A casual spectator’s not-so-simple guide to the rules of golf

Ed note: Originally published on Facebook 8/21/09

I spent a not inconsiderable amount of time drafting this guide to the rules of golf for my dear aunt, so I thought I would share. Please correct if I have missed anything.

There are basically six things that can happen to the ball when a golf shot is struck; two are good and four are bad:

1. it goes in the hole – one can remove it and proceed to next hole
2. it comes to rest somewhere within the property lines of the golf course where it can be found and hit again – one can hit it again but without moving it or anything else

3. it leaves the confines of the golf course – “out of bounds”
4. it goes into the water – “in a hazard”
5. it goes somewhere other than in the water where one can see it but can’t hit it (think in a tree, stuck in a bush or under a rock) – “unplayable lie”
6. it cannot be found – “lost ball”

If any of nos. 3-6 happen, one is almost categorically assessed a single penalty stroke and then hits a ball again from somewhere. The somewhere is the hard part, but you really don’t need to worry about that as a spectator. The player usually has several options whence to hit the ball again, and this is when you see guys with drivers out measuring club lengths, sticking tees in the ground and dropping balls from shoulder high, etc.

The important thing to understand is this: if the second shot is struck into the water (or any of the conditions listed 3-6), the next time the ball is struck will be the fourth shot. The way to keep track of this while playing/watching is to recite to oneself, “two in (the water/out of bounds/into the tree/etc.), drop three, hit four.”

Qualitatively, hitting out of bounds and losing the ball (nos. 3 and 6 above) are typically much worse than the other bad outcomes because one has to hit again from the spot where one hit the ill-fated shot. Pros do not often hit it out of bounds and even more rarely lose balls, so this won’t happen much when you are watching on TV. Amateurs do this all the time but often do not follow the rule, as discussed further below.

On the other hand, with water hazards and unplayable lies, one generally gets to drop the ball closer to where it ultimately came to rest. Thus, a penalty stroke is assessed, but you enjoy some or all of the benefit of the distance that the ill-fated shot travelled. There are rare exceptions where water ends up acting just like out of bounds for reasons of geometry, but there’s no use lingering over that.

Here’s an example: If a player hits his ball off the tee into the water flanking the left side of the fairway, he gets to hit the next shot (remember from above, his third shot) from roughly adjacent to the water a couple of hundred or more yards down the hole. If, on the other hand, he hits the same tee shot over the property line of the golf course flanking the right side of the fairway and into some poor fellow’s back yard, he must hit his third shot again from the tee.

As an aside, amateurs often play balls hit out of bounds and lost balls as if they had gone into a water hazard, charitably speaking because to march back to the tee and hit another ball would really screw things up for the unfortunate souls playing behind – but also because it is much more generous to the score.

There are two other broad categories of stuff in the rules of golf.

First are things that one can do on purpose or at least volitionally that are illegal (as opposed to things that can accidentally happen to the ball when one hits it). These sins are generally punishable by either a two stroke penalty or disqualification.

They don’t happen much with the pros but engender controversy when they do. They happen all the time with amateurs and no one pays them much mind under ordinary circumstances. These are things like grounding your club in a bunker (you can’t touch the sand with your club until you hit the ball) and marking/replacing your ball improperly on the green.

Not much to concern yourself with here, except out of curiosity. Whether and to what extent one observes these rules when playing is largely a matter of personal honor, and these are the sort of things that people usually mean when they accuse each other of “cheating.”

Second are bad things that can happen to your ball that the rules deem to be not your fault and thus require no penalty to correct. These can basically be viewed as exceptions to the rules of nos. 2, 5 and 6 above.

An example of this sort of thing is “casual water” – if your ball comes to rest in an area where the ground is saturated or there is standing water but there isn’t supposed to be, you get to drop somewhere nearby where there isn’t water and hit without penalty. Same thing applies if an animal runs off with your ball or if it comes to rest behind something called a non-movable manmade obstruction (e.g. sprinkler box).

This happens in one form or another all the time, and if you see guys picking up their ball and dropping it but they don’t look like their head is about to explode, that’s what’s going on.

In PGA Tour play this comes up often with respect to grandstands/bleachers/tents, which are non-movable manmade obstructions. If one jacks the ball into the stands, one gets to drop somewhere nearby and hit again without penalty – if one hits it into a standing gallery, one has to play it where it lies (but you do get to move gallery ropes/poles, which are movable manmade obstructions).

General premise to keep in mind is that the rules consider cart paths, lawn chairs, sprinkler heads, fetid pools and the like to be things one cannot reasonably be expected to just deal with and keep golfing, as opposed to trees, which are ones own problem.

One other thing: the pros have to wear pants, even when it is 105 degrees in Tulsa in August. Their caddies do not, since a guy nearly died a few years ago from heat stroke.

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