Golf is often referred to as The Game of Kings. There is a certain civility to a game that requires personal enforcement of rules and penalties. It’s a game that can demand a lot of time, involve isolation, and it tends to be fairly quiet, which is possibly why it is so popular among business professionals: What better way to spend time building business relationships than to spend 4-5 hours in isolation with three business associates and no distractions? And in a game that requires such discipline, personal focus, and individual adherence to rules, what better way to judge the character of a business relationship than to see how they play golf, with all of its unique regulations and mannerisms? When playing with a potential or even current associate or colleague, one might wonder, How can I trust this person to be fair with me and follow the rules if I watch them cheat?
It’s likely the “individual integrity” aspects of the game are part of what have given rise to the broad and unspoken rules of recreational golf etiquette. You likely won’t find them printed in a book, but every experienced golfer knows them, follows them, and expects others to do the same.
So the next time you’re invited to the golf course to talk business, here are 17 unspoken rules of golf etiquette to keep in mind:
Show up to the course ahead of time: Whether golfing with co-workers, clients, prospects or your best friend, early is on time. Show up a minimum of 15 minutes before your tee-time, as it may take at least that long to check in. The better route is to give yourself 30 minutes: Hit a few range balls, spend five minutes on the practice green with your putter, and arrive at the first tee relaxed, not rushed. This is especially true when playing with more experienced golfers, who most likely have a pre-round routine and won’t want to be rushed to the first tee.
Practice your putting: This requires you to follow rule #1, and show up ahead of time. Spend at least five minutes on the practice green. Get a feel for the speed of the grass. If you sink only one extra putt every other hole as a result of your practice, you’ll cut nine strokes from your score. It will also save you the always embarrassing putt that runs off the first green into the sand trap when you hit the ball four times harder than you really needed it to.
Who tees off first: Nobody wants to tee off first on the first hole. It usually has the biggest audience, and you’re the least warmed up. There’s an easy, time-tested way to decide who goes first: Everyone stand in a circle. One person grabs a tee, spins it in the air, and lets it fall on the ground in the middle of the circle. Whoever the tee points at goes first. Repeat to see who tees second and third, and you’ll know who goes last by process of elimination.
Don’t talk while players are hitting: Pay attention to the golfers you are with, and show respect both when they are taking their practice swings as well as when they take their shot. It’s easy to get caught up in conversation on the course, so make the extra effort to be conscious of when other golfers are hitting to pause your conversation. Keep the same in mind if you’re walking or driving a golf cart: Stop walking or if you’re in their vicinity to remove distractions.
Play ready golf: Many golfers strictly adhere to the “farthest from the hole hits first” rule. In casual golf, don’t sweat it. As long as everyone is paying attention, the golfer who is ready should go first…within reason, of course. The next time you and your buddy are on opposite sides of the fairway, and you’re ready but he’s still digging for a club in his bag, go ahead and hit the shot even though you’re 10 yards ahead. I guarantee all the golfers behind you will be grateful.
Be aware of other golfers on the course: When you are hitting the ball, you should be aware of where the other members of your group are so you don’t accidentally strike them with your ball or your club. And as a person not hitting the ball, be aware of where the other members of your group are so you don’t accidentally walk into the firing range. This applies for other golfers on other holes as well: Be aware of your surroundings to avoid people being unintentionally hurt.
Lend a hand finding the ball: When another member of your group is looking for a lost ball, give them a hand. This is particularly true if the path to your ball is near where they’re looking. Take a moment and add a second set of eyes to the hunt.
When looking for lost balls, only take a moment: This is a game, and these are, at most, $4 golf balls. Don’t spend 10 minutes looking for your lost ball. It’s ok to dip into the bushes, brush your club through the tall grass, and spend a couple minutes looking for that errant shot. But if that little white ball hasn’t appeared after a minute or two, just assume it’s in a better place, take your drop, and move along.
Understand the rules: Very few people are going to be experts in the rules of golf, but everyone playing should try to learn the basics. Invest a couple bucks in a golf bag copy of the USGA Rules of Golf, and thank me later. You likely won’t be able to recite how many club lengths of relief you are entitled to take from a man-made object vs. standing water, but knowing that you get some relief without a penalty makes the game go faster and saves you an agonizing shot. If you’re unsure, look it up in your newly acquired USGA rules book. Or ask the other members of your group. If they know the rules, they’re probably happy to share.
Be aware of the location of the next tee box: As you approach the green, whether you’re already on the green or you are hitting your final chip shot, be aware of the location of the next tee box. When you’re ready to putt, leave your bag on the line between the pin and the next tee box. When the group is done putting, everyone can walk toward the next hole and pick up their bag along the way. This prevents players from needing to run 20 yards back down the hole to fetch their bag, and thus making the group behind have to wait before hitting their approach shots.
On the green, mark your ball: Before you start the round make sure you either have a small coin in your pocket, or you have a ball marker in your bag. If you don’t, every pro shop has ball markers for no more than a nickel. Every pro shop carries them because every golfer should have at least one. It’s not just a courtesy to the other golfers in your group. Marking your ball gives you a chance to clean it and remove any unseen encumbrances that might disrupt your putt. It also forces you to take a moment and evaluate your putt. You’ll be surprised at the difference this makes in your putting accuracy.
Do not walk in another golfer’s line: When you hear someone say “watch my line,” they’re referring to the path on the green their ball will take on its way to the hole. Golf greens are soft, and as you walk your foot leaves an imprint. This can interfere with a putt. When you walk across the green– either to mark your ball, or to make your own putt, be aware of the location of all of the other players’ balls or markers on the green. Trace the approximate line their ball will need to take to the hole, and avoid stepping on that line. Take a large step over the line, or walk around entirely. It’s awkward at first, but seasoned golfers will appreciate the effort.
Watch your shadow: When on the putting green, be aware of your shadow. A person’s shadow makes it more difficult to read the break in a green, or to see the undulation around the cup. If you are moving, your shadow can also be a distraction, especially as it gets closer to the cup. The same problem can arise on the tee box, so keep an eye on where you cast your shadow while other players are hitting.
Tending the pin: A rule in golf states that if a golfer’s ball strikes the pin while they’re on the putting green, the golfer is assessed a penalty. This is one of the reasons the pin is removed from the hole while putting. Sometimes the golfer is putting from so far away that they cannot see the hole without the pin. In this case, another golfer can “tend” the pin for them: The second golfer stands next to the pin, about an arm’s length from the cup, with a hand on the flagstick. As the putt approaches the hole, the second golfer removes the pin to ensure the ball won’t come into contact. Here are a few “sub-rules” for this one:
– If you are near the pin and your ball is closer to the hole, offer this service to the golfer making a long putt. You can often just say “would you like the pin in or out.” If they say “in” then you tend the pin. If they say “out” then you can simply pull the pin and place it on the edge of the green, out of the way of the other golfers.
– When tending the pin, pay special attention to rule #12, and do not step on anyone’s line.
– You should also pay special attention to rule #13, and make sure your shadow is not in the putters’ line, or on the hole.
- Be prepared to putt when your turn comes: Everyone has a slightly different routine they follow on the green, like their number of practice swings, how they read the putt, and how they line up. Don’t wait until it’s your turn to start your routine. Read the green and your putt while you wait, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the other golfers. Take your practice swings. Visualize the line. Be ready. This will ensure you are engaged and focused on your game, and will help with the pace of play.
- Finishing out your putt: If you miss your putt, and you are within a foot or two of the hole, ask the other golfers if it’s ok for you to finish out. You do not HAVE to mark your ball and wait for everyone else to putt. However, don’t feel obligated to do this: If you really feel you need a moment to regroup and read your new putt, you have the right to do so by marking your ball and waiting your turn. But so long as you are confident you can make the putt, and can do so without standing on another golfer’s line, ask to finish out and 99 golfers in 100 will accommodate.
- If you hit your ball into (or into the vicinity of) another group: There are several things to consider here:
If you think you might be able to hit the group in front of you, just don’t hit. Even if you are having an off day and think it’s a low likelihood, you should still wait. Better safe than sorry. No one likes to have a ball roll between their feet, much less get hit. I’ve been hit by wild shots on more than one occasion, and can vouch for the pain they cause.
If you hit, and you think your ball is heading in the direction of another group, yell “FORE!” Yell quickly, and yell loudly.
If your ball does unexpectedly end up in the vicinity of the group in front of you, make a concerted effort to apologize in person. When you get to the green, walk over to their tee box and apologize. If they’re walking by on the next hole, walk into their fairway and apologize. Do this right away, on the same hole if possible. It may seem awkward, but it’s an expected courtesy.
Don’t feel intimidated by all of these guidelines, but do keep them in mind as you head out for a round of golf with potential or existing business associates, or even with your in-laws. Most of the above are just common courtesies extended to the environment of the golf course. Naturally, of course, the more of them you remember, the better off you’ll be.