How many rules are there in golf? Spoiler: Fewer than before, but still quite a few

Turnberry golf course, South Ayrshire.

The new, modernized Rules of Golf were finalized and released by the USGA and R&A, and went into effect at the beginning of 2019.

Golf authorities have sought to bring clarity and simplification to the rules through this update and also to streamline their own systems.

The result is that the number of rules of golf has recently shrunk.

In order to simplify the sport’s regulations, there are now 24 rules, down from 34.

Among the notable changes was a reduction in the time spent to find a lost ball from five to three minutes, elimination of penalties for accidentally moving a ball on the green or during a search, fixing spike marks among other relaxed procedures on greens and in bunkers and allowing for the removal of loose impediments and touching the ground in hazards.

The governing bodies also opted to drop the penalty for a double hit, allowing golfers to simply count the one stroke they made to strike the ball, something that had not been introduced in the proposed Rules ahead of their changes but was brought in after getting feedback from golfers.

What are the 24 rules?

Well, unfortunately it isn’t as simple as 24 hard and fast rules, with each of the rules having sub-rules and some exceptions.

The 24 rules are more like 24 sections of rules.

Rule 1 for instance reads in full:

1 The Game, Player Conduct and the Rules

1.1 The Game of Golf

Golf is played in a round of 18 (or fewer) holes on a course by striking a ball with a club. Each hole starts with a stroke from the teeing area and ends when the ball is holed on the putting green (or when the Rules otherwise say the hole is completed).For each stroke, the player:

  • Plays the course as they find it, and
  • Plays the ball as it lies.

But there are exceptions where the Rules allow the player to alter conditions on the course and require or allow the player to play the ball from a different place than where it lies.

1.2 Standards of Player Conduct

1.2a Conduct Expected of All Players

All players are expected to play in the spirit of the game by:

  • Acting with integrity – for example, by following the Rules, applying all penalties, and being honest in all aspects of play.
  • Showing consideration to others – for example, by playing at a prompt pace, looking out for the safety of others, and not distracting the play of another player. If a player plays a ball in a direction where there might be a danger of hitting someone, they should immediately shout a warning, such as the traditional warning of “fore”.
  • Taking good care of the course – for example, by replacing divots, smoothing bunkers, repairing ball-marks, and not causing unnecessary damage to the course.

There is no penalty under the Rules for failing to act in this way, except that the Committee may disqualify a player for acting contrary to the spirit of the game if it finds that the player has committed serious misconduct.“Serious misconduct” is player behaviour that is so far removed from what is expected in golf that the most severe sanction of removing a player from the competition is justified.Penalties other than disqualification may be imposed for player misconduct only if those penalties are adopted as part of a Code of Conduct under Rule 1.2b.

1.2b Code of Conduct
The Committee may set its own standards of player conduct in a Code of Conduct adopted as a Local Rule.
  • The Code may include penalties for breach of its standards, such as a one-stroke penalty or the general penalty.
  • The Committee may also disqualify a player for serious misconduct in failing to meet the Code’s standards.

See Committee Procedures, Section 5I (explaining the standards of player conduct that may be adopted).

1.3 Playing by the Rules

1.3a. Meaning of ‘Rules”; Terms of the Competition 
The term “Rules” means:
  • Rules 1-25 and the definitions in these Rules of Golf, and
  • Any “Local Rules” the Committee adopts for the competition or the course.

Players are also responsible for complying with all “Terms of the Competition” adopted by the Committee (such as entry requirements, the form and dates of play, the number of rounds and the number and order of holes in a round).See Committee Procedures, Section 5C and Section 8 (Local Rules and full set of authorized Model Local Rules); Section 5A(Terms of the Competition).

1.3b Applying the Rules
(1) Player Responsibility for Applying the Rules. Players are responsible for applying the Rules to themselves:
  • Players are expected to recognize when they have breached a Rule and to be honest in applying their own penalties.
    • If a player knows they have breached a Rule that involves a penalty and deliberately fails to apply the penalty, the player is disqualified.
    • If two or more players agree to ignore any Rule or penalty they know applies and any of those players have started the round, they are disqualified (even if they have not yet acted on the agreement).
  • When it is necessary to decide questions of fact, a player is responsible for considering not only their own knowledge of the facts but also all other information that is reasonably available.
  • A player may ask for help with the Rules from a referee or the Committee, but if help is not available in a reasonable time the player must play on and raise the issue with a referee or the Committee when they become available (see Rule 20.1).

(2) Accepting Player’s “Reasonable Judgment” in Determining a Location When Applying the Rules.

  • Many Rules require a player to determine a spot, point, line, edge, area or other location under the Rules, such as:
    • Estimating where a ball last crossed the edge of a penalty area,
    • Estimating or measuring when dropping or placing a ball in taking relief,
    • Replacing a ball on its original spot (whether the spot is known or estimated),
    • Determining the area of the course where the ball lies, including whether the ball lies on the course, or
    • Determining whether the ball touches or is in or on an abnormal course condition.
  • Such determinations about location need to be made promptly and with care but often cannot be precise.
  • So long as the player does what can be reasonably expected under the circumstances to make an accurate determination, the player’s reasonable judgment will be accepted even if, after the stroke is made, the determination is shown to be wrong by video evidence or other information.
  • If a player becomes aware of a wrong determination before the stroke is made, it must be corrected (see Rule 14.5).
1.3c Penalties

(1) Actions Giving Rise to Penalties. A penalty applies when a breach of a Rule results from a player’s own actions or the actions of their caddie (see Rule 10.3c).A penalty also applies when:

  • Another person takes an action that would breach the Rules if taken by the player or caddie and that person does so at the player’s request or while acting with the player’s authority, or
  • The player sees another person about to take an action concerning the player’s ball or equipment that they know would breach the Rules if taken by the player or caddie and does not take reasonable steps to object or stop it from happening.

(2) Levels of Penalties. Penalties are meant to cancel out any potential advantage to the player. There are three main penalty levels:

  • One-Stroke Penalty. This penalty applies in both match play and stroke play under certain Rules where either (a) the potential advantage from a breach is minor or (b) a player takes penalty relief by playing a ball from a different place than where the original ball lies.
  • General Penalty (Loss of Hole in Match Play, Two-Stroke Penalty in Stroke Play). This penalty applies for a breach of most Rules, where the potential advantage is more significant than where only one penalty stroke applies.
  • Disqualification. In both match play and stroke play, a player may be disqualified from the competition for certain actions or Rule breaches involving serious misconduct (see Rule 1.2) or where the potential advantage is too significant for the player’s score to be considered valid.

(3) No Discretion to Vary Penalties. Penalties need to be applied only as provided in the Rules:

  • Neither a player nor the Committee has authority to apply penalties in a different way, and
  • A wrong application of a penalty or a failure to apply a penalty may stand only if it is too late to correct it (see Rules 20.1b(2), 20.1b(3), 20.2d and 20.2e).

In match play, the player and opponent may agree how to decide a Rules issue so long as they do not agree to ignore any Rule or penalty they know applies (see Rule 20.1b(1)).(4) Applying Penalties to Multiple Breaches of the Rules. Whether a player gets multiple penalties for breaching multiple Rules or the same Rule multiple times depends on whether there has been an intervening event and on what the player did.For the purpose of applying this Rule, there are two intervening events:

  • The completion of a stroke, and
  • Being aware or becoming aware of a breach of a Rule (this includes when a player knows they breached a Rule, when the player is told of a breach, or when the player is uncertain whether or not they have breached a Rule).

Penalties are applied as follows:

  • Single Penalty Applied for Multiple Breaches Between Intervening Events: If a player breaches multiple Rules or the same Rule multiple times between intervening events, the player gets only one penalty. If the Rules breached have different penalties, the player gets only the higher-level penalty.
  • Multiple Penalties Apply for Breaches Before and After Intervening Event: If a player breaches a Rule and then breaches the same Rule or another Rule after an intervening event, the player gets multiple penalties.

Exception – Failure to Replace a Moved Ball: If a player is required to replace a moved ball under Rule 9.4 but fails to do so and plays from a wrong place, they get only the general penalty under Rule 14.7a.But any penalty strokes a player gets for taking penalty relief (such as one penalty stroke under Rules 17.1, 18.1 and 19.2) are always applied in addition to any other penalties.

You can consult the R&A and USGA websites for full rules lists.

Below is an overview of each rule.

1 The Game, Player Conduct and the Rules

Purpose of Rule: Rule 1 introduces these central principles of the game for the player:
Play the course as you find it and play the ball as it lies.
Play by the Rules and in the spirit of the game.
You are responsible for applying your own penalties if you breach a Rule, so that you cannot gain any potential advantage over your opponent in match play or other players in stroke play.

2 The Course

Purpose of Rule: Rule 2 introduces the basic things every player should know about the course:
There are five defined areas of the course, and
There are several types of defined objects and conditions that can interfere with play.
It is important to know the area of the course where the ball lies and the status of any interfering objects and conditions, because they often affect the player’s options for playing the ball or taking relief.

3 The Competition

Purpose of Rule: Rule 3 covers the three central elements of all golf competitions:
Playing either match play or stroke play,
Playing either as an individual or with a partner as part of a side, and
Scoring either by gross scores (no handicap strokes applied) or net scores (handicap strokes applied).

4 The Player’s Equipment

Purpose of Rule: Rule 4 covers the equipment that players may use during a round. Based on the principle that golf is a challenging game in which success should depend on the player’s judgment, skills and abilities, the player:
Must use conforming clubs and balls,
Is limited to no more than 14 clubs, and
Is restricted in the use of other equipment that gives artificial help to their play.

5 Playing the Round

Purpose of Rule: Rule 5 covers how to play a round – such as where and when a player may practise on the course before or during a round, when a round starts and ends and what happens when play has to stop or resume. Players are expected to:
Start each round on time, and
Play continuously and at a prompt pace during each hole until the round is completed.
When it is a player’s turn to play, it is recommended that they make the stroke in no more than 40 seconds, and usually more quickly than that.

6 Playing a Hole

Purpose of Rule: Rule 6 covers how to play a hole – such as the specific Rules for teeing off to start a hole, the requirement to use the same ball for an entire hole except when substitution is allowed, the order of play (which matters more in match play than stroke play) and completing a hole.

7 Ball Search: Finding and Identifying Ball

Purpose of Rule: Rule 7 allows the player to take reasonable actions to fairly search for their ball in play after each stroke.
But the player still must be careful, as a penalty will apply if the player acts excessively and causes improvement to the conditions affecting their next stroke.
The player gets no penalty if the ball is accidentally moved in trying to find or identify it, but must then replace the ball on its original spot.

8 Course Played as It Is Found

Purpose of Rule: Rule 8 covers a central principle of the game: “play the course as you find it”. When the player’s ball comes to rest, they normally have to accept the conditions affecting the stroke and not improve them before playing the ball. However, a player may take certain reasonable actions even if they improve those conditions, and there are limited circumstances where conditions may be restored without penalty after they have been improved or worsened.

9 Ball Played as It Lies; Ball at Rest Lifted or Moved

Purpose of Rule: Rule 9 covers a central principle of the game: “play the ball as it lies.”
If the player’s ball comes to rest and is then moved by natural forces such as wind or water, the player normally must play it from its new spot.
If a ball at rest is lifted or moved by anyone or any outside influence before the stroke is made, the ball must be replaced on its original spot.
Players should take care when near any ball at rest, and a player who causes their own ball or an opponent’s ball to move will normally get a penalty (except on the putting green).

10 Preparing for and Making a Stroke; Advice and Help; Caddies

Purpose of Rule: Rule 10 covers how to prepare for and make a stroke, including advice and other help the player may get from others (including caddies). The underlying principle is that golf is a game of skill and personal challenge.

11 Ball in Motion Accidentally Hits Person, Animal or Object; Deliberate

Purpose of Rule: Rule 11 covers what to do if the player’s ball in motion hits a person, animal, equipment or anything else on the course. When this happens accidentally, there is no penalty and the player normally must accept the result, whether favourable or not, and play the ball from where it comes to rest. Rule 11 also restricts a player from deliberately taking actions to affect where any ball in motion might come to rest.

12 Bunkers

Purpose of Rule: Rule 12 is a specific Rule for bunkers, which are specially prepared areas intended to test the player’s ability to play a ball from the sand. To make sure the player confronts this challenge, there are some restrictions on touching the sand before the stroke is made and on where relief may be taken for a ball in a bunker.

13 Putting Greens

Purpose of Rule: Rule 13 is a specific Rule for putting greens. Putting greens are specially prepared for playing the ball along the ground and there is a flagstick for the hole on each putting green, so certain different Rules apply than for other areas of the course.

14 Procedures for Ball: Marking, Lifting and Cleaning; Replacing on Spot; Dropping in Relief Area; Playing from Wrong Place

Purpose of Rule: Rule 14 covers when and how the player may mark the spot of a ball at rest and lift and clean the ball and how to put a ball back into play so that the ball is played from the right place.
When a lifted or moved ball is to be replaced, the same ball must be set down on its original spot.
When taking free relief or penalty relief, a substituted ball or the original ball must be dropped in a particular relief area.
A mistake in using these procedures may be corrected without penalty before the ball is played, but the player gets a penalty if they play the ball from the wrong place.

15 Relief from Loose Impediments and Movable Obstructions (Including Ball or Ball-Marker Helping or Interfering with Play)

Purpose of Rule: Rule 15 covers when and how the player may take free relief from loose impediments and movable obstructions.
These movable natural and artificial objects are not treated as part of the challenge of playing the course, and a player is normally allowed to remove them when they interfere with play.
But the player needs to be careful in moving loose impediments near their ball off the putting green, because there will be a penalty if moving them causes the ball to move.

16 Relief from Abnormal Course Conditions (Including Immovable Obstructions), Dangerous Animal Condition, Embedded Ball

Purpose of Rule: Rule 16 covers when and how the player may take free relief by playing a ball from a different place, such as when there is interference by an abnormal course condition or a dangerous animal condition.
These conditions are not treated as part of the challenge of playing the course, and free relief is generally allowed except in a penalty area.
The player normally takes relief by dropping a ball in a relief area based on the nearest point of complete relief.
This Rule also covers free relief when a player’s ball is embedded in its own pitch-mark in the general area.

17 Penalty Areas

Purpose of Rule: Rule 17 is a specific Rule for penalty areas, which are bodies of water or other areas defined by the Committee where a ball is often lost or unable to be played. For one penalty stroke, players may use specific relief options to play a ball from outside the penalty area.

18 Stroke-and-Distance Relief, Ball Lost or Out of Bounds, Provisional Ball

Purpose of Rule: Rule 18 covers taking relief under penalty of stroke and distance. When a ball is lost outside a penalty area or comes to rest out of bounds, the required progression of playing from the teeing area to the hole is broken; the player must resume that progression by playing again from where the previous stroke was made.
This Rule also covers how and when a provisional ball may be played to save time when the ball in play might have gone out of bounds or be lost outside a penalty area.

19 Unplayable Ball

Purpose of Rule: Rule 19 covers the player’s several relief options for an unplayable ball. This allows the player to choose which option to use – normally with one penalty stroke – to get out of a difficult situation anywhere on the course (except in a penalty area).

20 Resolving Rules Issues During Round; Rulings by Referee and Committee

Purpose of Rule: Rule 20 covers what players should do when they have questions about the Rules during a round, including the procedures (which differ in match play and stroke play) allowing a player to protect the right to get a ruling at a later time.
The Rule also covers the role of referees who are authorized to decide questions of fact and apply the Rules. Rulings from a referee or the Committee are binding on all players.

21 Other Forms of Individual Stroke Play and Match Play

Purpose of Rule: Rule 21 covers four other forms of individual play, including three forms of stroke play where scoring is different than in regular stroke play: Stableford (scoring by points awarded on each hole); Maximum Score (the score for each hole is capped at a maximum); and Par/Bogey (match play scoring used on a hole by hole basis).

22 Foursomes (Also Known as Alternate Shot)

Purpose of Rule: Rule 22 covers Foursomes (played either in match play or stroke play), where two partners compete together as a side by alternating in making strokes at a single ball. The Rules for this form of play are essentially the same as for individual play, except for requiring the partners to alternate in teeing off to start a hole and to play out each hole with alternate shots.

23 Four-Ball

Purpose of Rule: Rule 23 covers Four-Ball (played either in match play or stroke play), where partners compete as a side with each playing a separate ball. The side’s score for a hole is the lower score of the partners on that hole.

24 Team Competitions

Purpose of Rule: Rule 24 covers team competitions (played in either match play or stroke play), where multiple players or sides compete as a team with the results of their rounds or matches combined to produce an overall team score.

25 Modifications for Players with Disabilities

Purpose of Rule: Rule 25 provides modifications to certain Rules of Golf to allow players with specific disabilities to play fairly with players who have no disabilities, the same disability or a different type of disability.