Golf is a wonderful game, one that combines skill, camaraderie and decorum, all while enjoying the warmth and deep green beauty of the great outdoors. However, if you are a novice golfer, perhaps someone who is just now learning about the game and how to play golf, you may have some questions regarding certain aspects of the sport? If this accurately describes you, or you need a refresher, then the following article may prove very enlightening and useful to you. Here we will highlight and define almost everything you need to know about this great game, including the general rules of golf; the proper etiquette to follow while playing; the equipment you will need while out on the course, and the general purpose behind each piece of gear. We will also talk about golf scoring; the difference between match play and stroke play; and provide some helpful information about golf handicap—what it is and how to calculate it.
The Rules of Golf
How to Keep Score in Golf
If you have ever watched golf on television, you have no doubt heard the announcers use terms like birdie, bogey, par and eagle (even “albatross” if you are lucky). And while these terms may lead you to believe that golf has its own secret language, along with a scoring system that is intricate and complex, nothing could be further from the truth. Why do we say that? Because golf, as well as being a great game, is also an incredibly simple one, particularly when it comes to scoring.
Unlike most other major sports, where the highest score wins, in golf the aim is to achieve the lowest score possible. The object of golf is to get the ball from that initial teed-up position into the hole in the fewest number of strokes (hits) possible. From the moment you tee your ball up on the first hole, each time you hit the ball counts as a stroke. Then, when you roll your ball into the cup on that first hole, tally up all the strokes you used to achieve that goal—that is your score for hole number one. From there, you will simply repeat that process for the remaining 17 holes, writing down the number of strokes you used on each hole into the corresponding spot on your scorecard. For instance, if it took you 5 strokes to get the ball into the cup on the first hole, and 7 strokes to achieve that goal on the second hole, your score after two holes would be 12. At the end of the round, you merely add up the strokes you recorded for each of the 18 holes—that is your final score. Simple, right?
Scoring Relative to Par
Golf scores, either on a particular hole or the overall round, are often expressed relative to par or in relation to par. Par is the number of swings or strokes that an expert golfer is expected to require on a given hole or on the course as a whole.
If the “par” on hole number one is 5, and you score a 6, your score is now 1-over par. If your total number of strokes on the next hole is 3, and the “par” for that hole is listed as par-4, you are now at “even par.”
Like the individual holes, golf courses also have a “par.” For instance, if a golf course is listed as a Par-72, an expert golfer is expected to play the entire course in 72 strokes. If you play on a Par-72 golf course, and your cumulative number of strokes is 96, your score would be expressed as 24-over par, or +24.
Golf Lingo and Scoring
Going back to that secret language we talked about at the onset of this section, the game of golf has certain nicknames for a score that one achieves on a particular hole. Shooting 1-over par on a hole is called a bogey (two over is a double bogey, etc.), while shooting 1-under par is called a birdie. An eagle is a score of 2-under par, and the rare albatross is achieved when a golfer scores 3-under par on a hole. These names will become second nature the more you play.
How Many Clubs Are (Should Be) in a Golf Bag
Understanding the number of clubs you are permitted to carry in your bag is crucial, as having too many clubs in your bag could result in penalties during tournament play. The governing body of golf, the United States Golf Association (USGA), states that a player is allowed to carry no more than 14 clubs in the bag. Therefore, if you purchase a standard set of 12 golf clubs, with three woods (driver, 3-wood, and 5-wood), eight irons (3-9 iron and pitching wedge) and a putter, you are allowed to add 2 more clubs to the bag—no more.
The “tee areas” on a golf course, commonly known as the tee boxes, are where each player starts the various holes. The area is named after the golf aides of the same name (tee), which are used to elevate the ball slightly off the ground before striking it.
The boundaries on each tee box are delineated by tee markers, one to the left and one to the right. Golfers must tee-up their ball between and (at least slightly) behind these markers.
On most golf courses, there are usually several sets of tee markers, with each set painted a different color. Municipal courses, for example, typically have three sets of tee markers, colored blue, white and red. Here is what those colors indicate:
- Blue Tee Markers. Typically used in men’s tournaments and by male golfers with low handicaps, the blue tee markers are the furthest markers from the hole (on most municipal courses).
- White Tee Markers. The white tee markers denote where most mid to high-handicap male golfers will start the hole.
- Red Tee Markers. Red tee markers are where most women golfers will start from.
In country clubs and championship golf courses, there are also other colors that may be used in the tee boxes, such as black or gold (used for championship play by expert professional and amateur golfers), green (where junior players start from), and gold or yellow (for senior golfers).
Lost Golf Ball or Out of Bounds
Covered under rule 27-1 of the USGA rule book are the penalties that will be enforced should your ball be hit out of bounds or if you lose your ball and cannot find it within five minutes of the time you first hit it. Under part B and C of that rule, the rule book states the following for each situation:
- Ball out of bounds. “If a ball is out of bounds, the player must play a ball, under penalty of one stroke, as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.” In other words, you are penalized one stroke and you must hit the ball again—from the same place in which you initially started.
- Ball Lost and Not Found within Five Minutes. The same holds true for this rule, as the rule book clearly says: “If a ball is lost as a result of not being found or identified as his by the player within five minutes after the player’s side or his or their caddies have begun to search for it, the player must play a ball, under penalty of one stroke, as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.”
Touching the Ball
If the ball is on the putting green, you are allowed to pick up that golf ball after placing a marker directly behind it. However, from a general standpoint, this is the only instance in which touching the ball on the golf course is permitted.
As the old saying in golf goes, “you must play it where it lies,” and touching your golf ball while out on the course is simply not allowed (in most instances). For example, you cannot pick up your ball to clean it while it is on the fairway, and you cannot improve your lie by moving it even a little bit in any direction.
There are a few exceptions to this rule that you will learn as you go along, but the rule of thumb is this: except when your ball is on the putting green, you must not touch it or you will incur a one stroke penalty for that infraction.
Golf is a game of manners; a gentleman’s game—or at least it is supposed to be. Thus, when you hear the term golf etiquette it is referring to a certain way you are supposed to act when out on the course, even though these actions are not specifically required under the USGA rule book. Below we have covered just a few of the general rules of golf etiquette that have been followed for centuries.
Avoid Slow Play
Golf is a popular sport, with lots of players typically sharing the same course. Golf course employees usually try to space golfers out by giving them “tee-times”—a time at which the golfers in a particular group (usually a foursome) will tee off on the first hole. These tee-times are spaced out by roughly 10 minutes, but if you take too long on any one hole—such as looking for a lost ball for more than 5 minutes—you are not only delaying your own foursome, but the group behind you as well (and so on). Hence, try to keep it moving when out on the golf course so that everyone can enjoy the course equally.
Maintaining the Course
Taking care of the golf course as you play is just common courtesy. Doing so will ensure that the players behind you can enjoy the same great conditions you were afforded while playing that hole. To maintain the course as you play, you should do all of the following:
- Replace your divots on the fairway. When striking a ball from the fairway, you will undoubtedly take a chunk of sod with you. This should be replaced as best you can before moving on.
- Fix your divots on the green. When your ball lands on the green, it may leave an impression in the short-cut grass. Fortunately, there are very affordable tools you can purchase in any Pro Shop that will allow you to quickly fix these small divots and keep the green rolling smoothly.
- Rake the Sand Trap. If you are hitting a ball from a sand trap, make sure that you then rake that sand trap before moving on to your next shot.
- Keep Carts on the Cart Path. Fairways are not intended to withstand the weight of heavy golf carts—carts that can leave divots and cause the grass to be ripped out. Instead of driving to your next shot on the fairway, park the golf cart on the cement cart path as near as you can to your ball and then walk to it.
Yelling “Fore” is golf’s version of saying “heads up.” If you strike a ball on the course, and you fear that ball may hit or come close to another golfer, you should ALWAYS yell “Fore” while the ball is in the air, giving golfers up ahead of you the chance to take cover. Chances are your ball will not hit another golfer (although it has happened), but if your ball comes close to another golfer, and you fail to yell “Fore,” you are bound to stir up some much-deserved anger in the golfers ahead of you.
There are a few golf etiquette rules to follow when putting on the green with other golfers. Here is a quick breakdown of those rules:
- Farthest away hits first. The player who is furthest away from the hole when on the green is the first to putt. Should the ball not go in, that golfer should (usually) then mark his ball and wait for his next turn.
- Avoid other golfer’s lines. You should NEVER step in another player’s “line.” The line is defined as the path between that golfer’s ball and the hole. Shoe or spike imprints on that line could potentially alter the path of that golfer’s putt, causing him to miss.
- Quiet. This applies throughout the course, but especially on the green. When another player is putting, you should refrain from talking or making any other noises that could distract the golfer.
- Hats Off, Shake Hands. On the final green of the course, and after each player has completed their final putt, all players should remove their hats/caps before shaking hands.
If you are going to play golf, you are going to need a few key pieces of equipment at minimum, including golf clubs; a golf bag (of some type) in which to carry those clubs; golf shoes; and, of course, golf balls. Let’s take a closer look at each of these items:
There are many different types of golf clubs, each with a specialized purpose or purposes. These clubs, which will help you successfully navigate the golf course, include the driver, fairway woods, irons, wedges, hybrid clubs, and a putter.
Usually the longest club in your bag with the largest club head, the driver can be made from a variety of materials (graphite, fiberglass, wood). Today’s drivers are very sturdy and durable, yet also very lightweight. They are used by golfers typically at the onset of each longer-yardage hole—holes that play to a par-4 or par-5 ranking—to hit the ball off the tee, but they can also be used on the fairway. Drivers have a loft angle that can range from 4 degrees to 20 degrees, although the average driver loft is between 9 and 15 degrees. A qualified salesperson can help determine which loft is most suited to you based on your swing mechanics and the club head speed you generate.
As the name suggests, fairway woods are “driver shaped” clubs that are generally used on the fairway to advance the ball towards the hole. Some golfers may also use these clubs on the tee box if the yardage justifies it. Fairway woods come in many different sizes (3-wood, 5-wood, 7-wood, 9-wood, etc.). As a beginner, we recommend you keep a minimum of two fairway woods in your bag—the 3-wood and 5-wood—in addition to a driver. A 3-wood has a loft angle that ranges from 12-17 degrees; while a 5-wood has a loft of 20-23 degrees in most cases. Generally speaking, golf balls hit with fairway woods travel longer than they do with irons, but have less distance than the driver.
While the irons in a standard golf set may all look the same, each has a different loft angle. As a beginner, we recommend you carry 7 of these irons in your bag—the 3-iron through the 9-iron. Higher numbered irons, like the 3-iron, 4-iron, and 5-iron, will enable you to hit the ball with more distance than you would the lower irons, because the loft angle on these clubs is lower. Here is a look at each of these clubs with the corresponding average loft angle: 3-iron—15 degrees; 4-iron—20 degrees; 5-iron—25 degrees; 6-iron—30 degrees; 7-iron—35 degrees, 8-iron—40 degrees and 9-iron—45 degrees.
There are many different types of wedges, with the two most common types being the pitching wedge and sand wedge. The pitching wedge is a very versatile club, one that can be used for short approach shots, chipping around the green and pitching out of troubled areas to improve your lie. These wedges typically have a loft angle between 45 and 54 degrees. The sand wedge, which can also be used for the same purposes as a pitching wedge, is primarily designed to hit balls out of greenside sand traps. These clubs have an open face design, a loft angle of about 56 degrees, and a wider sole than other clubs, which allows them to cut through the sand more easily. Other types of wedges include the gap wedge—wedges with a loft angle of 50-54 degrees that help fill the “gap” between the pitching wedge and the sand wedge; and the lob wedge—the steepest of the wedges with a loft angle of about 60 degrees or more.
As their name suggests, hybrid clubs are utility clubs that are essentially a cross between a fairway wood and a long iron, sharing similarities with each type of club. Many golfers have gone to hybrid style clubs for their ability to launch the ball into the air like an iron, while also having the ability to cover the long distance of a fairway wood.
Putters are used on the green (and sometimes just off the putting surface) to roll the ball into the hole. Appropriately nicknamed the “flat stick,” a putter has no loft whatsoever. These clubs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. We recommend you try out several of these styles before making a final decision on the putter for your bag.
Golf bags are essential for toting your clubs, golf balls and any other equipment you will need on the course. And as with golf clubs, there are many different types of golf bags from which to choose. Once you decide on the type of golfing you plan to do (walking, riding in a cart, etc.), you can then decide on a bag that best suits your purposes. Here is a quick look at four different types of golf bags:
The “Cadillac” of all golf bags is the staff bag. Staff bags are the types of bags used by professionals on the tour. They usually sport a very prominent logo, are very roomy and spacious, and certainly deluxe. However, staff bags also tend to be very heavy and cumbersome. This is probably why those professionals pay for someone else (caddie) to carry the bag for them.
Cart bags, as you might guess from the title, are bags designed to be carried on a golf riding cart or golf push cart. Usually weighing about 6-7 pounds, they are much lighter than your average staff bag, while still boasting more than enough capacity for your clubs and gear. Cart bags are designed in such a way that they give golfers quick and easy access to all the bag’s pockets and compartments while it is strapped to the back of a cart.
Stand bags are unique in that they have two retractable legs. These legs enable the bag to stand completely on its own, either upright or slightly tilted, in which its two legs extend out further to stabilize the bag while providing easy access to any club. When the bag is lifted, the legs retract and lay snug against the bag for easy carrying. A favorite among golfers who prefer to walk the course, stand bags are very easy on a golfer’s back—golfers who would otherwise have to lay the bag down each time he/she took a shot.
Carry bags are like stand bags without the extra hardware. Nicknamed “Sunday Bags,” these types of bags are designed to be carried on the course. They have the advantage of being the lightest bags in the industry, weighing just 2-3 pounds when empty, and they are also the most affordable golf bags on the market, making them perfect for beginners.
There are two main types of golf shoes available for wear on the course: spiked golf shoes and spikeless golf shoes.
Spiked Golf Shoes
Spiked Golf Shoes are those that feature actual cleats on the outsole (bottom) of the shoe. Once made of metal, today these cleats are mostly made of soft plastic to avoid damage to greens and fairways. Spiked golf shoes usually offer a bit more lateral stability overall than do the spikeless styles of shoes, especially on hilly courses and in wet conditions.
Spikeless Golf Shoes
Spikeless Golf Shoes are those that feature a flat outsole (bottom) with rubber studs or dimples in place of spikes. Causing no marks or holes in the green, spikeless golf shoes are usually a bit more comfortable than their spiked counterparts, but you may sacrifice some stability in the conditions mentioned above.
Golf balls are not all the same—at least not anymore. To help you become more familiar with these little marvels, below we will talk a little about a golf ball’s construction, compression and spin.
Golf balls can be constructed with just a single piece of material or many layers of materials that overlap to offer added distance, spin and control for golfers.
- One-piece golf balls are typically made from a solid piece of Surlyn with dimples molded into the ball. Today, these inexpensive balls are generally used by beginners and at driving ranges only.
- Two-piece golf balls are the hardest balls on the market and thus cover the most distance. In these balls, the solid inner core is made of high-energy acrylate or resin and is covered by a tough, split-proof outer covering.
- Three-piece balls have either a rubber or liquid core, followed by a layer of enhanced rubber and finally a molded cover of durable Surlyn or Urethane. Softer than the two-piece ball, these balls offer more spin and control.
- Four-piece and five-piece golf balls have several layers, each with a different purpose (distance, spin, control, etc.). These are the most expensive golf balls on the market
When you hear the word compression with regard to golf balls they are talking about the deflection a ball experiences when it is struck by the golf club. Compression is measured using numbers between 0 and 200, with 0 being a ball that compresses 5 mm or 1/5 of an inch; and 200 being a ball that does not compress at all. When shopping for golf balls, just remember that lower compression balls tend to be softer and compress more to create more distance. Higher compression balls offer more control and are used by more experienced players who can produce faster swing speeds to compress the ball.
In addition to their compression, golf balls are also rated for their spin. Low-spin golf balls enable the ball to fly straight, and while they may lack some distance through the air, you can expect more roll after they land on the fairway.
Mid-spin golf balls try to incorporate elements of both low-spin and high-spin technology to offer a mix of distance and control; while high-spin golf balls tend to travel farther in the air but may lack roll upon landing. High-spin golf balls also offer experienced golfers much more control around the green.
One of the very attractive aspects of the game of golf—one not seen in other major sports—is its ability to create even and fair matches between golfers of different ability levels. This is made possible through the process or system known as “golf handicap.” Officially termed the Handicap Index by the United States Golf Association, golf handicap is a system that can level the playing field for golfers of different skill levels, thus eliminating the one-sided “blowouts” that often occur in other sports.
What Is Golf Handicap
Generally speaking, a golf handicap is a number, based on earlier rounds of golf played, that indicates how many shots over par a golfer is expected to shoot. For instance, if a golfer is playing a par-72 golf course, and has a handicap of 20, he/she is expected to take roughly 20 more strokes (92) than the indicated par.
In a competition, if that same player (with a 20-handicap) actually shoots a 91 (19 strokes over par) on that par-72 golf course, he would then subtract 20 strokes (the handicap) from that score, giving him an adjusted score of 71—or 1-under par for the round.
To understand how the handicap system levels the playing field, let’s assume that our 20-handicap golfer was playing against a player with a 7-handicap. While our 20-handicap golfer was shooting a 91 for an adjusted score of 71 after adding in the handicap; our 7-handicap golfer actually takes 79 strokes to complete the course, giving him an adjusted score of 72—or even par. As you can see, even though our 7-handicap golfer took far fewer strokes to complete the golf course, he still lost by a stroke to the other golfer when both scores were adjusted for handicap.
How to Calculate Golf Handicap
As a beginner, the best way to calculate your golf handicap is to join the USGA and get an official USGA Handicap Index. In doing so, you will not have to worry about calculating your golf index, as this (fairly difficult) calculation will be done for you by other people (or most likely, by a computer) .
To get started in establishing your golf handicap index, you will need to play at least 5 and up to 20 rounds of golf, and save the scorecards for each round indicating the actual number of strokes you took in each of those rounds.
At most golf courses, there is a computer located in or around the pro shop where you can enter the score you achieved at that course and follow the prompts given to you by the computer. Continue to follow these steps at each course at which you play and soon you will have established a recognized golf handicap—one you can use as a benchmark for continued improvement.
Golf Formats: Stroke Play vs. Match Play
As you become more experienced in the game of golf, you may have occasion to play in tournaments and competitions. These events are usually based around one of two types of golf formats: stroke play and match play. Below we will describe each of these formats in more detail.
A stroke play tournament or competition is the format with which most golf fans and new golfers are most familiar. If you remember the section “How to Score Golf,” you already understand the concept of stroke play.
The most basic form of golf, stroke play is the format in which the golfer with the lowest score after the competition wins the prize. In stroke play, each golfer keeps a record of how many strokes he/she took on each hole. When all 18 holes have been played by all the golfers on the course, each participant adds up the total strokes they took during that round and compares that number against that achieved by the other golfers in the competition. The golfer with the lowest cumulative score is the 1st place winner, the golfer with the second-lowest number of strokes places 2nd, and so on.
In some tournaments, such as those played by golfers on professional tours, multiple rounds will be played. However, this does not change the scoring format. The golfer with the lowest score after the 2, 3 or four rounds of golf is declared the winner.
Should two golfers tie for first place in a tournament, there is typically some type of playoff format to determine the ultimate winner. In some of these playoffs, golfers will merely play individual holes until one golfer scores lower on that hole than the other golfer. For instance, golfers may first play the 18th hole—if one golfer shoots 1-under par (birdie) and the other shoots even par, the golfer who shot the birdie is deemed the champion. If they tie on that hole, they would play another hole (and so on) until one golfer is victorious.
Another type of playoff, although rarely used, involves the playing of an entire round of golf (18 holes), with the golfer shooting the lowest score declared the winner.
Much as the name implies, match play golf “matches” two opponents against each other. In these types of tournaments, golfers are matched up against one another in a tournament bracket format, and they must face off round by round against each other until there is only one champion remaining. Whereas most major tournaments on professional tours utilize stroke play, which are won by shooting lower scores than the rest of the field, the individual rounds in match play are won by shooting lower than your particular opponent.
The rules for match play golf are fairly simple: Get a better score than your opponent on a particular hole, and you win a point for that hole. If you both have the same score on a hole, no points are awarded to either golfer. At the end of the round, the golfer with the most points wins and advances in the tournament. One of the main advantages of a match play tournament is it can move along faster than stroke play due to the flexibility in the rules.
One of these flexible rules is the notion of conceding. If your opponent is closer than you are and is within feet of the hole—a distance at which he will almost certainly sink the putt—you can concede him the shot without it having to be taken. In the same way, your opponent can concede the hole and the point to you if he or she feels the hole cannot be won. If at any time one golfer is ahead by more points than there are holes remaining, the match is over. For instance, if one golfer is 7 points ahead of his opponent, and there are only six holes left to play, there is no reason to continue any further.
Match play is unique in that it forces players to compete to win individual holes, as the golfer with the most holes won is the winner of the match. This means your strategy can be more aggressive for each hole. For example, instead of using a stroke to get your ball into a more favorable position for the next shot, golfers often take more risks in order to defeat their opponent and win the hole.
As you can see there is many details to the game of golf. However, we tried to condense it down into one simple guide, so you can spend less time reading and more time playing. Now that you have the foundation, it’s time for you to go out on the course and enjoy this beautiful game.
- The Rules of Golf
- Golf Equipment
- Golf Handicap
- Golf Formats: Stroke Play vs. Match Play