Gowrie Rules and Etiquette


The game of golf consists of playing the ball with a club from the teeing ground (the tee) to the hole in successive strokes. The holes on the course must be played in order (1 – 9, 10 to 18 or 1 – 18). The rules of golf are there for a reason, so play by them at all times. You are not allowed to change them or make them up as you go along. In golf, the rules are sacrament. If you break them by mistake, you are expected to call a penalty on yourself, take it on the chin and see if you can limit the damage by playing a great recovery shot. If you break the rules on purpose, you will be labelled a cheat. There is no greater sin in golf.


In matchplay, each hole is a separate contest. If you win the first hole, you are ‘1 up’, if you lose it, you are ‘1down’, if you tie, you are ‘all square’. You have won the match when there are too few holes left to play for your opponent to possibly win. For example, when you are 3 up and there are only two holes left to play.


In strokeplay (also called medal play), your total score for the round (i.e. every shot you hit) is what counts, and you must play the ball into each hole before starting the next. Although common practice, you are not allowed to ‘give’ anyone a putt in a strokeplay competition. You are playing against the rest of the competition field, so hole your ball out.


You can’t have more than 14 clubs in your bag – end of story. Those clubs should also be legal – if you are not sure, ask our pro about your gear. Also, you cannot change balls during the play of a hole. If you damage or cut your ball, however, you may change it, but first ask your opponent or fellow competitor.


You, the player, are expected to: read the notices given to you by tournament officials; have and use your proper handicap; know what time you are scheduled to tee off; play your own ball – and make sure you put a mark on it in case someone else is using an identical ball. Also, if you can’t positively identify a ball as yours, it counts as a lost ball. Make sure your score for each hole is correct before you turn in your card and try to keep the card neat and legible. Keep a good pace of play (i.e. keep up with the guys in front of you), unless there is lightning, you are ill, or an official tells you to stop.


During a hole, you make make practice swings, but you can’t play practice shots. Between holes, you may practice chipping and putting on or near the green of the hole last played, or the tee of the next hole. NB: Never practice in a water hazard or bunker.


Don’t ever ask anyone, except your caddie or partner, for advice on how to play. The only things you can ask about are the rules or general information available to all, such as the position of hazards, yardage to the hole or position of the flagstick. You are also not allowed to offer or give advice to your opponent or fellow competitor. If you do, it’s a two-stroke penalty (in matchplay, you lose the hole). When you are not on the green, you can ask anyone, even your opponent, to ‘indicate your line of play’ – for example, if you are behind a hill and you can’t see the green. The only thing to remember is that whoever shows you the line has to move out of the way when you actually hit the shot. On the green, your partner or caddie may show you where to hit the putt, but they must make sure they don’t touch the surface of the green while doing so – or make a mark of any sort. If they do, it’s a two-shot penalty. Under rule 9, if you are playing matchplay, you are, at any time, allowed to ask your opponent how many strokes he has played on a hole and he has to tell the truth – or he loses the hole.


On the first tee, the order of play is either determined by how you are listed on the timesheet or by ballot – i.e. toss a coin. From then on, the player who has the lowest score on a hole has the right to play his / her ball first on the next hole (it’s called the ‘honour’). While playing a hole, the player whose ball is furthest from the hole plays first. In matchplay, if you play out of turn, your opponent may make you replay the shot. This is not so in strokeplay, where there is no penalty for playing out of turn, but is’s really bad manners and if you opponents can prove that by playing out of turn, you gained an advantage of some sort, you may be disqualified.


Tee your balll between the tee-markers or a little behind them. You may tee your ball as far as two clublengths behind the markers. In matchplay, if you tee up outside the markers, there is no penalty, but your opponent has the right to ask you to replay the shot. In strokeplay, the rule is more harsh: you have to take a two-stroke penalty and then play three from the tee-box! If your ball accidentally falls off the tee, or you knock it off with your club while addressing it, you may replace it without penalty.


A hazard is any bunker (area of sand) or water hazard (lake, pond, creek, etc). In a bunker or water hazard, if sand or leaves cover your ball, you may remove enough of the sand or leaves to be able to see a part of the ball. You can also lift your ball to identify it, as long as it is not in a hazard. You must tell your opponent or fellow competitor before you lift your ball to identify it.


One of golf’s basic rules is that you must play the ball as it lies – i.e. you may not move it to a better spot. Don’t ever improve your lie by pressing down behind the ball and don’t improve the area of your intended swing or line of play by bending or breaking any tree limbs or weeds that might be in your way. If you are in a hazard, you may not touch the sand, ground or water with the club before or during your backswing. And importantly, in a hazard, you may not remove natural things such as leaves or twigs (called loose impediments). The only things you can move are artificial obstructions – like bottles or rakes. The penalty in these cases is two shots – in matchplay, you lose the hole.


You must strike the ball fairly with the head of the club. You may not push, scrape or rake the ball and you are not allowed to hit it while it is moving. If you do, add a two-stroke penalty.


In matchplay, if you play a ball that is not yours, you lose the hole. In strokeplay, you must take a two-stroke penalty and then go back and play your own ball. If you play the wrong ball out of a hazard, however, there is no penalty, but you have to find your own ball and finish the hole with it. If you don’t you are disqualified.


If any part of your ball is touching the closely mown and prepared area of grass defined as the green, it is ‘on the green’. When your ball is on the green, you may brush away or pick up leaves and other loos impediments on the line of your putt with your hand or a club or fan them with a cap or towel – but don’t ever press anything down while doing so. NB – dew and frost are not loose impediments. You are allowed to repair ball-marks or old pitchmarks if they are within your line of putt, but you may not repair marks made by spikes or shoes. Don’t ever test the surface of the green by rolling a ball or scraping the surface. If your ball is hanging on the lip and you can’t believe it has not actually dropped, the rules require you to walk to it without reasonable delay and then allow an additional 10 second’s wait before you have to tap it in. If you wait longer and the ball falls in, you have to add a penalty stroke. And finally, always mark your ball by placing a small coin or other marker behind it when you want to pick it up to clean it or get it out of another player’s way. The standard two-shot penalty applies when you contravene one of these rules.


If your ball strikes the flagstick when you are playing from the green, provided no-one is ‘attending’ or holding the flagstick, there is no problem. But, if your ball is on the green, do not putt with the flagstick in the hole. Either take it out or ask another player to do so when you play your ball. If you do hit the stick, it is a two-shot penalty (in matchplay, you lose the hole).


If you or your partner move either of your balls on purpose or accidentally, add a penalty stroke to your score, replace it and play it. If someone or something else (like your opponent’s golf ball) moves your ball, there is no penalty – but you must replace it. If the ball is moved by wind or water, you must play it as it lies. Once you address the ball (in other words, you take up a stance and ground the club behind the ball) if it moves, add a penalty stroke and replace the ball. And here is a really important one: if you move a loose impediment (stone, twig, etc) that causes your ball to move, it is a one-stroke penalty. You have to replace the ball where it was and continue. The only exception is when you are on the putting green, then there is no penalty if this happens.


If your ball hits an outside agency (such as a bird, rake, etc), it is called a ‘rub of the green’. There is no penalty and the ball is played as it lies. If your ball hits you, your partner, your caddie or your equipment, in matchplay, you lose the hole – in strokeplay you are penalised two strokes and you must play your ball as it lies. If your ball hits your opponent, his caddie or his equipment, there is no penalty – you may play the ball as it lies or replay the shot. If your ball hits anyone else on the course, or any other piece of equipment in strokeplay, there is no penalty and the ball is played as it lies. These are considered to be the same as outside agencies in strokeplay. If your ball hits another ball and moves it, you must play your ball as it lies. The owner of the other ball must replace it. If you ball is on the green when you play and the ball, which your ball hits, is also on the green, you are penalised two strokes in strokeplay. Otherwise, there is no penalty.


If you are permitted to lift your ball and the rule requires that the ball be replaced, you must put a ball-marker behind the ball before you lift it. If you don’t it is a one-shot penalty. When you drop a ball, you must do so ‘fairly’: i.e. stand erect, hold your arm out straight at shoulder height and drop it. You are not allowed to spin it for flip it sideways – just drop it straight down. If you don’t do this – and one of your playing partners points it out to you, you must redrop the ball without penalty. There are a number of instances when you could drop the ball and the result is not deemed ‘fair’, and in these cases, the rules allow you to simply redrop without penalty – for example:

  • if a dropped ball hits the ground and rolls into a hazard;
  • if you are in a hazard, take a drop and the ball rolls out of the hazard;
  • if the ball comes to rest more than 2 clublengths from where it first struck a part of the course;
  • if the ball ends up nearer the hole than it was;
  • if you are dropping away from an immovable obstruction or ground under repair, etc and the ball rolls back into the obstruction or ground under repair. If this happens when you redrop the ball, the rules require you to then place the ball where it struck the ground when it was redropped.


Unless you are lifting your ball to identify it, you are allowed to clean your ball whenever the rules permit you to lift it (e.g. when you are on the green or taking a drop from an unplayable lie). Sometimes, particularly in winter or when courses are wet, a local rule will be in play allowing you to ‘lift, clean and place’ your ball by hand on the fairway. If this happens, you may obviously clean the ball while doing so.


If another ball interferes with your swing or is in your line of putt, you may ask the owner of the ball to lift it. If you ball is near the hole and you think another player might benefit from using it as a ‘backstop’, you may mark and lift your ball.


Loose impediments are natural objects that are not growing or fixed – such as leaves, twigs, branches, worms and insects. You may remove a loose impediment except when your ball and the impediment lie in a bunker or water hazard. Always be careful not to cause the ball to move.


Movable obstructions are artificial or man-made objects, like bottles, tin cans and rakes. Sprinkler heads, shelter houses, cart paths, etc, are immovable obstructions. Movable obstructions anywhere on the course may be removed. If the ball moves when moving an obstruction, it must be replaced without penalty. You may drop your ball away from an immovable obstruction if it interferes with your swing or stance. Find the nearest point, not nearer the hole, where you can play without interference with you swing or stance and stick a peg into the ground to mark that spot. Then drop the ball within one clublength of that point. Always establish the nearest point of relief before lifting your ball.


Abnormal conditions relate to three specific things: casual water (any temporary puddle of water caused by rain or over-watering), ground under repair (damaged areas of the course specifically marked with a ‘GUR’ sign) and holes or casts made by burrowing animals, reptiles and birds (e.g. molehills). If your ball or your stance is in abnormal ground, you may either play the ball as it lies, or find the nearest point of relief, not nearer the hole, and drop the ball within one clublength of that place. You cannot lose your ball in abnormal ground. If you ball lands in it and you cannot find it, determine where the ball entered the area and drop a ball within one clublength of that place without penalty. Also included in Rule 25 is what happens if you hit your ball onto the wrong green. You should find the nearest place off the green, which is not nearer the hole and drop the ball within one clublength of that place without penalty. Finally, the rule covers instances when your ball is embedded or ‘plugged’ (i.e. it sinks into the ground or stays in its own pitchmark) on any ‘closely mown area’ of the course – i.e. fairways and greens. In this case, you may lift and drop your ball without penalty.


Water hazards are common hazards and golfers often get confused about what to do if a ball lands in water, but it’s really simple. There are two different kinds of water hazards. Natural water hazard margins are identified by red stakes or lines. If your ball is in any water hazard, you have a few options:

  • play it as it lies;
  • if you cannot find it, or do not wish to play it, add a penalty stroke, go back to where you last played from and drop and play another ball;
  • take a penalty stroke and drop a ball behind the water hazard (i.e.keeping the hazard between you and the pin) as far back as you wish. In this case, find the point where the ball last crossed the hazard and drop the ball so there is a straight line between the hole, the point your ball last crossed the hazard and where you drop the ball;
  • if there is a ‘drop zone’, you may drop there, but don’t have to – another option may be better. If your ball goes into a lateral water hazard (red stakes) you have two further options:
    • take a one-stroke penalty, find the last point of entry and drop a ball within two clublengths of that point, no nearer to the hole;
    • take a one-stroke penalty, establish a point on the opposite side of the water, equidistant from the hole and drop a ball there.

Many golfers are unaware of this option and it can be really useful!


A ball is lost if it is not found within five minutes from when you first begin to search for it. A ball is out of bounds when all of it lies beyond the inside line of markers, like white stakes, fences or walls that define the boundaries of the golf course. If you ball is lost or out of bounds, you must add a penalty stroke to your score and play another ball from where you played your last shot (this is known as a ‘stroke and distance’ penalty). If you think your ball may be lost or out of bounds, you may play another ball (provisional ball) from the place where your first ball was played. The intent behind the provisional is quite simply to speed up play, but there are some golden rules to remember. Very importantly, you must tell your opponent or fellow competitor that you are ‘playing a provisional’. If you cannot find your first ball, or if it is out of bounds, then you add a penalty stroke and play out the hole with the provisional ball. If you find your first ball in bounds within five minutes, simply continue with it and pick up the provisional ball.


If your ball is under a tree or in some other horrible situation and you decide you cannot play it, add a penalty stroke and do one of the following:

  • go back to where you played the last shot and play a ball from there (stroke and distance);
  • measure two clublengths from the unplayable lie (not nearer the hole), drop a ball and play from there;
  • mark the spot where your ball was lying unplayable, keep that spot between you and the pin and go back as far as you wish on a straight line before dropping the ball and continuing to play.

An extract from Complete Golfer


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