Golf is a game that could ruffle Emily Post. But committing breaches in etiquette can brand you as a lightweight and embarrassing. Here’s a quick primer on how you should always—and never—behave, from first swing to final handshake.
Understanding the USGA Rules of Golf is no gimme. But at the risk of sounding like your sixth-grade homeroom teacher, we’ll remind you that golfers are expected to know and abide by them. Failing to do so increases your chances of being DQ’d at the next member-guest tournament. And if you plan to record your score for an official handicap, any rules breaches will undermine the integrity of your handicap. Here are 10 not-so-simple rules that average golfers break all the time.
1. NEVER miss your tee time.
Running late won’t endear you to your playing partners, so set your alarm clock. If you’re playing a new course, get directions beforehand. To avoid fruitless searches around an unfamiliar club, pick a time and place to meet your host.
2. ALWAYS introduce yourself when playing as a guest.
People who work at private clubs know their members. Therefore, they’ll know you’re not one of them. You’ll save yourself awkward conversations with pro shop staff, locker-room attendants, and others by telling them whose guest you are right off the bat.
4. NEVER go in clueless.
Ask the host in advance with whom you’ll be playing. This will help you get a read on the level of play.
5. ALWAYS find out what the cart rules are before the round.
Practicing the 90-degree rule on a path-only day can ensure that your first invitation will be your last.
6. ALWAYS have a handicap.
Playing in member/guest, charity, and club events without one is poor etiquette. And bring your card.
7. NEVER treat your caddie like a Sherpa.
Lighten his-or-her load. Remove the extra dozen or so balls you’ve stashed in your bag and your rain gear if you don’t need it, plus any other excess equipment. Hernia operations are expensive.
8. NEVER cell out.
Gabbing on your cell phone during a round, especially if you’re a guest at a club, is the height of rudeness. First, find out if the club allows cell phones at all. If you must use your phone (babysitter alert), use it sparingly. Ideally, you should turn it off before a round (or set it to vibrate), put it in your bag, and check it once at the turn. When possible, call from the clubhouse or locker room, and keep it brief.
9. ALWAYS take one practice swing.
Not three, not five, not nine. One.
10. NEVER tee off in front of the markers.
It’s a double no-no because technically it violates the rules (the penalty is two shots in stroke play).
11. ALWAYS hit a provisional ball if you think there’s a chance that your ball is lost outside of a water hazard or out of bounds.
12. NEVER crowd the player who’s hitting or putting. Stand at least two club lengths behind and one club length to either side.
13. NEVER move a loose impediment in a bunker. Not a leaf, not a rock, not a speck of pollen. Doing so is a rules violation. Besides, your partners will notice.
14. NEVER dawdle at the tee or anywhere else. Slow play is one of the greatest breaches of etiquette, and if you’re not ready to hit, you’re contributing to it. Know your yardage, have your club selected, and be prepared to play.
15. Tip the valet: $1 when he takes your car; $1 when he returns it safely.
16. Tip the locker-room attendant: $1 for a towel; $2 if he/she cleans your shoes.
17. Tip the caddie: $15 per bag; $20 to $25 if he/she saved you strokes.
18. Tip the forecaddie: $10; $15 if he/she scaled mountains to track down your errant shots.
19. Tip the club cleaner: $3; $5 if you took up a ton of turf during the round.
20. ALWAYS give a heads-up on cell calls. Let your group know if you anticipate having to make a call. If you do and it lasts longer than expected, take yourself out of the hole.
21. NEVER walk in another player’s line. This is the golden rule of etiquette. But also make sure to avoid the through line, which is the same line past the hole that the ball would take if the player misses it long. Only a true golf nut or Michelle Wie would know what you’re talking about.
22. ALWAYS stop the cart when players are hitting. Be conscious not only of your group but also groups playing neighboring holes. And look twice before you throw the cart into reverse; that high-pitched noise can give someone the shanks.
23. NEVER drink too much and drive. This includes overindulging on the course and on the way home. Keep it light or save the cocktails for after the round. If you overdo it, relinquish your car keys.
24. ALWAYS buy your caddie a (non-alcoholic) beverage at the turn. It’s the least you can do after he/she has chased your ball for nine holes. The better you treat caddies, the more likely they are to save you strokes.
25. ALWAYS ask politely to play through. The most convenient time is right after the group ahead has teed off on the next hole and you’re waiting behind them. If you are holding up play, offer to let the group behind you play through. Usually, a par-3 is the easiest place to do so.
26. NEVER enter fairway and greenside bunkers from the high side. Climbing down steep inclines can damage the bunker, so go in low.
27. NEVER drive your cart near a green or bunker. Course superintendents and greenkeepers everywhere will curse you for this offense, and deservedly so.
28. ALWAYS ask before tending the flag. The player whose ball is closest to the hole should tend. As long as a player has a putter in their hand, even if they are off the green, you should ask if they want the flag tended. And like Peter Pan, be mindful of your shadow; it shouldn’t cross the hole or the line.
29. ALWAYS make like a librarian and be quiet when your playing partners are hitting or putting. No whispers, zippers, Velcro sounds or club clanking, please.
30. ALWAYS fix your pitch marks—with a proper repair tool, please. Tees are for the tee box, not for ball marking or green repair.
31. NEVER ground your club in a hazard or bunker. Not only is it a rules infraction, it’s an etiquette breach as well: Knowing the basic rules is part of the game.
32. ALWAYS mark your ball properly on the green. The best way is to place the marker behind the ball without touching it.
33. NEVER touch a ball to identify it. Mark your ball clearly with a Sharpie before the round and memorize the brand and number before you play it.
34. ALWAYS drop the ball properly when you’re taking relief. Stand facing the hole with your arm out at shoulder-height and drop the ball.
35. NEVER cop an attitude. Profanity will not improve your score—besides, it’s tacky—neither will huffing and puffing after each shot.
36. ALWAYS be gracious. Everyone appreciates a good sport. On the flip side, if your playing partners are struggling and you’re on your game, try to keep the Sergio Garcia antics to a minimum. No one appreciates a show-off.
37. NEVER place your bag on the green or fringe. The bag stand and the weight can damage the green. Place it away from the putting surface and on the way to the next tee to speed up play.
38. ALWAYS know the club policies. Call ahead to find out the dress code and the cell phone policy and whether or not cash is used on the premises.
39. ALWAYS repair your divots. Failing to take care of the course will reflect badly on you and your host. If you are playing on Bermuda grass, fill the divot with sand. If you are playing on bent grass, replace the divots exactly as you dug them up.
40. NEVER drop or slam the flagstick against the green. The surface can easily dent. After you’ve pulled the pin, gently place it on or near the fringe, away from anyone’s view or line.
41. ALWAYS pick up when you’re playing a match and you’re out of a hole. The pros do it when they’re playing casually to speed up play; you should, too.
42. ALWAYS mind your clubs. If you forget one and remember it within two holes, go back, but hit your shot first. Approach the group behind you carefully and ask if they have found a club. If you can’t recall where you left the club, wait until the round is over, go to the pro shop and ask if anyone has turned in your club. If not, leave your name and number.
43. NEVER leave a round without returning the host’s invitation. Even if you’re not a member of a club yourself, invite your friend to join you at a public course or for lunch in the near future.
44. ALWAYS pay up. If you’ve made a wager on a round and you lose, fork over what you owe.
45. ALWAYS have fun. Isn’t that the point?
46. ALWAYS express your appreciation. Following a round, shake hands with your partners and thank them for the game.
47. Who should drive the cart in a mixed group? The man doesn’t automatically drive. The host player drives the cart; he/she knows the layout and service areas on the course. It helps to move play along.
48. How do I avoid embarrassment when men clients insist on paying? Your client is your guest during the time that you spend on the course. If you pay in advance by credit card, you can avoid the hassle of who pays.
49. What about shoes? When playing at a corporate outing or a private club, never change them in the parking lot. We call this person a “trunk slammer.” Invest in a shoe bag, and use the locker room to change your shoes. If you can’t, make the switch in your car.
50. When is the best time to discuss business? Use your time wisely; don’t rush it. During the early holes, learn about your client’s interests. If business doesn’t come up naturally, stay on generalities until the 19th hole, when you can talk turkey.
51. How do I deal with a macho member of a group? Let him beat his chest; he only hurts himself. Know when to listen and when to tune him out. And by all means, win.