Golf rules and regulations: Know how to play

A 15th-century phenomenon from Scotland, golf boasts a rich history.

The sport made an appearance in the Summer Olympics in 1900 and 1904 but was dropped from the London 1908 Games. Golf, however, was reinstated in the Olympic program from Rio 2016.

In modern times, golf is one of the most popular and lucrative sport one can play professionally.

Golf is often considered a ‘niche’ sport. The high costs to stay engaged create a steep entry barrier, which has often seen golf described as a sport for the rich.

Another challenge of picking up golf is its complicated set of rules and regulations, which has often been a challenge for mass adoption of the sport.

Here’s a breakdown of the golf rulesto the unique and engaging sport for simplify laymen.

How to play golf and competition formats

In golf, a player uses a club to hit a ball into a hole. The main objective of golf is to take the fewest number of strokes to sink or putt the ball in the hole.

Stroke play format in golf

Generally, competitive golf matches are played across four rounds of 18 holes each. The player who completes the entire course using the fewest shots wins. This is called the stroke play scoring format and is most widely used in golf tournaments.

Often a cut is established after the first two rounds. Only the players who are above the cut mark on the leaderboard at that phase get to play the final two rounds while the remaining players drop out.

In stroke play, tied rankings are acceptable but if there’s a tie at the top of the leaderboard, a tie-breaker, called playoff, is played to determine a winner.

Extra holes are played in playoffs until a winner is determined.

match play

For certain special events like the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup, an alternative format called match-play scoring is used.

Under this format, players or teams face off against each other over 18 holes.

Taking lesser strokes than their opponent to putt the ball for any particular hole, earn players/teams one point for the hole. Neither score any points for a hole if they complete it in equal number of shots.

At the end of the match, the player or team with more points across the 18 holes wins the match.

In case of a tie, the match extends to extra holes to establish a winner.

golf course

In golf, the field of play is called a golf course. Each golf course consists of 18 holes, the first nine of which are called the front nine and the remaining the back nine.

There are certain golf courses with only nine holes. In that case, the entire course is repeated once to constitute a round of 18 holes.

View of a golf course.

Picture by Getty Images

The stretch for every hole is unique with its own topography. The majority of the stretch is covered with a lawn of grass and is called the rough. A certain area near the hole is earmarked as the green or fairway. The grass in this area is cut shorter than the rough and the surface is much smoother.

There may be trees, shrubs or even forests surrounding a golf course and they can be even inside the playing area, which is often marked by white stakes.

In addition, each hole has its unique set of hazards in the form of sand traps (small stretches of sand) and water bodies.

In short, no two holes in any golf course around the world are exactly the same. This makes golf different from every other sport, which generally utilises a standardized playing surface.

Golf rules

For each hole, players begin from the starting position called the tee and hit the ball towards the hole.

There are a variety of golf clubs which meet certain specifications available at a golfer’s disposal. Some of the commonly used golf clubs are irons, woods, drivers, wedges, chippers and putters, with each of them specifically designed for different sorts of shots and situations. There are several variations of each of these clubs.

Interestingly, a golfer can only pick a maximum of 14 clubs to have in his bag at the start of any round. Failure to do so invokes penalty strokes.

Players are allowed to add clubs to their kit as long as the limit is under 14. Changing clubs is only allowed after the end of each round.

Golfers don’t carry their bags around themselves during competitive events. They have helpers called caddies to do that for them.

Players also need to keep track of their ball at all times as hitting the wrong one can result in a two-stroke penalty

For their first stroke, players are allowed to elevate their ball slightly using a small peg, which is also called a tee.

The following shots, however, need to be played ‘as the ball lies’, which is often considered the golden rule of golf.

This, in turn, invokes another set of rules, if and when the player deems a shot unplayable. This can happen if the ball ends up out of bounds (playing area), in a bush, too close to a tree, between rocks or in a tricky situation on a sand bank.

Players are not allowed to alter their environment in any way, including breaking twigs, clearing debris or moving sand, to improve their chances of playing the ball out of the difficult situation.

In these scenarios, players can take a distance and one-stroke penalty to resume playing. If the ball is salvageable, players are allowed to pick up the ball, place it in a playable point directly in line with the hole and behind its current position, before resuming play.

If the ball cannot be salvaged, a fresh ball is used to resume play.

  • Interestingly, if the ball goes into a water hazard during a shot, a player, if it’s possible, can opt to play on without taking a penalty but in majority of cases it’s unfeasible and the player has to take a distance and stroke penalty before resuming play with a fresh ball.

If a ball is lost, the player is given three minutes to find their ball. If they can’t, a penalty is imposed.

Golf scoring: Pars, birdies and more

Though golf events, played in stroke play format, are decided by the number of shots taken to putt the ball in the holes across the rounds, they aren’t scored simply by counting the shots. There’s a system and some jargon viewers need to know to follow a game of golf.

For every hole in a course, there’s a par already pre-established. Pars can be defined as the number of shots an average player would take to complete that particular hole.

If the number is four, the hole is a par-four hole. Most golf courses have a mixture of par-three, par-four and par-five holes.

Players can go over or under in a hole. For instance, if they take one less shot to finish a hole than its par, their score for that particular hole is one-under par. Similarly, taking one shot more than the par means their score is one-over par.

On that note, here are some specific terminologies used to score in golf.

  • Birdie – a score of one-under-par for a hole
  • Eagle – a score of two-under-par for a hole
  • Double eagle/albatross – a score of three-under-par for a hole
  • Hole in one – If a golfer sinks the ball into the hole with one stroke (score is awarded according to the par)
  • Par – matching the par for a hole
  • Bogey – a score of one-over par for a hole
  • Double bogey – a score of two-over par for a hole
  • Triple bogey – a score of three-over par for a hole

Similarly, there’s quadruple bogey, quintuple bogey and so on.

The over and under system is also used to denote official scores for rounds and the entire event.

For example, if a golfer takes 14 more shots to complete a round than the total of pars for all 18 holes, their score is said to be 14-over par for the round. If they take 11 fewer shots to complete the entire event than the total of the pars of all the 72 holes in the four rounds, their score is 11-under for the event. The golfer with the best under-par score at the end of the stipulated number of rounds, ends as the winner.

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