Golf Etiquette Rules

Proper Golf Course Etiquette

Golf is known as the “Gentleman’s Game” (or gentlewoman’s game). And it has earned this title for many reasons, and we’ll address many of them to help explain exactly just how the written and maybe more so the unwritten rules have shaped the universal golf etiquette rules that we play the game by.

Did you know that golf is the only game in which you call your own penalties and fouls? It is up to the golfer to police their own round of golf. Golf is a game of honor, trust and integrity, and many life lessons can be learned from playing the game of golf because of the many opportunities to show your integrity whether you’re playing in a golf tournament, or just a simple round on the weekend with some friends. You’ll find that many of these pieces of golf etiquette will help shape you as a golfer, and as a person.

The rules of golf are strict, and there is a large emphasis put on the details. It’s truly a game of inches, and often times millimeters. It’s not too difficult to rack up penalty strokes if you’re not paying attention, or if you don’t know the rules. And it’s strictly up to you to know the rules. Once you sign the scorecard at the the end of your round, you’re putting your stamp of approval on that golf score saying you followed all of the rules. If you assume a rule, and write down a wrong score and sign your card, the only way you’ll figure out it was the wrong score is when you get a big DQ written on your card for disqualified. Heck, you can even put a higher score on your card and sign it, and still get disqualified because it is inaccurate.

There are golf rules officials to consult with to help you understand a rule, but it is completely up to you to seek them out and ask for a ruling. Golf is not like baseball or basketball where the umpire or referees call the balls and strikes or the fouls. There is nothing left up to discretion or opinion in golf. The rules are hard and fast, and there is no “gray area”. But what the rules also are is fair. Because we all have to play by them. If you choose not to play by the rules of golf, you’re cheating yourself…and chances are, you’re not that fun to play with. Because no one likes a cheater, in anything, especially golf.

There are two sets of rules in golf. The written rules set forth by the United States Golf Association (USGA), and you can get a golf rules book for pretty cheap from all sorts of outlets. Here is one outlet to get a Golf Rules Book if you’re interested. And then there are the unwritten rules of golf. These unwritten rules can be described as the proper golf etiquette rules. And this is what we’re going to explore on this page.
  • Honors on the tee
    • The golfer with the lowest score on the previous hole has earned honors, and it’s standard in the game of golf that they are the first to tee off on the next hole.
    • If there is a tie on the previous hole, the golf honors stay with the golfer who last had a hole in which he/she had the lowest score.
  • Not talking in people’s backswing
    • This is just common courtesy and has been part of the game since its inception.
  • Not stepping in lines on the green
    • The “putting line” is the area directly between a golfer’s ball and the golf cup on the green. And it is part of the golf etiquette not to step in this imaginary line out of courtesy to the other golfer.
    • Regardless of whether or not your footsteps will upset the grass on the green to potentially give the golfer a bad bounce on their putt or not, it is a well practiced piece of golf etiquette that you can either learn here now, or learn on the course when you offend someone by aimlessly walking in their line. This is a quick way to get on a golfer’s bad side, especially if you’ve just met them and joined their foursome. Stepping in someone’s line is unprofessional and amateur, and a really quick way to stamp “beginner” on your forehead.
Before we get any futher; if you’re a beginner golfer, don’t think that your poor golfing will offend the other players in your group. Many players that I’ve played with over the years think that that better golfers in their group are getting upset or impatient with their poor play…and there may come a time when this is true if it is way out of control, but I want you to understand something…and remember this:

“The quickest way to offend other golfers on the course is not the lack of your golfing ability, but it’s your lack of golf etiquette.”

If you’re trying your best, and still hacking the ball around the course, trust me, you’ll be a joy to play with just so long as you respect the game, and respect the other golfers you’re playing with by paying attention to the little things pertaining to the unwritten golf etiquette rules. The opposite is also true. If you’re a great golfer, but your golf etiquette falls short, no one will want to play with you, and/or those that do will leave thinking that you’re a jerk.
  • The person furthest from the hole goes first
    • It’s standard practice to allow the golfer that is furthest away from the hole to play their ball first. For the most part, this piece of golf etiquette is forced upon us because it’s unwise to walk in front of other players who are hitting their ball. You don’t have to learn this lesson more than once. A golf ball screaming at you at over 100mph is not enjoyable.
    • If it’s a toss up as to who is furthest away, then just decide between the two of you who will go first and communicate so you aren’t both hitting at the same time.
    • Some players don’t care if you hit at the same time as they do, but DON’T assume this is the case. Before a round, it’s wise to establish with your playing partners whether or not they want to play “ready golf”.
    • Ready golf is just a term that means, “if you’re ready, then play your shot”. Within reason, the players in the group agree to play their shots as soon as they’re ready and not necessarily by who is furthest from the hole. Usually “ready golf” is played when time is short and the group is in a hurry.
    • The worst three words in golf pertains to this piece of golf etiquette: “You’re still away.”
  • Help other playing partners look for lost balls
    • When someone has hit their ball in the rough, it’s good golf etiquette to at least offer to help them find their ball if they’re having a hard time finding it. Some golfers won’t care that much about a lost ball and won’t take the time to look for it, especially if it’s a really bad shot, but it’s always nice to ask them if they need help.
    • Don’t just go walk over to your ball and sit there waiting for them as they look for their ball by themselves. This is viewed as rude and poor golf etiquette. It gives the impression to the other golfer that you don’t care about their ball. Now it may be the case that you don’t care…thinking that is one thing, but outwardly showing that is another, and is a sign of poor golf etiquette.
  • Watch your shadow to keep it out of people’s lines or off of their ball while hitting
    • This is a subtle piece of golf etiquette, but it comes into play quite often when the sun is lower in the sky. This game has many distractions, and shadows moving in your swing while you’re trying to concentrate on the shot is very disturbing.
    • Controlling where you put your shadow is a piece of golf etiquette that shows you’re paying attention….or not paying attention. And you don’t want to be the golfer that has to be asked by your playing partners to move your shadow because it’s bothering them. You should be able to think quickly enough on the course to know that that would be bothersome to them.
    • I know that this bothers me. Heck, I don’t like putting through shadows of trees that are between me and the cup because it throws my depth perception off and foggies up the read of the putt when trying to determine the amount of break to play in the put. So speaking from experience, you’d be wise to watch where your shadow falls and move it accordingly, especially on the green, but also whenever anyone is hitting a golf shot.
  • First one to hole their putt on the green, replaces the flag
    • It’s good practice to grab the flag after you hole out your putt. If you’re the first to hole your putt, you’ll have plenty of time to grab the flag while the others in your group finish out their balls.
    • This helps to speed play, and it’s a common courtesy to the rest of your group.
    • Don’t forget to do this because it’s bad golf etiquette to make the last person to finish the hole also have to walk over and grab the flag. If this happens, and the course is busy and there are people waiting back in the fairway for the green to clear, this extra few seconds leaves a bad impression on your group to the group(s) behind you.
  • Leave your bag on the side of the green closest to the next tee
    • Just like the previous piece of golf etiquette, it’s a good idea to strategically plan ahead when you set your bag down by the green. This will help to speed play.
    • Before you put your bag down by the green, figure out where the next tee is, and use that as your guide as to what side of the green you set your golf bag down. Don’t worry about where your ball is as much, but instead, play efficiently and keep in mind that the group playing behind you won’t be waiting on the tee for you when you’re just getting to the green. But if it’s busy, they will be waiting for you on the tee when you hole your putt out.
    • If your golf bag is on the opposite side of the green from where the next tee is, the group behind you will notice that. And if this becomes a habit throughout the round, this frustration generally adds up. And you don’t want to be known as the slow golfers. Like I said before…it’s not the lack of golfing ability that other golfers will generally get frustrated with, but poor golf etiquette and slow play will certainly rub other golfers the wrong way.
    • This is one way that you can help speed up play and show that you’re paying attention to not only your own game, but the other golfers as well.
  • Repair your ball marks
    • This should be self-explanatory. If you hit your approach shots high enough in the air so that when they land on the green they make an indention, also known as a ball mark, repair it before leaving the green.
    • This not only helps putts roll smoother for people playing behind you, but it saves the actual greens as well. If ball marks or pitch marks are left unfixed for a day or two, they become brown spots on the green where no grass grows for awhile, and this is more golf etiquette for the greenskeepers than it is for fellow golfers.
    • Respect the course and the game, and clean up after yourself.
  • Replace your divots
    • This goes hand in hand with the previous comment. Like ball marks, divots should be replaced after your shots as well.
    • Some types of grass will stick together better than others, and this makes for replacing golf divots much easier when they’re all in one big chunk, as opposed to scattering a number of smaller chunks of grass and dirt. Within reason, try to repair your divots because grass grows back much quicker when you do.
    • If some divots aren’t replaced, it may take until the next year for grass to grow back. This is strongly determined by the climate in which you live.
    • If faced with a choice between slowing the group down behind you or replacing your divot. Always replace your divot, and make the group behind you wait. There is no justification for golfers to be upset by slowing play to replace a divot…that’s a legitimate part of the game.
  • Rake the bunkers when done hitting a sand shot
    • Hitting your shot in the bunker is bad enough, but having to deal with your ball landing in someone else’s unraked footprints, is inexcusable on the golf course.
    • Show some etiquette and common courtesy. Nobody likes to be in the sand, and the last thing you want to do after finally hitting your ball out of the sand is go back into the damn bunker and spend more time in it…but you have to.
    • Take your medicine, and show some golf etiquette to the groups playing behind you and leave no trace.
  • Hit a provisional ball if you even think you might not be able to find your first one
    • Most casual golfers don’t play the game of golf by the rules when it comes to out of bounds or lost balls. They don’t want to take the time to go back to the tee and hit another ball and make everyone wait. Although this is what the rules say to do.
    • Plan ahead, and even if there is any doubt about whether or not you’ll be able to find your ball, hit a second ball from the tee, known as a provisional ball, so if you can’t find your first ball, you can still play the game by the rules and not make the entire group wait for you to go back to the tee and hit again.
    • In tournament play, this is a must. Don’t be embarrassed to tee another ball up. Because let me tell you, it won’t be even a fraction of the embarrassement you’ll feel having to hike back to the tee after searching for five minutes for your first ball.
    • You’ll save yourself, and probably more importantly your playing partners, a good five or ten minutes by playing a provisional ball instead of having to walk all the way back to the tee.
  • Remind the person to put their ball marker back if you’ve asked them to move it
    • Often times in the game of golf, a golfer who’s ball has come to rest on the green will be directly between your ball and the hole. And because the player furthest from the hole always putts first, sometimes you’ll need to ask that golfer to move their ball marker (usually a round coin of some sort).
    • Because they were nice enough to move their marker for you, return the favor and remind them to move their marker back in case they forget before they hit their putt. If they don’t replace their ball, by the golf rule book, this would be a two stroke penalty on the golfer that you had asked to move their ball. You don’t need that hanging over your head, so some good golf etiquette and remind them to replace their ball correctly.
    • A great example of this is when Tiger Woods won his third US Amateur Championship in a row in 1996. On the final day when they play 36 holes of match play to determine the winner, Steve Scott, Tiger’s opponent, asked Tiger to move his ball one club head length before Scott hit his putt because it was directly in line between Scott’s ball and the hole. After Scott hit his putt, Tiger began to place his golf ball behind his coin to prepare for his putt, except one thing…his coin was in the wrong place. Scott spoke up, and reminded Tiger to move the marker back to it’s original place. Tiger proceeded to do so and hit his putt, and went on to win the US Amateur on the 38th hole in sudden death. If Scott wouldn’t have told Tiger to replace his coin before putting, Tiger would’ve incurred a two stroke penalty and definitely would’ve lost that hole to Scott…and as it turns out, that one hole would’ve been enough to give Scott the victory in the Championship in regulation. Put yourself in Steve Scott’s shoes for a second. Would’ve you reminded Tiger to replace his ball marker? Or would’ve you stayed silent and watched Tiger as he putted from the wrong place all the while knowing he was doing it…forcing him to lose the hole? This is the kind of etiquette and integrity the game of golf was founded upon. That action was truly gentlemanly, and a prime example of why this game is coined a “gentleman’s game.”
  • Always yell FORE if your ball will end up close to anyone
    • This is a common courtesy of grand proportions. It’s not embarrassing to have to yell FORE because you hit a bad shot. Swallow your pride and yell it loud.
    • Nothing is worse than being hit by a golf ball without having any warning it was even coming. Now place yourself in the person’s shoes who hit the golf ball…now how do you feel after not yelling FORE?
    • Other people’s safety should be your main concern. In fact, you’re liable for where your golf ball goes. So do everyone a favor, and do yourself a favor, and yell FORE if anyone is in danger. You would want the same done for you if the tables were turned.
  • Let faster groups play through if you’re the reason the round is slow
    • It’s common practice to allow faster groups to play though if you’re holding up play.
    • Many beginners have to do this because of the shear amount of strokes it takes them to complete a round….those swings add up and equal extra time. So faster, more experienced golfers will usually catch up to slower players. Show some good golf etitquette and let the faster groups play through…it’ll make them happy, and you’ll play better golf as well because you won’t worry about slowing other groups down.
    • Fact is, if you’re new to the game of golf, you’re probably already a little self-conscious of your golf swing and how you play…the last thing you want are people behind you the entire round breathing down your back adding extra pressure to each shot. So do yourself a favor and relieve some of that pressure instead of trying to rush your shots. Let the group play through…heck, you may have to let three or four groups play through…and that’s okay.
    • Also, if you’ve lost a ball and spending a lot of time looking for it….let the group behind you play through, it’s great etiquette. The group behind you will appreciate it instead of having to wait for you…and you’ll appreciate it because it gives you that much more time to find your ball, save you a couple strokes, and save you 3 or 4 bucks at the same time.
  • Don’t talk to other people’s golf ball
    • Let them tell the ball to get down, or bite or hook, etc. It’s patronizing, and plus, the ball will never listen to either of you. It might sound like you’re helping them, or show that you’re concerned for their shot, but really it’s insulting.
    • The old adage holds true here, “if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.”
  • Don’t pick up other balls on the course unless you’re absolutely sure that it doesn’t belong to anyone else who might be looking for it from another hole.
    • It stinks when you’re the golfer who hit a ball in the rough, and know that it should be there, but magically it has disappeared into the hands of a golfer playing a different hole going in opposite directions.
  • Always check your ball to be sure it’s yours before hitting a shot
    • It’s embarrassing for you if you hit another person’s ball, and it wastes time of your group at the same time.
    • Mark your ball uniquely so you know that it’s yours for sure. Just playing a Titleist 2 or a Nike 1 golf ball isn’t always different enough.
  • Don’t hit into people if they’re playing slow,
    • This is a very dangerous way of trying to get a point across. If you think you can reach a green while people are still putting, wait….when in doubt, wait. You’d just have a wait again on the next hole anyway, it won’t hurt to wait.
  • If you wear golf shoes, realize that you’re wearing them
    • Shuffling your feet on a golf green is not only bad for people’s putting lines, but it’s disrespectful to the course superintendent and grounds crew. If you don’t know how to walk with golf shoes on, then don’t wear them.
    • Walking with golf shoes on takes a little getting used to if you are normally shuffle or drag your feet. Doing this with golf shoes on a golf green is destructive and doesn’t show good golf etiquette.
  • Tap down spike marks AFTER you putt
    • There aren’t many “spike” marks on greens anymore since most courses don’t allow metal spikes, but when you see them, tap them down with your putter as a courtesy for the next group behind you.
  • If you’re playing out of an adjacent fairway, wait for all the players that are actually playing the hole that you’ve hit your ball onto to play before getting in their way and making them wait.
    • In this case, since you’ve hit an unconventional shot and are playing in a fairway that is not the intended fairway for the particular hole you’re on, it is proper golf etiquette to wait until the group that is actually playing that hole to hit their shots and clear out of your way before you hit.
    • You’re a guest on their hole, the honors belong to those actually playing the correct fairway.
  • Keep a close eye on your bad shots
    • Watch your bad shots land. It’s the worst when you’ve hit a bad shot and then turn away in disgust. You have no idea where your ball is…and because you haven’t watched the ball, you’re solely reliant on your playing partners to tell you where it is.
    • Your ball is your responsibility, and the time when you need to watch it the most is when it isn’t flying down the middle of the fairway. We’ve all been there, and it’s difficult to watch our ugly shots, but it’s these shots you need to pay the closest attention to. Pick out a land mark to reference to help you find it when you get closer. This makes it much easier.

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