7 Golf Rules Every Player Should Know About

By Todd Mrowice

Golfer looking for ball out of bounds

As an amateur golfer it’s not your job to have read the USGA’s Rules of Golf from cover-to-cover. It is, however, important to have a good understanding of the Rules if you’re going to tee it up, even for a casual round. Whether you’re new to the game, or you've been playing your entire life, understanding some of the most important rules is important. Here are seven of golf’s most commonly questioned rules that every player should know.

1. Out of Bounds

The penalty for hitting out of bounds is stroke and distance, and you proceed by adding a penalty stroke and playing your next shot from the same spot as your last. This means if your tee shot sails out of bounds, you re-tee and play your third shot. A real round-crusher. The same logistics apply to hitting an approach shot out of bounds from the fairway or rough. Simply drop a ball as close as possible to where the shot was played, and add one penalty stroke penalty.

Provisional balls are encouraged if there is any doubt as to whether or not your ball came to rest out of bounds. To take a provisional, announce it to the group and play the shot. If the first ball is found in bounds, play that ball under no penalty. If the first ball is lost, play the provisional ball with a one-stroke penalty.

In 2019, the USGA implemented the option for an alternative to stroke-and-distance local rule to allow players to take a two-stroke penalty and play from two club-lengths into the fairway no nearer to the hole from where their ball was lost or out of bounds. However, it is important to remember that this is not an official Rule, and is only in effect at the discretion of the Committee. When utilizing this procedure, a player who hit their tee shot out of bounds will be playing their fourth shot from the fairway.

2. Unplayable Ball

The unplayable shot can happen from time to time. Common occurrences could include a golf ball that’s pressed against the base of a tree, stuck under a bush, or even on top of an ant hill!

You are the only player who can decide if the ball is unplayable, and you can take unplayable ball relief from anywhere except a penalty area. From there, you have a few options, all of which are better than risking a broken wrist or further injuring your scorecard. And yes, Shooter McGavin could have taken an unplayable ball instead of hitting it off of Mr. Larson’s foot.

Lateral Relief

For a one-stroke penalty, you can drop anywhere within two club-lengths of where the ball currently sits, no closer to the hole. This is arguably the least penal option as you don't lose any distance of your previous stroke, so you're only giving one penalty stroke away. However, your reference point is where the ball currently sits, not the nearest point of relief, meaning two club lengths might not be enough to find a playable area.

Back-on-the-Line-Relief

The player can draw an imaginary line from the hole through where the ball currently sits, and drop anywhere on the line no closer to the hole under penalty of one stroke.

Stroke-and-Distance

The player goes back to where they hit the previous shot and plays again while incurring a one-stroke penalty. Given that in addition to the one-stroke penalty the player will forfeit the distance of their last shot, this is more like a two-stroke penalty and should be considered a last resort.

3. Red Stakes vs. Yellow Stakes

The idea is to not come close to the red and yellow stakes on a golf course, but every player should know what they mean if they do find themselves in this situation after an errant shot.

If you hit into an area marked with red stakes or paint, this is a lateral penalty area, formerly a lateral hazard. You have the same three options that are available in the unplayable ball situation mentioned above, all of which come with a one-stroke penalty.

  • Play your shot again from where you previously hit, following the stroke-and-distance procedure.
  • Drop the ball no closer to the hole on a straight line from the hole through the path of the ball, using the back-on-the-line procedure.
  • Drop the ball no closer to the hole within two club-lengths from where the ball entered the penalty area, using the lateral relief procedure.

If your ball ends up in an area marked with yellow stakes or paint, this is a regular penalty area. You have two options, which both cost you a one-stroke penalty.

  • Use the stroke-and-distance procedure and play from where you previously hit.
  • Use the back-on-the-line procedure.

4. Cart Path Relief

It’s a rare occurrence when a cart path helps an errant golf shot. More often than not, the cart path hinders your chance of making a successful swing. If your golf ball has either come to rest on the cart path or the path impedes your process of making a swing, a simple solution exists.

Since the cart path is a man-made object, the player gets free relief with no penalty shot assessed. Drop the ball at the nearest point of relief, no closer to the hole.

5. Putting Rules

The putting green has a handful of rules that can sometimes be forgotten, especially if you find yourself lining up a shot at birdie. Here are a few rules to follow.

Putting Order

The player furthest from the hole putts first. The next furthest putts second, and so on.

Marking the Ball

A ball marker can be placed directly behind the golf ball prior to picking the ball up to be cleaned or aligned. The ball must be placed back to its original position prior to picking the ball marker up.

Ball Mark Repair

Repairing your ball mark on the green is common courtesy to other players and greenskeepers. A pitch mark may be fixed if it’s in the path between your ball and the hole, but cannot be fixed in a manner that improves your putt in any way.

Testing Greens

You cannot deliberately test green speeds or putting lines with “practice putts.”

Ball Movement

If your ball moves unintentionally on the green, perhaps from a gust of wind, put your ball back to its original position under no penalty. If your ball moves due to accidentally hitting it, that counts as a stroke and you must play the ball from the new location.

6. Ground Under Repair

All courses undergo maintenance, whether it be planned or dictated by uncooperative weather. Typically, ground under repair will be clearly roped off or marked. More often than not, courses do not want shots to be played from these areas.

A player that finds their ball in ground under repair, of GUR, can take free relief no closer to the hole within one club length of the area.

Bunkers under repair usually allow for the ball to be moved within the bunker, no closer to the hole. If an entire bunker is under repair, consult the course for local rules. This could be a free drop outside of the bunker or a one-stroke penalty.

7. Rules on the Tee Box

Just like on the putting green, there are specific rules on the tee box that can be forgotten. Here are a few to abide by.

Hitting Order

While the first tee order is determined by the group, starting on the second hole the group should tee off in the order of score from the previous hole. The player with the lowest score from the previous hole has the honors on the tee box and the highest-scoring players follow in order of score.

Tee Markers

Be sure to tee up your ball between or up to two club-lengths behind the tee markres. If you play a shot from in front of the markers, a two-stroke penalty is assessed. You may go up to two club-lengths behind the markers, but not beyond that without the same penalty. You are also not allowed to tee your ball outside of the tee markers.

Tee or Grass

You do not need to use a tee on the tee box. If a player prefers to play their shot off the deck, there is no penalty.

About the Author

Todd Mrowice is a Staff Writer for GolfLink. He has been writing about golf for over 10 years including a long tenure at GOLFChicago Magazine. Todd has covered all aspects of the game including travel, products, business, and professional tours.