Back in 1744, the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers on the east coast of Scotland came up with the “13 Original Rules of Golf.” Original Rule No. 10 is our favorite: “If a ball be stopp’d by any person, horse, dog, or anything else, the ball so stopp’d must be played where it lyes.” Apparently, there was real concern that a horse out on the course may have “stopp’d” a golf shot, which probably isn’t good for either horse or golfer!
From those humble origins, a very sophisticated web of rules now governs the game of golf. The USGA is the national governing body of golf in the USA and Mexico, and as such, produces the 34 official “Rules of Golf” with over 200 sections and subsections amounting to over 20,000 words. Head spinning yet? Questions about the rules of golf can be complicated, but here are the 10 most important “Rules of Golf” (made simple) that every golfer simply must know:
1. Find It, Hit It! — Playing the Ball (USGA Rules 12, 13, 14, and 15)
Play the ball as you find it. This is the basic tenet of the long history of the game of golf. Hit it, find it and play the next shot from exactly where it lies. There are many nuanced exceptions to this rule, but when in doubt, just hit your ball as is. No fuss, no muss.
2. Don’t Move Anything Growing — Improving Lie (USGA Rule 13-2)
If any vegetation (grass, leaves, branches, etc.) is around your ball after finding it, don’t move, bend, break or press down anything growing or fixed out of the Earth or you’ll incur a penalty of two shots in stroke play or loss of hole in a match play format. You may slightly move vegetation while fairly assuming your stance or placing the club behind your ball, but that’s it.
3. “Natural” Moveable Objects May Be Lifted — Loose Impediments (USGA Rule 23)
You may lift moveable “natural objects” (rocks, pebbles, leaves, sticks, etc.) away from your ball with no penalty, provided you do not move your ball. Remember rule #2 above, you cannot move any natural object that is fixed or growing out of the Earth.
4. “Man-made” Moveable Objects — Movable Obstructions (USGA Rule 24-1)
“Man-made” moveable objects such as yardage markers, bunker rakes, your opponent’s empty beer cans and even car hubcaps (if you play in a rough area) may be moved with no penalty. You may take “relief” by dropping your ball away from the offending object within one club-length of the nearest point of relief, no nearer to the hole. In a bunker, you must take relief by dropping within the bunker, which may seem a bit harsh, but at least there is no penalty. Note: the exceptions to the Movable Objects rule are in a water hazard or if the “man-made” object defines a course “out of bounds” marker. In these two cases, play it as it lies.
5. Free Relief — (USGA Rule 25)
Knowing the rules of golf can be your friend. For example, you may take ‘free relief” from the “nearest point of relief” away from casual water, ground under repair, burrowing animal holes (watch out for what’s burrowing!) or other obstructions except in a water hazard. This rule even applies on the putting green. The thing to remember is that all “no penalty” drops should be “within one club-length” and “no nearer the hole” from where your original shot came to rest. Any club in your bag may be used to determine the “one-club length,” so while maybe you hit the driver wild off the tee, it’s your pal when dropping as it’s usually the longest club and provides more room to drop in.
6. Never Do This! — Ball in Hazard or Bunker (USGA Rule 13)
In a water hazard or bunker, never, never, never (ever!) touch the water or ground with your hand or club before the stroke. This infraction incurs a penalty of two shots in stroke play or loss of hole in a match play format. Did we say never enough times?
7. Avoid the “Walk of Shame” — Water Hazards (USGA Rule 26)
If you hit your ball into a water hazard and can’t find or play it, here are your options (all incurring a one-shot penalty):
- Take the “walk of shame” and go back to the place from where you played the bad shot and hit it again.
- You may also drop within two club-lengths of the point where the ball last crossed the hazard line and play from there. Additionally, you can go back as far as you want while keeping the point where the ball crossed the hazard and the flag in line with each other and play your next shot.
- A drop may additionally be taken within two club-lengths of a point equidistant from the hole on the opposite side of hazard.
8. Out of Bounds Hurts — Ball Lost or Out of Bounds; Provisional Ball (USGA Rule 27)
When you hit your ball out of bounds or cannot find it after five minutes of searching, add a penalty stroke, go back and drop a ball as close as possible to the place from where you originally played the shot. By the way, in golf, you can tell who your faithful friends are by how vigorously they help look for your lost ball. Remember to always take part in helping search for a lost ball, even if it’s not yours. The Golf Gods are watching and taking notes!
Hint to speed up play: If you think you have hit your ball out of bounds or in an area where it might not be found, play a “provisional ball” before searching for the first one, as this avoids the “walk of shame.” If you don’t find the original, play the provisional ball with one-stroke added to your score.
9. Unplayable Lies — Ball Unplayable (USGA Rule 28)
When you have an “unplayable lie” (like in the middle of a bush or against a tree) and you don’t think you’ll be able to hit it, you have a few options.
- Drop a ball at the place where you played the previous shot. If you hit that previous shot from the tee, you may tee the ball again.
- Drop within two club-lengths of where your shot came to rest no nearer the hole.
- Drop the ball any distance behind the unplayable spot, keeping that spot between you and the hole.
In all cases, taking an unplayable lie results in a one stroke penalty. One very important subtlety, if the unplayable lie is in a bunker, you must drop the golf ball within the bunker. And yes, you still must take the one stroke penalty.
10. Call the “Repair” Man — On the Putting Green (USGA Rules 16 and 17)
You may repair ball marks anywhere on the green, no need to miss your putt due to the lazy duffer who didn’t fix their ball mark. You also have the OK to repair the areas where “old holes” were plugged on the putting green that are on the line of your putt. The one thing you can’t repair is spike marks made from golf shoes. Your playing partners need to pick up their feet!