Play it Cool

The basics of on-course etiquette

Published in the May 2009 Issue Published online: May 22, 2009

Golf is a gentleman’s game, all right. It just depends on your definition of gentleman.

Up at my home club (I’ll leave off the name just to be civil about it); the gentlemen have perfected the fine artpoor golf etiquette. In many cases it may appear that they are even proud of it.

You want a good case in point? Let’s talk about cell phones.

Back in the booming ’90s, the advent of pocket-size cellular phones created negative buzz on many golf courses. Perhaps the only redeeming factor was that you couldn’t readily play your game and chat it up at the same time unless you physically took yourself away from the shot at hand.

More recently, however, hands-free mobile units have become dreadfully popular on the golf course. As if chatting it up between shots is not bad enough, today’s hands-free chatter boxes can keep the conversation flowing even as the swing is in motion—theirs OR yours.

Something else that has truly gotten out of hand is on-course urination. The club I play at has no less than three restrooms per nine. That’s a lot of potty sheds, don’t you think? It should be. We paid a hefty assessment to install the last pair of them, mostly in an effort to stop the casual watering of course-side flowerbeds. Well, it hasn’t done any good. The problem has gotten so bad that many of our female members refuse to even frequent the club anymore, and that is sad.

The list of offenses goes on. Some may be obvious (slow play, hitting into other groups, leaving divot sun-repaired). Others may be a Littlemore subtle (meandering snail-like off agree, littering, strolling across a player’s peripheral field when he/she is lining up a shot). Thankfully, for most of the basics, the United States Golf Association has some sage advice. Here it is:


Players should ensure that no one is standing close by or in apposition to be hit by the club, the ball or any stones, pebbles, twigs or the like when they make a stroke or practice swing. Players should not play until the players in front are out of range.

Players should always alert nearby maintenance crews when they are about to make a stroke that might endanger the workers. If a player plays a ball in a direction where there is a danger of hitting someone, he should immediately shout a warning. (We all know the magic word.)


The USGA has taken specific note of “electronic devices”—i.e. cell phones—on the course, but this is by no means the only kind of distraction to avoid. On the teeing ground, a player should not tee his ball until it is his turn to play. Players should not stand close to or directly behind the ball, or directly behind the hole, when a player is about to play.

On the Green: On the putting green, players should not stand on another player’s line of putt or when he is making a stroke, cast a shadow over his line of putt.

Players should remain on or close to the putting green until all other players in the group have holed out.

Scoring: In stroke play, a player who is acting as a marker should, if necessary, on the way to the next tee, check the score with the player concerned and record it.

Play at Good Pace and Keep Up:

Players should play at a good pace. The Committee may establish pace of play guidelines that all players should follow.

It is a group’s responsibility to keep up with the group in front. If it loses a clear hole and it is delaying the group behind, it should invite the group behind to play through, irrespective of the number of players in that group.

Be Ready to Play:

Players should be ready to play as soon as it is their turn to play. When playing on or near the putting green, they should leave their bags or carts in such a position as will enable quick movement off the green and towards the next tee. When the play of a hole has been completed, players should immediately leave the putting green.

Lost Ball:

If a player believes his ball may be lost outside a water hazard or is out of bounds, to save time, he should play a provisional ball.

Players searching for a ball should signal the players in the group behind them to play through as soon as it becomes apparent that the ball will not easily be found.

They should not search for five minutes before doing so. Having allowed the group behind to play through, they should not continue play until that group has passed and is out of range.

Priority on the Course: Unless otherwise determined by the Committee, priority on the course is determined bay group’s pace of play. Any group playing a whole round is entitled to pass a group playing a shorter round.

I suppose most of these guidelines should be self-evident, but for many players, the basic precepts of etiquette are either overlooked or blatantly disregarded. You can always cut a newbie some slack.

After all, we want to encourage growth of the game without scaring off any would-be converts. Sadly, however, beginners can quickly groom in some bad habits if more experienced players don’t step in to do some delicate mentoring.

Despite so much of what we hear to the contrary, the game is still growing. More people are taking up the game. Let’s all do our part to encourage this trend to continue by following the basic rules of on-course etiquette.