A springtime refresher on important golf rules

Image of Rules of Golf bookIf there’s anything GottaGoGolf knows about the Rules of Golf, it’s that most players don’t know them. Here, Guidance Editor Gail Rogers gets us started with the important golf rules.

DEAR GGG: How do I get started in learning the rules? I’ve had the Rules of Golf book for a while and I just got the Decisions book, but where do I begin?

A: Wow, what a great question and one that every golfer asks at some point. Looking at all the verbiage in the Rules and Decisions books (both available online here) can overwhelm the uninitiated. But taken a bit at a time, the goal to increase our understanding of the Rules can certainly be achieved.

As with learning a foreign language, vocabulary is essential. With the Rules of Golf, the definitions section of the Rules book is the place to begin. Knowing my friend is serious about learning, I suggested she make some flash cards on the important golf rules. Have the defined word or phrase on one side and the definition on the other.

Beyond that, I suggested a few of what many of us involved with the rules consider the BIG FIVE Definitions. Start with these important golf rules and fill in with the others:

  • Ball in Play
  • Outside Agency
  • Nearest Point of Relief
  • Wrong Ball
  • Lost Ball

Each of these definitions has many “parts” to contemplate, and they are essential in understanding many rules situations. Memorizing them is important, more important than a first look would make you think. After memorizing them, thoughtfully work to understand the variations explained in each.


“Outside agency” has long been one of my favorite definitions. Why? Because match and stroke play treat the people with whom we compete so very differently because of this definition.

In match play my opponent, her equipment and caddie are NOT outside agencies. In stroke play my Fellow-Competitor as well as her equipment and her caddie are outside agencies.

What does this mean? Well in match play if my ball strikes my opponent, her caddie or her equipment, I can immediately cancel and replay the shot, if I wish, without penalty. In the extreme, if my ball hits my opponent’s golf bag and deflects out of bounds, I may cancel the stroke and replay with no penalty. And that is MAY, because if my ball strikes my opponent’s golf bag keeping my ball from going into a water hazard and instead deflecting the ball onto the green, this is a stroke I most likely do not want to replay.

In stroke play, the other players in my group, their equipment and their caddies are outside agencies. Rule 19 tells us that if our ball in motion after a stroke is deflected by an outside agency it is a “rub of the green.” In golf, a rub of the green can be good or bad luck. If my ball were to strike one of the people or the equipment who are outside agencies in stroke play, I must play the ball as it lies with no penalty. If my deflected ball goes out of bounds, I am playing again under penalty of stroke and distance — bad luck. But if the ball was deflected into the hole, it is certainly good luck and my ball is holed.


This one is perhaps the shortest definition of the five, but it is complex.

Understanding the Note at the end of the definition is critical. It tells us that when we substitute a ball when we should be putting our original ball back in play, and make a stroke at the substituted ball, that ball becomes the ball in play. It is not a wrong ball, but we have substituted a ball when not allowed and incur the General Penalty, which is loss of hole in match play or two strokes in stroke play.

How does this happen? In taking relief from a cart path, we are supposed to drop the ball that we just played onto the cart path. But if we have another ball in our pocket and drop and mistakenly play it instead of the ball lying on the cart path, we now have a new ball in play. It was incorrectly substituted and we incur the General Penalty depending on the form of play.

The ball that we should have dropped, which is on the cart path, now has no status in our play of the hole and should just be returned to our golf bag for use at some future time.

Let your learning begin. It’s off to the store to purchase some 3 x 5 index cards and get those flash cards going. As in any journey it is all about the first step.

Begin today and you will be pleasantly surprised when you look back a year from now and realize the increased understanding you have of the important golf rules.

Timesaver: If you watch television, mute or pause the commercials and study a definition or two while waiting for your program to resume. It’s a painless way to build learning into your life.

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