A beginner’s guide to how to play golf

Learn how to play golf with this comprehensive guide for beginners.

Golf can be a little overwhelming for the complete beginner. This article on how to play golf will help you get started.

Beginning any new hobby can be challenging, but I think that golf is perhaps one of the most difficult to get started in. It is a sport of history, and tradition, which are both components that greatly enrich the game, but they don’t lend themselves very well to the beginner who isn’t sure whether or not they can use their putter off the tee like in mini golf.

How to play golf

If you are a beginner, or considering becoming a beginner, but feel overwhelmed, we can help you. Below you will find a comprehensive guide on everything that you need to know in order to play the sport of golf.

Basic rules of golf

The rules of golf are known for being overly complicated, but the good news is that to start out you can get away with just knowing the basics. Let’s go over a few simple rules that will help you get through your first round and card an honest score.

Fourteen clubs per bag

This is a rule that you can violate before you ever even tee off if you aren’t careful. The USGA (golf’s governing body) allows only fourteen clubs to be in your bag during a round.

A lot of beginners don’t focus so much on this one (they are more concerned with just figuring out what all of their clubs are used for) and that is ok, for the most part. However, if you are playing competitively in a tournament, or against a friend, or if you are trying to establish a handicap and get a GHIN number, you will need to make sure your bag is in compliance with the rule.

The penalty for having more than fourteen clubs in your bag once you’ve teed off is two penalty strokes per hole, with a maximum of four strokes.

The penalty is stiff, but given how simple it is to avoid, you should never really run into problems.

Play the ball as it lies

This is probably the most fundamental rule in the game. It’s also the one that you will see broken more than any other.

Playing the ball as it lies is as simple as it sounds. When your ball lands in the woods and tucks itself deeply into a patch of particularly nasty grass, the urge to fluff up your lie is not uncommon, especially when no one is watching.

If you are going to play an honest game, you will have to resist that urge. Hacking it out of whatever trouble you get yourself in is part of the game, and the punishment for circumnavigating that rule (altering your lie in any way) is two strokes.

Worse though, in a competitive situation, improving your lie is blatant cheating that you will probably never get caught doing. Golf has a reputation for being the game of gentleman for a reason. You are your own referee, and therefore responsible for staying honest. If you find yourself in a tough spot, it is your responsibility to hack it out and try and recover on the greens.

It is worth noting that in a lot of non-competitive rounds, players will casually fluff up their lies, and that is ok, especially when your playing partners are aware you are doing it. If you reach that understanding with your group that is fine but try not to develop bad habits.

OB – out of bounds

Unfortunately, sometimes you are going to hit the ball out of bounds. Even pros do it all the time, and it’s always a bummer when it happens. It certainly does not help that the rules for what to do next can be fairly confusing.

Generally speaking, OB is going to be clearly marked with white stakes. The penalty for hitting out of bounds in an area marked with white stakes is one shot. You will also have to go back and hit again from the same spot.

If you think that you have hit the ball out of bounds but are not sure, the best thing to do is to hit what is referred to as a provisional.

That simply means you will hit again from the same spot before you go searching for your ball. In the event that your initial shot was out of bounds, you will be able to play that second shot without going all the way back to the tee to hit again.

If it turns out that your first shot was not out of bounds, the provisional will not count against your score.

Keep an honest and accurate score

Like I said, golf is a gentleman’s game. You are responsible for keeping your own score, but in the event that you sign for an inaccurate card, the penalty can be quite severe.

If you end up signing for a higher score than you actually made on the hole, you will not be penalized, but you do have to keep that higher score.

In 1968, signing for a higher score than he actually had cost Robert DeVicenzon a chance to get into a play-off with Bob Goalby in the Masters. DeVicenzo had made a birdie on the 17th but carded a par and the higher score was counted.

Carding the wrong score probably isn’t going to cost you the Masters, but it will definitely be frustrating.

In the event that you sign for a lower score than you made on a hole, you will be disqualified in tournament play.

Etiquette

Golf is as much a game of rules as it is one of etiquette. You won’t get a penalty for failing to comply with any of the things we’re about to go over, but you might make your playing partners mad.

Tee time

Making a tee time is important in that it is the only way you can guarantee you will get on the course. If you have never made one before, it is as simple as making a reservation at a restaurant. Simply call the pro-shop and set up a time.

Once you make a tee time though, you have to stick to it.

Busy golf courses run on a very tight schedule. Showing up late isn’t just going to inconvenience you, it will throw off every else’s schedule as well.

Dress code

Golf’s dress code might be part of what has earned it the reputation of a snobby sport. I maintain that golf is a game that can be played by anyone, and I will even admit that I don’t actually think collared shirts are necessary.

However, if you do make a tee time with a course that has a specific dress code, be sure to follow it. Best case scenario, the pro has to uncomfortably explain course policy to you when you go to pay for your loop. Worst case scenario you are going to be asked to leave.

Honors

Who hits first on the opening hole is generally decided with something arbitrary, like the flip of a coin, but on every other hole, the person who had the lowest score on the last hole is given “honors,” meaning they are allowed to hit first.

You will also often see people trying to determine who is “away,” once everyone has hit their first shot. Besides the tee ball, the person who is farthest from the hole generally goes first.

Ready to play golf

This is the alternative to the “honors,” and “away” system. Personally, I find it infinitely preferable. The ready play golf is exactly what it sounds like. The person who is ready to hit, hits. It doesn’t matter what they got on the last hole, or how far away from the pin they are.

Ready to play golf makes rounds go by a lot faster, which you are definitely going to appreciate on days where the course is already pretty jammed up.

If you are a large group, it is also good etiquette to play as quickly as possible so that you don’t slow down the people behind you.

Playing through

When you’re just starting out and still taking a dozen strokes to get the ball in the hole, the courteous thing to do will be to let players play through. It’s a lot like letting someone with only one item cut in front of you at the grocery store.

If you have been playing slow, and noticed from the tee box that someone on the last hole was just finishing up on the green, the courteous thing to do is to wait, and allow them to play the next hole before you.

If you are a group of four, generally speaking, it is always polite to let singles play through unless you can tell that your pace of play is similar to theirs.

Like I’ve said, it is always nice to let people play through, but also note that there are some exceptions to this rule. If you are playing slow because of a group ahead of you, letting the group behind play through only makes the round take a lot longer for you.

How to score in golf

Now that you at least understand the basics of acting right on the course, you are ready to learn everything that there is to know about keeping score. You will be pleased to know that the actual score keeping itself is pretty simple and self-evident. That said, there is a little bit of lingo and general information you will need to understand going into it.

Course layout

First things first, you are going to need to understand the layout of the course. Golf courses are made up of Par 4, Par 5, and Par 3 holes. An eighteen-hole round consists mostly of Par 4, with a few 5s and 3s scattered about each nine.

The par of the hole represents how many strokes it will ideally take you to get the ball in the hole. For a par three, you should have the ball in the cup in three shots. For a par four, you should have the ball in the cup in four shots.

This number represents a standard set by some of the game’s best players, so don’t feel bad if you aren’t making pars.

There is also a vocabulary used to refer to scores that deviate from the expected par. You will need to understand this vocabulary in order to keep score throughout the course of a round.

Par

If you’ve made a par, it means that you got the ball in the hole in the exact number of strokes that the course suggests you should need. For example, it means you have made a three on a par three.

Eagle

An eagle means you have gotten the ball in the cup using two strokes less than par. You will usually only see eagles on par 5s. If you were to eagle a par 5, that would mean that you made a three. Eagles are very rare.

Birdie

A birdie means you have gotten the ball in one stroke less than the par of the hole. A birdie on a par four would be a three. Birdies are much more common than eagles, but still by no means are they easy to come by.

Bogie

A bogie is one over par. Carding a five on a par four would be a bogie. Bogies are one of the more common scores in golf, but they are certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

Double bogie

A double bogie means you are two over on a hole. Also a common score, but perhaps not something to be terribly proud of.

Three over would then be a triple bogie, and so on and so forth.

The hole in one

The hole in one, or the “ace” as it is often referred, is by far the rarest in the game. It means that you have put the ball in the hole with your tee shot. I have been playing the game of golf for over a decade, and I have personally only witnessed one. If you end up making one, good for you. You’ll have already had better luck with the sport than me.

In terms of score keeping, a hole in one is generally the scoring equivalent of an eagle (two under par) as they happen almost exclusively on par threes. They have been known to happen on par 4s, but it is so rare that it is almost not even worth mentioning.

Albatross

Should someone card a hole in one on a par four, that would be the score equivalent of an Albatross. The albatross refers to any score that is three stroked below par. The only other way to get one is to hole out your second shot on a par 5, which is nearly as rare as getting a hole in one anyway.

Recording the scores

Now that you are familiar with the terminology, recording score will be simple. Every golf course that you go to should provide you with a score card at beginning of your round. The score card will feature the par of every hole at the top, and beneath them, a blank space to record the number of strokes you got on that given hole.

At the end of each nine, add up your strokes to determine your final score.

Ok, now that I know how to play… how do I play?

Knowing the rules is one thing, but it isn’t going to be of much help to you at all if you can’t hit the ball. While intricate swing advice is the job of a professional, here are some basic tips to get you started.

How to tee up a golf ball

Air is less resistant than dirt. I believe Jack Nicklaus first said that years ago when referring to the benefits of using a tee, but really it’s such basic advice that it barely even requires attribution.

When I was just starting out in the game, I often wouldn’t bother with a tee unless I was using the driver because I figured the difference could only be minimal, and anyway I always had a hard time keeping the ball on the peg.

Take my word for it, the tee helps a lot, especially when you are just starting out, and it’s really not actually hard to tee it up if you are doing it right.

I’ve always found that the simplest way is to pre-mount the ball on the tee before you put it on the ground. Then, with the ball in the palm of your hand, and the tip of the tee sticking out from between your index and middle fingers, plunge the tee into the ground.

You will know that the ball is teed to the right height if about half of it is above the face of your club at address.  Speaking of address……

How to address the golf ball

Hitting quality shots is going to take practice, and quite possibly a lesson or two. Properly setting up to the ball, on the other hand is something that anyone can do with a little bit of focus and attention to detail. Here are some steps you can take to get a good set up.

Step 1: stand behind the ball

Before you set up to your ball the first thing that you are going to want to do is take the opportunity to stand behind it, and survey the scene. During this step, you are going to pick a target, and, if you have the imagination for it, picture your ball landing there.

Step 2: step up to the ball

Once you are sure of what you want from this shot, step up to the ball, and set your club before it so that the face is pointed at your target. At this point, your chest is going to be parallel to the ball, and you will want it to be lined up to the inside of your left foot (or right foot if you are left handed).

Step 3: check your grip

The grip of your club should rest in the heel pad of your left hand, and ascend diagonally across the inside of your fingers. When you close your hand around the grip, your left index and middle finger knuckles should be showing.

For the right hand, the grip should rest on the thumb pad of your hand. When you close your fingers around it, the knuckles should again be visible on your index and middle fingers. The space between your thumb and index fingers will make Vs on both sides. To check if you are gripping the club correctly, make sure that those Vs are pointed to the inside of your right shoulder.

Step 4: get athletic

Now it’s time to make sure that you are in position to make a smooth, athletic swing. Make sure that your knees are slightly bent, your feet are a shoulder length apart, and your arms are able to hang comfortably in front of you.

Step 5: now forget all of that

Now that you are set up properly, the thinking stops. Trust that your knees are bent properly and that you are square to the target. Just relax, and make a smooth swing.

How to swing a golf club

The very best way to develop good golf habits is to make an appointment with a professional. Depending on who you go to see they can be a little bit pricey, but they are also a great way to get real-time feedback, and ensure that you are building your swing properly. Golf swing analyzers are also good for working on your swing.

That said, there are a few basic steps you can take that will help you to produce a sound swing without spending money on lessons or gadgets.

The backswing

Step 1: low and slow

Low and slow was Jack Nicklaus’s chief swing thought back when he was in his prime. Tempo is everything in golf. In order to keep a nice smooth tempo, try your best to make sure that your backswing is taking about three times as long as your downswing.

Of course, it starts with bringing the club back smoothly, keeping your left arm straight.

Step 2: wind up

As you bring your club up, your body is going to naturally begin to coil with it, starting with your hips, and continuing to your shoulders. The coil is a very subtle motion, but it is also where you will get all of your clubhead speed from.

Step 3: stop at the top

The backswing is over when the shaft of your club is parallel to the ground. Once you have accomplished that, you may then begin your downswing.

The downswing

Step 1: uncoil

In the downswing, you essentially undo everything you have down with the backswing. Allow your arms to retrace the path it took from your takeaway back to the ball.

Step 2: maintain tempo

As this is happening, be sure to maintain your tempo. While the downswing is where you get all of your power from, that is not to say that you should start swinging as fast as you can. Build speed so that your clubhead reaches its maximum velocity at the point of impact.

Step 3: follow through to finish

Allow your clubhead to naturally continue to build momentum until you have reached the finished position. While some shots (like when you need to keep the ball low) may require an abbreviated follow through, generally speaking allowing yourself to finish naturally is going to keep your tempo nice and even.

How to read greens and putt

Obviously swinging the club is important, but there is perhaps nothing that will affect your score more than putting. While a lot of players seem to view putting practice as boring, it is a crucial component of learning how to read greens, and lower your scores.

Reading greens is easy to learn but almost impossible to master. That said we will now examine a few of the steps you can take to get at least a little better at it.

Step 1: step behind the ball

That’s a common element for any shot in golf, actually. In this case, you are going to want to crouch behind the ball, and take a good look at the cup. Is the green sloping right to left? Or left to right?

If the ball is sloping left to right, you are going to want to aim a little bit left of the cup. If it is sloping right to left, you will aim to the right of the cup.

Step 2: uphill or downhill

Downhill putts tend to break less than uphill putts because the faster the ball goes, the less slope effects its line. Over time and with practice you will get better at determining how fast a putt will be.

Step 3: line

Once you have decided on what you think the slope and speed of a putt will do, you are going to take one final look at your line. If there are bumps or marks in the green, it will affect the path that your ball takes.

Unfortunately, if you must hit a bump, or rough part of the green, the reaction will be unpredictable, but in some cases, you may be able to readjust and play your putt at a different speed, on a slightly different line.

How to get better at golf

You don’t want to be a hacker forever. So how exactly does one go about practicing golf to get better? The answer is simple but perhaps not the one you will want to hear. It takes time, and hard work.

Start by mastering the basics. Grip, set up, swing. The idea with range sessions is to focus on ingraining proper mechanics into your swing so you don’t even need to think about them when you are on the course. You can read about some practice drills you can use to hone your game here.

Once you get to the point where you at least hit the ball in the air every time, you will notice that the next big improvement to your score will probably happen when you start to get better on the greens. Taking the time to get better at judging slope and speed will go a long way in lowering your score.

Conclusion

Now that you know the basics of how to play golf, it is time to apply them. Hard work on the fundamentals is important to lowering your score, but never let the process frustrate you. The point of golf is fun and relaxation. The best thing that I ever did for my golf game was learning to laugh off the bad shots.

It will all come together eventually. Just enjoy the game and you will see improvements in no time.

Good luck on the course!