Onus on everyone who plays golf to know the basic rules

‘They are not designed to catch them out; and they are not stupid, despite what Rory McIlroy might think’


The Rules of Golf – actually 34 in number with additional decisions and appendages– are, believe it or not, there to assist and protect players. They are not designed to catch them out; and they are not stupid, despite what Rory McIlroy might think.

Understanding the rules might seem like a chore or an inconvenience, when all anyone really wants to do is to get out onto the golf course and hit the ball time and time again. But, really, it is worth having a knowledge – however basic – of the fundamental rules which merely seek to bring equity to the sport.

There’s a quote from the Dali Lama, who probably didn’t have golf in mind, when he proposed: “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” Yet that remark, however ironic it may seem, is actually well-founded when it comes to the rules in golf. Indeed, you only have to look to the late, great Seve Ballesteros who, rather than breaking the rules, sought to use them to his advantage.

One famous case was British Open in 1979 at Royal Lytham and St Annes when Ballesteros hit his tee shot on the 16th hole of the final round into a temporary car park and his ball came to rest behind a parked car, which was deemed an immovable obstruction as the owner was not present. Seve got a free drop, pitched to 20 feet and rolled in the birdie putt that ultimately led him to victory.

For the vast majority of players who take up golf, the rule book is something to be flicked through. But it is worth noting the message at front of the Rules of Golf, where the R&A – who govern the sport – recommend that a player, “play the ball as it lies, play the course as you’d find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair. But to do what is fair, you need to know the Rules of Golf”.

In truth, it is unrealistic to expect most club players to know all the rules. However, if you are going to play, the onus is on you to at least take the time to learn the basic rules . . . to play by them.

A guide to the basic Rules of Golf

Check you have a maximum of 14 clubs in your bag . . . .

You must not start a round with more than 14 clubs (Rule 4-4), all of which must conform to the R&A’s manufacturing guidelines. Don’t worry, the clubs sold in golf shops all meet such standards. The maximum number of clubs in a player’s bag is 14, although if someone starts a round with fewer than that number then other clubs can be added during the round as long as the total number does not exceed 14.

The most famous incident of a player exceeding the number came in the 2001 British Open when Ian Woosnam started the final round with 15 clubs, and picked up a four stroke penalty for his lack of care and attention: anyone who begins play with more than 14 clubs is penalised two strokes fro each hole at which any breach occurred, with a maximum of four strokes per round.

Put an identification mark on your ball . . . .

It is recommended that you spend some time with a permanent marker doing some art work. Darren Clarke, for instance, uses a green sharpie to make a shamrock. Others use a sequence of dots. Many golfers play the same brand of ball and, if you can’t identify your ball, it is considered lost under Rules 12-2 and 27-1. In searching for a ball, players may touch or bend long grass or rushes etc but only to the extent necessary to find or identity the ball, provided this does not improve the ball’s lie, the area of the intended stance or the line of play.

Play your tee shot from the correct markers . . . .

Always check what tee markers are in play, be they be blue, white, black, green, red or whatever. Play your tee shot from between, and not in front of, the markers (Rule 11). You may play your tee shot from up to two club-lengths behind the front line of the tee markers.

Keep count! You don’t have to be a mathematical genius, but you need to keep an honest tally of the number of shots you take . . . .

At the start of a round, scorecards should be exchanged with other players in your group, be that a two-ball, a three-ball or a four-ball. After each hole, the marker should check the score with the competitor and record it (Rule 6-6). Also take note of your own score. On completion of the round, the marker must sight the scorecard and hand it to the competitor. After completion of the round, the competitor should check his/her score for each hole.

Don’t, whatever you do, ground your club in a hazard . . . . .

If you ball ploughs into a sand bunker or plunges into a water hazard, be careful: don’t touch the ground - or the water - with your hand or club before your downswing. A player is not allowed to place the club under the ball in a bunker to improve the position or the lie of the ball (Rule 13), nor can you press the ball into the ground behind the ball (say, in the rough) to get a better contact.

Know when it is your turn to play . . . .

The honour system in golf extends to more than simply playing by the rules. It is about knowing when it is your turn to play. The competitor with the lowest score at a hole takes the honour at the next teeing ground. The competitor with the second lowest score plays next and so on. If two or more competitors have the same score at a hole, they play from the next teeing ground in the same order as the previous teeing ground.

Yellow or red stakes . . . . what’s the difference?

Water hazards are to be found on the majority of courses, certainly parkland but also on links courses where drains and burns are part of the terrain. More often than not, yellow stakes will be used to mark the boundary of a lake or stream that runs directly between the tee and the green. You have the option of playing your ball from a water hazard but it is more common to avail of the penalty stroke options. For hazards determined by yellow stakes, take a one stroke penalty and drop a ball at any point behind where your original ball crossed the water hazard but on the same line of play (imagine a line extending back from the flagstick to the spot where the ball entered the hazard).

In the case of red stakes (lateral water hazards), you can a one-stroke penalty drop within two club lengths of the spot where the ball crossed the margin of the hazard - but no nearer the hole - or go to the opposite side of the hazard, using a stream running parallel, and take the drop at an equidistant spot.

Make sure to mark your ball correctly on the green . . .

It doesn’t matter whether you use a coin, a miraculous medal or a plain-and-simple ball marker, the onus is on the player to correctly mark the ball and to replace it in the exact spot. A ball on the putting green may be lifted and, if desired, cleaned. But always put back onto the same place. A player may repair an old plug hole or damage to the green caused by the impact of a ball but not any other damage, such as spike marks (Rule 16-1).

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