If you follow only 5 rules of golf etiquette, make them these 5 rules

golfer in cart

Yo, buddy, keep it moving!

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I just picked up the game earlier this year and am still getting a handle on the rules of etiquette. What are the basics I should know so I don’t unintentionally embarrass myself or my playing partners?! — Chris S., Bend, Ore.

Welcome to golf, Chris! We’re pleased to have you. Your question is a good one. The game sometimes gets in its own way with its litany of rules and mores. While most of these dos and don’ts are necessary, they also can be overwhelming or even intimidating to golf newcomers. Ergo, The Etiquetteist welcomes your challenge! These, in my humble opinion, are the 5 bedrock rules of golf etiquette.       

1. Play quickly

If you subscribe to only one etiquette rule, please, please, please make it this one! Slow play has been a scourge on the game for about as long as anyone can remember. Go back as far as you like — how about to 1949 when threesomes at the U.S. Open required (gasp!) between 3 hours, 30 minutes and more than 4 hours to finish their opening rounds. “That is just awful, and it doesn’t make sense,” said Joe Dey, then the USGA’s executive director. “It hasn’t been so long since three hours was considered adequate for a round. This is murder on spectators as well as on players who wish to play at a reasonable speed.” Gosh, what would Joe say today when major rounds can sometimes take up to 6 hours!

a turtle and golf ball sitting in grass
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Same goes for amateur golf: the game, sadly, has gotten only slower. According to a 2014 USGA study, the average weekend round takes 4 hours and 30 minutes. Not great! The study also concluded that “more than three-quarters of golfers strongly agree that pace of play is critical in contributing to one’s enjoyment of a round of golf” and that “more than 10 percent of those who played less golf than a year ago, attributed their decrease in rounds played to ‘The pace of play/time it took to play a round has become prohibitive.’” 

So, yeah, keep it moving! Play from the appropriate tees, develop a speedy pre-shot routine, play “ready golf” and know when it’s time to pick up (i.e., after your third unsuccessful swipe in a bunker!). Your playing partners — and the group behind you — will thank you for it.  

2. Leave the course as you found it

Sounds simple but not every golfer treats the sod and sand beneath their feet with the respect it deserves. In broad strokes, that means raking bunkers, repairing or filling divot holes and fixing ball marks. Yes, there’s a slight learning curve to perfecting each technique, but you don’t need $1,000 lessons from Butch Harmon to show you the way. Of these three disciplines, ball-mark repair tends to give new golfers the most trouble. Here’s how to do it properly, via a GOLF.com explainer by Josh Sens:

golfer repairing ball mark
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“Using a divot repair tool (in a pinch, a tee will also work, but the proper implement is better), start at the high side of the ball mark. Stick the tool into turf and lean the top gently toward the center of the mark, taking care not to twist or turn. Repeat this process, working around the circumference.

“All too often…golfers dig down and lift from the bottom. Like a lot of bad habits, this is one that many people pick up from watching TV. Digging down and lifting up only compounds the damage by severing the roots from the turf.”

Easy enough, right?

3. Avoid throwing clubs

No game will frustrate you like golf does. Indeed, the deep pangs of irritation and exasperation you will feel when you lip-out a 4-footer for par or follow a smashed tee shot with a topped wedge might just make you want to hurl your club into the next zip code. Don’t do it. One, it’s a bad look and wholly immature; two, it’s potentially dangerous; and three, it might result in your golf buddies excommunicating you from your foursome. You’re not playing for a green jacket or the Havemeyer Trophy. Stifle your angst and save it for the punching bag in the privacy of your garage.      

An angry golfer throws a club.
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4. Keep golf carts off the greens and tee boxes

When Donald Trump drove a golf cart on to a green at his New Jersey course in 2017, the ghastly faux pas made headlines everywhere from the Washington Post, to The Today Show to GOLF.com. Even observers who had never stopped on a golf course could plainly see the errs of the then-POTUS’s ways, even if he did own the place. Greens, in particular, are courses’ sacred land — not to be disrespected, desecrated or driven over by an EZ-GO.    

5. Follow the dress code

You don’t have to like golf’s standard dress code: collared shirt paired with slacks or chino shorts. But following it can help you avoid a demoralizing visit to the pro shop to swap out your cargo pants for a more acceptable $120 alternative. The Etiquetteist has been encouraged to see new apparel types, including hoodies and joggers, get the nod of approval at an increasing number of courses, but for those clubs that require you wear something more traditional, we refer you to that old Nike slogan: just do it. Fighting for your right to denim is not a hill worth dying on.   

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.