Rules to Get You Going
The easiest way to understand the basic rules of golf is to play a hole. Don't try to memorize the rules and page numbers of the official United States Golf Association (USGA) Rules of Golf, just concentrate on getting from the tee to the hole. If you grew up playing football, basketball, soccer, baseball, or any other sport, think about how many rules you learned simply by playing the game—rules you would never realize you know unless you consult that sport's official handbook. So, let's tee it up and learn!
Teeing Off and Honors
Assume that you're being initiated to a round of golf by three friends who all play the game regularly. Everyone spreads out and swings a club to loosen up. Chances are, this round of golf is taking place on a weekend, meaning that another group of players will be teeing off a few minutes after your scheduled “tee time.”
If your foursome is going to go strictly by the rules, somebody will flip a coin or draw straws to see who goes first. However, this rarely happens. On the first tee, someone usually says, “Okay, who's up?” If this is your first time playing, it's generally best to refrain from volunteering to go first.
If you keep quiet, someone will tell you when to go. If there's a woman in the foursome, the guys will probably tee off first on the first hole, because the women's tees are closer to the green by a few to 50 yards, depending on the hole.
After the first hole, honors—being first to tee off—goes to the person with the lowest score on the previous hole. If two or more members of the foursome tie for honors, honors belongs to the one who had the lowest score on the hole completed prior to this last one.
It's often understood in friendly rounds of golf that everyone gets a mulligan. A mulligan is a second chance, or a “do over,” but it doesn't exist in the Rules of Golf, even though it's often the norm when playing with friends. Usually a mulligan is one extra shot from the tee, one time, if it's needed. Never assume that a new group you are playing with allows mulligans. Some more serious golfers, even serious bad golfers, don't consider them.
Stand on the opposite side of the ball from the person preparing to hit, and stand still. Never stand directly behind the ball and in line with the intended direction of the shot—it's illegal, even on the putting green.
Whiffs and Accidental Bumps
You've been to the driving range a few times to get ready for this first round of golf. The pressure mounts as you line up your first tee shot with eyes watching. You take a couple of practice swings, line up, and go for it. Whiff. The ball hasn't moved.
In a casual round of golf, probably no one will care, but it is supposed to count as a stroke. If you line up to hit the ball, make a swing, and miss, it's a stroke, unless you made an effort to stop your swing. On the other hand, if you set the driver behind the ball, and while lining up the shot, the club knocks the ball off the tee, it isn't a stroke. Why not? You weren't swinging, so tipping the ball off the tee doesn't count against you.
Out of Play
When you've actually made contact with the ball, the next thing to worry about is where it's going to land. It could land safely in the fairway, a fairway bunker, or in the rough. The ball could also land out of play—out-of-bounds or in a water hazard.
If you're a purist and a stickler for the rules, you know that a ball in the lake is not “out of play,” technically speaking. However, a ball landing in a water hazard is unplayable most of the time, and you'll likely decide it's out of play. Of course, you can also decide to give your partners a good laugh, put on concrete golf shoes, descend into the deep, and try to hit it out.
Out-of-bounds balls are absolutely out of play, no matter how easily you can see the ball. The out-of-bounds markers might hug the edge of a fairway, be hidden deep in the woods, or border the fences of homes, pools, and gardens of people who have built along the fairways of the course you play.
So what happens if you sent your ball for a bath or into someone's backyard? You have a choice. You can always play the next shot from “as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played,” meaning you can tee it up again if your ball went AWOL from the tee, or drop the ball near the spot on the course from which you launched that wayward shot.
Suppose your ball lands in a shallow creek. You could wade in and take a whack. But even the pros are usually better off taking a drop and the one-stroke penalty. However, if a tournament is on the line and a penalty stroke will take them out of contention, pros will roll up their trousers and take their chances.
Your other option is to walk toward the pond or the out-of-bounds markers along the line of flight taken by your ball, and take a drop along that line. This means you should hold out a ball at shoulder height and drop it to the ground along the line of flight, but never nearer to the hole than the line of flight. In the case of many water hazards, golf courses will often have a convenient drop zone. It's usually a good place from which to play the next shot.
You'll incur a penalty stroke for hitting a ball out-of-bounds, or determining that the ball in the water is unplayable. Assume, for example, the shot that went out-of-bounds was off the tee. Whether you hit from the tee a second time, or take a drop, your next shot will be your third, not your second.
First to Play Is the One Away
After the tee shot, the away ball—the ball farthest from the hole—is the ball that's hit first. If you're en route to your next shot and someone has stopped to prepare for a shot, be sure to stay way out of the way. Once that player has lined up the shot and addressed the ball, stop. Wait for that player to complete the shot and watch the ball's flight in case he or she needs help locating it, and then continue on toward your own ball.
Waving a Faster Group Through
If your ball goes into the woods, first tell your playing partners that you're hitting a provisional ball. If you can't find the ball in the woods, you've saved time; take your penalty stroke and play the provisional ball. If you find your first ball in bounds, you can play it and pick up the provisional ball without penalty.
If a ball from your group sails into the woods, it's always proper to help your playing partner to locate it. While you hunt for the errant shot, look back toward the tee (or on a long par five, look back to the fairway) to see if another group is waiting on you.
Let's say that when you approach the edge of the thicket, it becomes apparent that finding the ball is going to be work. Everyone plunges in to hunt, but in seconds, a member of your group motions to the pair of golfers standing on the first tee. Immediately, those two play their tee shots, then, after walking to their golf balls, they play their approach shots to the green. At about the time they're lining up putts, your foursome finds the lost ball.
Instead of following through with the intention of placing that ball on the green and into the cup, your playing companion in the woods waits on the pair of golfers, now putting, to hole out (get the ball in the hole) and to vacate the green. After all, it simply isn't proper to shoot for the green when the players in the match in front of you are putting.
On the Green
There are two reasons to mark your ball (meaning place a ball marker right behind your ball on line with the hole so you can pick up your ball): to clean your ball—which is allowed only on the green—and to prevent your ball from interfering with the putt of any player whose ball is further from the hole.
You can also clean your golf ball when “clean and replace” is designated at a rain-soaked local course. You may pick up your ball from the fairway (never the rough), clean, and replace it. If your ball sticks in its own pitch mark, pick it up, clean it, and drop it as closely as possible to the spot where it stuck, but never nearer the hole.
After everyone has missed those long first putts, the away rule changes, sort of. When your ball is just a couple of feet from the hole, you can hole out or put down a ball marker, pick up your ball, and wait until your ball is again farthest from the hole. Either way, always avoid stepping in the line a player's putt is apt to take when rolling toward the hole.
Finally, when everyone has holed out, the pin is replaced, and everyone leaves the green before the scorekeeper for your group writes down the scores.
Other Helpful Rules
Loose impediments. Twigs, leaves, and anything that can hinder the flight of your ball is an impediment, and loose impediments can be moved. If your ball moves when removing an impediment within one club length of the ball, you receive a one-stroke penalty.
Obstructions. Artificial objects, pavement, sprinkler heads, someone's club accidentally left behind, are obstructions. If it can be easily moved, move it. Or take a drop within one club length of the spot where the ball currently rests, but never nearer the hole.
Abnormal ground conditions. These are “casual” water (water where it isn't supposed to be), ground under repair, or holes dug by burrowing animals. (Dogs don't count as burrowing animals.) Same as obstructions: take a drop, no penalty.
Impediment beneath the ball on the green. In this case, you should mark and lift the ball, remove the debris, and replace the ball. There is no penalty.