The rules of golf are internationally standardised and are jointly governed by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A), which was founded 1754 and the United States Golf Association (USGA). By agreement with the R&A, USGA jurisdiction on the enforcement and interpretation of the rules is limited to the United States and Mexico. The national golf associations of other countries use the rules laid down by the R&A and there is a formal procedure for referring any points of doubt to the R&A.

The Decisions on the Rules of Golf are based on formal case decisions by the R&A and USGA and are revised and updated every other year.

The underlying principle of the rules is fairness. As stated on the back cover of the official rule book: “play the ball as it lies”, “play the course as you find it”, and “if you cannot do either, do what is fair”. Some rules state that:

  • every player is entitled and obliged to play the ball from the position where it has come to rest after a stroke, unless a rule allows or demands otherwise (Rule 13-1)
  • a player must not accept assistance in making a stroke (Rule 14-2)
  • the condition of the ground or other parts of the course may not be altered to gain an advantage, except in some cases defined in the rules
  • a ball may only be replaced by another during play of a hole if it is destroyed (Rule 5-3), lost (Rule 27-1), or unplayable (Rule 28), or at some other time permitted by the Rules. The player may always substitute balls between the play of two holes.

There are strict regulations regarding the amateur status of golfers. Essentially, everybody who has ever received payment or compensation for giving instruction or played golf for money is not considered an amateur and may not participate in competitions limited solely to amateurs. However, amateur golfers may receive expenses which comply with strict guidelines and they may accept non-cash prizes within the limits established by the Rules of Amateur Status.

In addition to the officially printed rules, golfers also abide by a set of guidelines called Golf etiquette. Etiquette guidelines cover matters such as safety, fairness, easiness and pace of play, and a player’s obligation to contribute to the care of the course. Though there are no penalties for breach of etiquette rules, players generally follow the rules of golf etiquette in an effort to improve everyone’s playing experience.


  • Bunkers

A “bunker” is a hazard consisting of a prepared area from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand. If the ball is in a bunker, the player must play the ball as it lies within the bunker without incuring any penalty strokes. The player can not test the condition of the bunker, nor can the player touch the ground within the bunker with his or her hand or a club. The penalty for grounding is two strokes in stroke play, or loss of hole in match play. (Rule 13-4)

  • Water Hazards

A “water hazard” is any sea, lake, pond, river, creek, ditch or anything of a similar nature on the course. If the ball is in a water hazard, the player may play the ball as it lies or, under penalty of one stroke, play a ball from where he or she originally hit; or, under penalty of one stroke, drop a ball at any point along the ball’s flight path toward the hazard. (Rule 26-1)

  • Lateral Water Hazards

A “lateral water hazard” is a water hazard so situated that it is not possible or impracticle to drop a ball behind the hazard. If the ball is in a lateral water hazard, in addition to the options for a ball in a water hazard, the player may under penalty of one stroke, drop a ball within two club lengths of the point of entry into the hazard; or, under penalty of one stroke, drop a ball on the opposite side of the hazard no closer to the hole. (Rule 26-1)


Penalty strokes are incurred in certain situations, and can be added on for many different reasons. They are counted towards a player’s score as if they were an extra swing at the ball. Strokes are added for rules infractions, or for hitting one’s ball into an unplayable situation. A lost ball or a ball hit out of bounds result in a penalty of one stroke and distance.(Rule 27-1) A one stroke penalty is assessed if a players equipment causes the ball to move, or the removal of a loose impediment causes the ball to move.(Rule 18-2) If a golfer makes a stroke at the wrong ball(Rule 19-2), or hits a fellow golfer’s ball with a putt(Rule 19-5), the player incurs a two stroke penalty. Most rule infractions lead to stroke penalties, but also can lead to disqualification. Disqualification could be from cheating, signing for a lower score, or from rules infractions that lead to improper play.

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