The difference between a leisurely round of golf and tournament play is stark; at times, it feels like it’s an entirely different game. The pins aren’t accessible. Those tee boxes that seem miles back? That’s where you’ll be teeing off from. Instead of jokes and breezy conversation, the mood is tense. Oh, and a tap-in putt seems a hell of a lot farther than two feet.
And then there are the golf rules.
Most players abide by a reasonable — some would say liberal — interpretation of golf’s laws. Every hazard is treated as a lateral, rocks are thrown out of bunkers, and gimme putts. SO many gimme putts. In short, a “winter golf rules” approach for the entire year.
Unfortunately, those rebellious ways don’t fly in competition. The USGA rule book is the law for tournament play; it is absolute, without discussion. If it’s your first time entering in an event, from as comfortable as a club championship to U.S. Open qualifying, you need to be well-versed on golf’s legislation. And because there are so many golf rules, one could feel overwhelmed. Fear not:
Here are the 17 rules you definitely need to know when playing in a tournament:
Count your clubs
Oh come on. No one would ever have more than 14 sticks in the bag, right?
Avoid the two-stroke penalty by double-checking your bag before teeing off.
Ball falls off tee
There’s a shocking amount of players that aren’t 100 percent sure what to do when this happens. Simple: You get to re-tee without penalty. (Exception: You’ve already whiffed on the first shot. If the ball then falls off, you have to play it as it lies.)
On the bright side, since things are a tad more serious in tournament play, you won’t have the jamoke who chirps “One!” when your ball falls off the tee. I hate that guy.
On the weekend, you may ask your friend what iron they just hit, or, while on the green, point to a spot and say, “I think this is the line.” While such behavior is standard in a normal round, it’s deemed illegal in competitive play. The penalty is two strokes. (Exception: In a team match, you and your partner, as well as respective caddies, can discuss strategy.)
The difference between water and lateral hazards
A water hazard is marked in yellow, lateral in red. If you aren’t going to attempt to play from the hazard — and unless you have a clean shot, we advise you don’t — you are facing a one-shot penalty.
For a water hazard, a player has three options:
Improving your lie or position by moving growing things
Your ball comes to rest under a tree, and it appears you have a shot. Only problem is a pesky limb interfering with your backswing. No worries; you can break that branch off, yes?
Nope: You cannot improve the position or lie of your ball. This includes moving or bending anything growing or fixed in the realm of your envisioned swing.
The two biggest infractions in the sand are grounding your club and moving impediments from the bunker. This pains me to bring up, but my high school coach made me call both infractions on a competitor in a match: He chunked his first bunker shot, causing him to slam his club in disgust. He then threw out a few rocks around his ball before attempting his next shot, both violations. If you thought he was mad then, you should have saw his face after I sheepishly told him about said offenses.
Rake in bunker
This is another area that causes confusion, but if your ball comes to rest against a rake, you are allowed to move the tool, as the USGA defines it as a “movable obstruction.”
Tapping down your putts
This doesn’t come up as much anymore, as many players wear softless spikes. Nevertheless, you’ll occasionally come across spike marks on the green and be tempted to press them down. DON’T: That act constitutes a two-stroke penalty.
Lost ball time
You have five minutes to search for a ball. The clock begins when you start looking, not after you’ve hit your shot. After five minutes, the ball is considered lost.
Announcing the provisional
Confession: I love the word “reload.” It turns an unfortunate event — the prospect of a lost ball — into a course of action. Without checking Webster’s, I think reload etymology stems from Clint Eastwood movies. “I’m out of juice. Time to reload; fire in the hole!” Hard to believe I went so long being single.
Alas, saying “reload” does not constitute proper procedure, according to the USGA. A player must announce “I am hitting a provisional” to competitors. You must abandon your provisional ball if your original isn’t lost or out-of-bounds, or you determine that it’s in a water hazard:
Conversely, anytime you hit a great provisional shot, you might not want to find your original ball. If someone finds it before you play a shot with the provisional, the first ball is the one you must play.
Relief from cart paths, ground under repair, immovable objects
Most players understand they get help in such scenarios. In that same vein, most don’t know the proper way to push ahead. You take your stance, from there getting one club length of relief. The new spot has to be without interference from what caused the drop. From the USGA: “For example, if the ball lies on a cart path, the ball must be dropped at a point where the cart path does not interfere with the lie of the ball, his stance, and also the area of intended swing. If the ball comes to rest in such a position, it must be re-dropped.”
Unlike above, your point of drop doesn’t start from a place without interference. You have three options:
I found No. 2 out the hard way after my ball went under a pine tree in a tournament. What that pine tree was doing in the middle of a fairway is beyond me. (Although, it wasn’t the fairway I was supposed to be on, but semantics.) I couldn’t get to my ball, so decided to go with two-clubs length option, only to discover I’d still be under the pine tree. Ten years later, I’m still washing the sap off my neck.
Order of play
This mainly comes up in match play, but whoever is farthest away from the hole is up. And if someone breaks that order, a competitor is allowed to cancel the shot, forcing them to replay it.
But this comes with a caveat: Unless it’s an egregious offense, don’t call this on a competitor. Unless you want their putter tomahawked into your windshield after the round.
This is rare: You usually only see this in professional tournaments, most recently when Phil Mickelson was dinged for using two different types of makes at the Presidents Cup. That said, I’ve been in club championships before where this popped up, sending people scrambling to the pro shop.
This falls under the immovable object umbrella, but happens so often that it deserves its own section. Relief is granted from sprinkler heads only if your ball, intended stance, or swing is interfered with. Line of play isn’t covered, meaning if you’re putting from the fringe through a sprinkler towards the green, well, you might want to break out a wedge.
Identifying your ball
Buried in the rough and can’t tell if it’s your ball? You are allowed to lift the ball for ID purposes. From the USGA: “The player must announce his intention to lift the ball to an opponent, fellow-competitor or marker, and mark the position of the ball. He may then lift the ball and identify it, provided that he gives his opponent, marker or fellow-competitor an opportunity to observe the lifting and replacement.”
Your group has made it to the green; the hole is almost behind you. And, look at that, your ball has come to rest just inches from the pin. You’re so excited that you brush it in without thought, walking off the green thinking you just made birdie.
Except, the pin was in, and you hit it. That drops your score from a bird to a bogey and sinks your heart into your stomach. Other violations include hitting a pin that has been taken out and lying past the hole, or if you purposefully leave the flag in while attending it to cause a penalty on your opponent.
Most tournaments have rules officials on site, and all golfers should have a copy of the USGA rules book in their bag for more intricate situations and rulings. But the aforementioned points serve as the foundation for the obstacles you’ll likely encounter during tournament play. Now you can put your rules apprehension to rest, knowing your equipped to handle whatever the course, and your competitors, throw at you.