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By Mark Harman, USGTF National Course Director

If you look at the Rules and Decisions books put out by the USGA, it would seem that there are countless rules, regulations and penalties that someone needs to know even before they put a peg into the ground.  The Dustin Johnson and Anna Nordqvist rulings at this year’s US Open and US Women’s Open only cemented in many golfers’ minds that the rules are too complicated and too arcane.

This is unfortunate, because there are only a few basic rules a golfer needs to know to that cover almost all situations found during a round of golf. Knowing the following rules will make your next round of golf about as official as it gets.  Please be advised that they don’t cover exact procedures as simplicity is the aim here:

– Play the course as you find it and play the ball as it lies.  These two tenets are what the entire body of rules is based on, and are simple concepts that are often overlooked by even experienced golfers.

– If your ball goes into a water hazard, drop behind the hazard and add one penalty stroke.  There are differences between regular water hazards and lateral water hazards, but at many courses these hazards are not marked by stakes or lines.  If you have a hazard that is to the side of the line of play (generally labeled a lateral water hazard), figure out where the ball entered the hazard and drop at that place.

– If you think your ball might be lost or out of bounds, play another ball from where you just did.  If you find your original ball in play, great; if not, add one penalty stroke and play the second (provisional) ball.  In other words, if your first shot went out of bounds, you add one penalty stroke (second shot) and your next shot will be your third shot.  The benefit to playing this provisional ball is you basically get a free practice shot if your original ball is playable.

– If your ball is in a situation where you can’t play it, drop it within two driver lengths and add one penalty stroke.

– If your ball is in a temporary accumulation of water or a clearly damaged area of the course, you don’t have to play it from there. Just drop in the nearest spot that avoids the condition, not closer to the hole, and play away with no penalty.

– If something artificial interferes with your stance or swing, you can move the ball.  A ball coming to rest on a cart path or a sprinkler is a common situation.  Drop the ball away from the situation and play from there.  If the artificial object can be moved easily (such as a bunker rake or a piece of trash), move the item with no penalty.

– In casual golf, it’s okay to pick up the ball and not finish the hole if you are struggling. Some people want to get “their money’s worth” and insist on holing out for a 12, but this only frustrates everyone else.

There you have it.  Of course, these very basic rules don’t cover every situation, but they are easy to understand, have a simple logic about them, and will get you around the course adequately almost every time.  Now, for those of you who really want to know the rules in-depth, head on over to and explore the Rules section…and good luck!

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