than all other clubs, designed so that it gives you the best possible view of how you are hitting the ball in the most precise of all golf shots – those taken from on the green when you are aiming to get your ball directly into the hole. The heads on golf putters are also much lighter than on all other types of clubs, simply because a putter is designed to help you strike the ball as precisely, rather than as far, as possible.

Most golf clubs are available in different lengths, to suit players of different heights. The important factor which you need to take into account when choosing the right length clubs for your own needs is the distance from your wrist to the ground when you hit a golf ball from off the ground.

A bag: And, oh yes, once you’re kitted out with all the above, you’ll need something to carry them all around the course in. And like any other of the equipment already mentioned, you can spend as much as you like to find the right gear to help you keep all your clubs organised and move them about without too much physical strain.

How Long Does a Game of Golf Last?

This is one of the big factors in the appeal of golf – or even a down side, for anyone having a bad round or who tries to fit a round into a busy schedule! 

Because of the nature of the game, and the infinite variations found in course lengths and layouts, there is no set time limit to a single round of golf. Indeed, it’s a sport where steady and precise play is often rewarded by a lower score.

A single-round game will last for the amount of time taken to complete all 18 holes of a course. The major tournaments, however, are usually played over a total of four full rounds. In most circumstances, tournament organisers schedule their events so that players only need to complete one round per day. In exceptional circumstances – usually where weather has forced the loss of a day’s play – players have been asked to condense their four rounds into three days, but no tournament official ever really wants to make such a call, as it does involve players being on a course for very long periods of several hours at a time.

The Different Game Formats And Scoring Systems Used in Golf

Under the most commonly-used stroke play system, the number of shots a player takes to hit the ball into each hole is simply added together to get an overall score. While amateur players usually only complete one round at any time, a professional tournament, and certainly all the major events, is usually played over four rounds (weather permitting!). Each player then gets a score which is the aggregate of the number of shots taken to complete all 72 holes.

The players’ scores under this system are expressed as a number under or over ‘par’. Par is the number of shots which a good-standard golfer can be expected to take to complete any given hole.

Naturally, any player is aiming to complete each hole in the ‘par’ score, but there are often opportunities for them in the way a hole is laid out to hole the ball in fewer strokes than the par figure. In this instance, they are said to have achieved an ‘under par’ score. Common terms used for such scores are ‘birdie’ for a hole completed in one less than the par score, ‘eagle’ for a score of two less than par, and if you’re lucky enough to get your ball into the hole in three shot under par, you have achieved a rare ‘albatross’. And of course, the most famous – and rarest – shot in golf is the hole-in-one, if you manage to hit your ball straight off the tee and it goes straight into the hole with no other shots needed. 

Stroke play rules can also be applied to a game involving pairs of players, where the pair achieving the lowest score wins.

A slightly more complex scoring format is match play, which most people only usually encounter because it is the method used for the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup, the bi-annual tournaments competed for between teams from Europe and the United States.

Under this system, the actual number of shots needed to complete a hole is irrelevant – instead, players win by holing their ball in fewer shots than their opponent and earn a point for each time they achieve this. If the number of shots taken by each player is the same for the hole, it’s said to have been ‘halved’.

The overall winner is the player who wins the most holes – so, usually is the first one to win nine holes. This can be done, of course, in fewer than 18 holes. So, for example, if a player wins nine holes before the 15th hole of a course, their opponent cannot match their score. And because they will, at this stage, have been four shots ahead, with three holes to play, their winning score is expressed as ‘4 and 3’.

These two methods are the most common formats used, but others can sometimes be found, particularly in the amateur game.

What Happens if Scores Are Level at The End of a Round or Tournament?

We have already covered this scenario in match play – each player will have won nine holes, so the game is said to have been ‘halved’. And because other scores are likely to have been more decisive, this will still count towards the overall match score.

In a regular round between two amateur players, both usually agree to call it a draw. But in the professional game, because of the often large sums of money involved and the tournament sponsors having agreed to divide the prize money in a particular way, it’s a different matter.

Having two players who have taken the same number of shots around all 72 holes of one of the major tournaments isn’t particularly common, but it has been known. When it does, each of the players who have made the lowest score takes part in a play-off.

Usually, this involves them starting again at the first hole, and keeping playing until one of them finishes a hole in fewer shots than their opponent. 

More General Rules

Apart from the ways in which the winner of a game of golf can be decided, there are a number of other, more general guidelines in place governing players’ conduct while on a golf course.

Generally, these are intended to ensure that the game is played in a sportsmanlike manner and to eliminate any opportunities for cheating as far as possible.

They include:

  • The player taking the first shot off the tee is usually determined by the toss of a coin or other similar method.
  • After their tee shots, players take shots in turn, starting with the one furthest away from the tee. At each new hole, the player who took the fewest shots on the previous hole tees off first.
  • If a player loses their ball and can’t find it within five minutes or it goes into water, they take a one-shot penalty, and must re-take their next shot from the same place as the previous shot.
  • No advice must be sought from any other player, except on occasions when they are playing as a pair with someone else, or use a caddy – a person who carries their clubs and can advise on club selection for individual shots.
  • Balls must always be played as they lie, and a player must not break or bend anything obstructing them or their shot – except if it’s necessary for them to be able to adopt their stance as normally as possible, to improve the lie of the ball, the player’s line of sight, or the arc that they will cover by their swing.

Once you get seriously into the game of golf, you will also find that many clubs, especially the most exclusive ones, also have myriad other rules governing their members’ conduct – but very few of these have anything at all to do with how the game itself is played.

And of course, it’s common good manners to always try to leave all parts of a course in the same condition as it was before you played. That means that you should always replace any divots – clumps of grass and earth – which you dislodge by hitting them with your club during a shot.

As you can see, golf is outwardly a very simple sport – but under the surface, it is played in many formats, for which the amount of regulations vary. A general rule governing the amount of rules involved is the higher the stakes or prize money being played for, the more tightly the rules are enforced.