Guide to the Rules of Golf

Golf is a versatile sport. Whether you’re looking for a leisurely pastime that’ll provide a personal challenge or want to join a club and play competitively, the game has enough to it to keep you trudging up and down fairways forever.

Here we take you through everything you could need to know about the sport.

The Basics of the Game

There’s a widespread misconception that the name ‘golf’ is an acronym standing for a ‘Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden’ – a reference to male only golf clubs. Happily, this rather sexist etymology is false. The name probably springs from the Scottish word ‘gouf’ (the game in its modern form originates from Scotland). It is refereed in a piece of Scottish legislation from 1457 banning the sport because it interfered with player’s archery practice! (It is a rather distracting game…).

The game itself is all about precision, with players needing the play the ball from the starting point (the ‘tee’) across the course to the hole in as few shots as possible. This is done using a variety of clubs, which we’ll look at in more detail down the article.

Golf is one of the few sports in the world where the playing ground does not need to confer with a set layout. Whereas in a sport such as basketball or tennis the court would always adhere to the same measurements, in golf no two holes are the same. That said, they do all share common features. Most courses will consist of the following;

  • A Fairway: This is a strip of well kept grass that runs from the tee to the green. Players attempt to stick to the fairway as they progress down the course, as it is the easiest surface to play off.
  • The Green: At the end of the fairway is the green. This consists of even shorter grass than the fairway, which allows players to play putting strokes. The hole is always found on the green.
  • Rough: This is the long grass on either side of the fairway. It’s much harder to play the ball out of the rough, making it important for players to avoid wayward shots. Often the rough gets deeper and more difficult to play from as you move out from the fairway. Some roughs have tress and wooded areas. As you can imagine, this makes it very difficult for a player to recover if a shot veers off into the wilderness.
  • Other Obstacles: Courses can feature a range of other obstacles, but the most common are bunkers and water features. Bunkers are sand pits and they can lie anywhere on the course aside from the green. Again, playing a decent stroke out of sand is very difficult, so they need to be avoided. Streams and lakes can also make up part of a course. Sometimes it will be possible for a player to try and take a shot from a water feature, but usually they will just have to face the consequences of a lost ball (more on which later).

In a full game of golf you will play each hole on the course, of which there are usually 18, though you can also play a shorter round of 9 holes.

Rules and Scoring

As mentioned before, the aim of the game is to get the ball from the tee to the hole in as few strokes as possible. How many strokes will constitute a good or bad effort will depend on the hole in question as they all vary. This is reflected in the way golf is scored.

Each hole has a ‘par’. This designates what would be considered the average number of strokes it should take to play the hole. If the course is a par 5 and manage to get the ball in the hole in 5 strokes, then you’ve ‘made par’. There are different names for the various other outcomes that may occur;

  • Condor: This means finishing a hole in 4 strokes less than par and is exceptionally rare. On the majority of courses you won’t find any holes harder than a par 5. This means that, usually, the only way to score a condor is to get a hole in one (which is itself something the many golfers never manage in their entire lives) on one of the longest and most difficult holes on the course – a note worthy achievement indeed.
  • Albatross: This is 3 under par and again is very rare as it can only be achieved on a hole that is par 4 or higher.
  • Eagle: At 2 strokes under par, this represents an excellent score.
  • Birdie: A single stroke under par. With the exception of competing pros, this is what most players aim for. Even if someone else in your party scores better, if you get a birdie you are at least beating the course, which most casual players would view as their main opponent.
  • Bogey: This where you play a stroke over par. As you may guess from the unflattering name, it’s not what anybody wants to do.
  • Double Bogey: This is two over par.
  • Triple Bogey: Three over par.

Overall, most courses are par 72 (the number of strokes you’d play to make par on each hole). Most commonly a course will consist of four par 3 holes, ten par 4 holes and four par 5 holes, though they are other variations.

Strokes can be added to your score in various circumstances. If you play the ball into an unplayable position, lose it or play it out of bounds, that counts as an extra stroke. You also gain an extra stroke for moving the ball from where it lies or if you play another players ball.

A more comprehensive list of penalties can be found from the USGA who work in association with the R+A in Scotland.

Players take their strokes one at a time, and after everyone has played a stroke, the order is determined by who is furthest from the hole. When deciding the order of tee shots, whoever scored best on the last hole will usually start.

Whilst the method of scoring each hole as described above is standard to all forms of golf, scoring the overall game can be done in a number of different ways;

    • Match Play: In this form of the game is played between two players or two teams. On each hole the player or team who played the fewer strokes win. If they use the same number of strokes the its a tie and the hole is said to be ‘halved’. Over the course of the 18 holes whoever wins the most holes takes the contest.
    • Stroke Play: This is the form of scoring used in professional competitions. In this form of the game, all your strokes count. Whoever had the lowest number of stokes over the whole contest wins. If there is a tie, then it goes to a play off. This might be sudden death, with victory going to the next player to get a score lower than the rest, or could take place over a set number of holes.
    • Bogey Play: This is sometimes used in less formal contests. Each player ‘wins’ a hole if they get a birdie or better, or ‘lose’ it if they get a bogey or worse. It is tied or ‘halved’ if they get parr. Whoever has the best record of wins over losses by the end is the winner.

All of these formats can be used if you’re playing as individuals or in teams. There are two ways of conducting team play. Either the team can use one ball and take strokes alternately, or each member can have their own ball and the lowest score counts for the team.


Etiquette is very important is golf and, much like other games such as cricket, much is made of upholding the spirit of the game, which has a strong focus on fairness. Indeed, the back cover of the official rule book is adorned with the legend:

“Play the ball as it lies, play the course as you find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair.”

With this in mind, it needs to be noted that, though they are not all codified as rules, there are many points of etiquette that players are expected to observe to ensure safe, fair, enjoyable play.

The PGA have a useful outline of golf etiquette on their site which you consult, but the main points to bear in mind are as follows:

  • Take Care of the Course: Repair divots you make in the fairway and or marks on the green that you make, and rake over the sand in any bunkers who may find yourself in after you’ve played your shot.
  • Respect Other Players: You are expected to stand still and well out the way when others are playing their shots. You should also be silent when a shot is being played. On the green take care not to step into the line of sight between anyone’s ball and the hole lest you make a divot of any kind.
  • Don’t Hold Things Up: You should walk briskly around the course, but never run. If you’re group is playing slower than a group behind you, allow them to ‘play through’ and overtake you. To avoid the need for this, think about what you are going to do between shots to ensure you don’t take longer than necessary, selecting a club and playing a stroke.


Golf requires various pieces of equipment, the most important being a set of clubs. There are a variety of different clubs which are selected according to the stroke a player intends to carry out. There are rule regarding the specifications of equipment, however, they will be little concern to those who are not involved in serious competition. Any equipment you're likely to buy will probably be acceptable for your local course.

  • Drivers: Drivers are the largest and most powerful of the clubs. They are used for the first shot on a hole where the objective is usually to cover the maximum distance possible. It’s generally the most expensive club of any set.
  • Woods: So named for the material from which they were originally made, modern woods are usually metal. They are used for long distance shots off the fairway. Usually, you would just have a 3 wood included in a set, they are manufactured from sizes 2-9. The lower number the bigger the club and the further its range. For instance, a 2 wood could be used to make a driver like shot from the fairway, whereas a 5 could be used for a long approach shot instead of an iron.
  • Hybrids: These combine the large flat faced heads of woods with the same shaft length as irons. They would be used in the same situation as a high numbered wood, or a low numbered iron (see below).
  • Irons: Whereas woods have larger, flatter heads, irons are smaller angled heads. There usually between 7-11 irons in a set. As with woods they are graded by number to indicate power, distance and loft. A 1 iron, or driving iron, hits furthest with lest loft (though these are rarely used as these low numbered ‘long’ irons are regarded as the hardest to use).

    Usually the lowest number used is a 5 iron. Irons 5-7 are known as mid irons and can be used to play through the fairway or for a longer approach shot (a shot from the fairway to the green). 8-9 are short irons. These have a shorter distance but higher loft. So, if you need to get up and down over and obstacle and on to the green, these are ideal.

  • Wedge: This is like a more extreme short iron, with short distance and high loft. They are good for approach shots, shots out of obstacles, such as sand or rough grass and lay up shots (where rather than going for distance you attempt to accurately place yourself in a better position for your next shot.)
  • Putters: These have an almost flat face and are used to roll the ball across the green and into the hole.

As well as a set of clubs golfers also need a bag and a trolley to carry them around the course. Professionals have a caddy who does this for them and also offers advice on shots, but mere mortals have to do the legwork themselves.

In this bag, you will keep your tees (this are small plastic stands that you put into the ground and strike your drive shots from) and your balls. It’s important to know what brand you are using and to mark your balls to avoid confusing them with another player’s.

Other optional pieces equipment include gloves for grips and specialist shoes. These resemble formal shoes in appearance and are most often white, brown and black in colour. They have spikes similar to those worn by track athletes to aid grip and help maintain the correct stance during a player’s swing. Usually the spikes are plastic, as many clubs have banned metal due to the damage they cause the courses.

The Handicap System

Serious golfers have what is known as a ‘handicap’. The handicap system is designed to allow golfers of differing abilities to play against each other on a more level basis, though some golfers use their handicap more as a way of measuring their own ability and tracking their progress.

A person’s handicap is designated by a number. This represents how many strokes they would be expected to finish above a golfer who plays without a handicap. Players without a handicap are often referred to as ‘scratch golfers’. A handicap of zero indicates a player is playing at a high level, though not necessarily on a par with professionals. (Though pros do not use handicaps, if they did most would have a handicap better than zero.)

Golf handicaps are calculated differently in different countries, but, in the UK, the system for calculating handicaps is delineated by the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU). If you do not have a handicap, you need to figure out your starting handicap. To this you need at least 3 scorecards from full games played over 18 holes. From these score cards you take your total number of strokes from each game. The CONGU system limits to a maximum of a double bogey. So on any hole where you took more strokes that would translate to a double bogey, you need to adjust that down.

Once you have the number of strokes for each game, you need to find the ‘Standard Scratch Score’ (SSS) that applies to the course. This is the course the number of strokes is deemed average for a scratch player in normal weather conditions. Subtract the ‘SSS’ from your own adjusted number of strokes to get your score for each course. Add up these and divide by three to get your handicap.

Once you have a starting handicap you will need to keep track of it. Deciding whether a handicap should change or not is a question of buffer zones and adjustment factors. These are determined by your current handicap as per the table below.

CategoriesHandicapBuffer Zone Adjustment Factor
1 5 or Less 0-1 Shot 0.1
2 6-12 0-2 Shots 0.2
3 13-20 0-3 0.3
4 21-28 0-4 0.4
5 28.5 or more 0-5 Shots 0.5

Once you finish a round, adjust your score so that any hole on which you scored worse than a double bogey is only counted as a double bogey. After this you need to apply your handicaps. This is a case of looking at which holes you are entitled to a shot. This is a matter of looking at the ‘Stroke Index’ (SI) of each of the holes played. On any hole with an SI equal to or lower than your handicap, you get an extra stroke. If the SI is 18 or more below your handicap you get to take two strokes from your score.

Once the handicap has been taken into account then you have your ‘net score’. Subtract the SSS for the course from this. How close to this figure is to your handicap will determine whether adjustment is needed. If you have a buffer zone of 0-2 shots then your net score will need to within 0-2 shots (either higher or lower) than your existing handicap for it to stay the same. If you manage to get a score below this it’s a sign that you’ve improved and your handicap will need to come down in order to reflect this. You work out your new handicap by multiplying the number of strokes you were below the buffer zone by the adjustment factor that applies to your category.

So, for example, if you’re in category 5 and your net score was 8 below your current handicap, then, because you were three strokes under the buffer zone. You now have the multiply three by the adjustment factor for your category (0.5). This gives you 1.5. Your new handicap is, therefore, 1.5 points lower.

If you finish with a net score that is above your current handicap plus the applicable buffer zone, then your handicap will have to go up. The good news is that raises in handicap are less extreme. Rather than multiplying the number of strokes by the adjustment factor, you simply add 0.1 to your handicap. Furthermore, you never need to increase your handicap if you’re in category 5.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot of maths involved in keeping on top of your handicap. Fortunately, there are various sites that have a calculator tool you can use.

Golf Trivia

Immerse yourself in the game even further with same fun golf trivia.

  • During the average game of 18 holes a golfer walks four miles.
  • The chances of scoring two holes in one in a single round are roughly one in 67 million.
  • Golf is the only sport to have ever been played on the moon.
  • Phil Mickelson is widely regarded as the best left handed player of all time, he is, however, naturally right handed. He learnt to play right handed by mimicking his father’s swing.
  • The 1957 Masters was won by Doug Paul. Not only did he predict that he would win, he also correctly foretold his score of 283.
  • Michael Phelps, the highly decorated Olympic swimmer also enjoys golf and has sunk one of the longest puts of all time, at 160 feet.
  • In Japan it is customary to celebrate your good luck by throwing a party if you score a hole in one. Some golfers actually have insurance to cover the cost of this.

Further Reading


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