7 Rules of Golf Definitions Every Golfer Needs To Know

In this Rules video and article, Jeremy Ellwood and Neil Tappin pick out 7 Rules of Golf Definitions that could help you better understand various Rules

Photo: Getty Images (Stephen Munday/Allsport)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In this Rules video and article, Jeremy Ellwood and Neil Tappin pick out 7 Rules of Golf Definitions that could help you better understand various Rules

7 Rules of Golf Definitions Every Golfer Needs To Know

Former European Tour chief referee, Andy McFee, once told us that the best piece of advice he was given when trying to get to grips with the Rules of Golf in his very earliest days was to focus on the Definitions first as they would then help to make better sense of the Rules themselves.

That advice holds true today and there are now 68 defined terms at the back of the Rules of Golf book. Every time a defined term is included in a Rule, it is shown in italics so you can quickly cross-reference it if need be.

All the Definitions are obviously important, but here we pick out 7 Rules of Golf Definitions every golfer needs to know…

Areas of the course

There are five defined areas of the course: 1) The general area, which covers the vast majority of the course including fairways, rough, woodland etc; 2) The teeing area of the hole you are playing; 3) The putting green of the hole you are playing; 4) All bunkers; and 5) All penalty areas.

The five defined areas of the golf course (Diagram reproduced with the kind permission of The R&A)

The different areas are important because certain Rules and procedures can vary from one area to another.

A good example would be the accidental movement of your ball at rest. In the general area you incur a one-shot penalty and must replace the ball before playing (other than if you move your ball while searching for it). On the putting green there is no penalty but you must still replace it.

Known or virtually certain

The phrase ‘known or virtually certain’ crops up a number of times in the Rules whether to do with determining if your ball is in a penalty area, whether it moved or what caused it to move.

‘Known’ is fairly straightforward - there is conclusive evidence that your ball did go into a penalty area, for example, perhaps because you saw a splash, or another player saw it go in and tells you.

Seeing a splash would be conclusive evidence your ball went into the penalty area (Photo: Kenny Smith)
(Image credit: Kenny Smith 07809 450119)

‘Virtually certain’ is when all available information points to it being in the penalty area. However, there is a small degree of doubt perhaps because of a patch of rough where the ball could also conceivably be. This Definition says it must be at least 95% likely that it did go in.

There is obviously a judgment call to be made here. If there is thick rough before the penalty area where the ball could also be, you can't just assume what happened to it if no-one saw for sure where it finished.


This has become a defined term from the 2019 Rules revisions. Primarily, it prevents those with very long putters potentially gaining a small advantage when measuring relief areas.

Club-length now means the longest club you are carrying for that round other than your putter, so typically your driver.

Club-lengths must be measured using the longest club you're carrying other than your putter, so usually your driver (Photo: Kenny Smith)
(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

However, if you have chosen not to carry a driver, it does mean you could potentially be giving up a few inches of relief, as you would then have to use your 3-wood or whatever your next longest club was – worth bearing in mind.

Temporary water

This is the new name for casual water. It basically refers to any accumulation of water on the surface, whether puddles or irrigation overflows, that is not in a penalty area.

You are entitled to free relief from temporary water if it interferes with your stance or the lie of the ball. However, you may not press down excessively with your feet or foot, something that plenty of golfers try to do when seeking relief!

This ball is definitely in temporary water! (Photo: Getty Images, Stephen Munday/Allsport)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

But wet, soft or muddy ground is not enough, nor is the momentary appearance of water when you step on the ground. To be classed as temporary water, the accumulation must remain visible either before or after your stance is taken.

Stroke and distance

This is a ‘does what it says on the tin’ procedure and penalty. It applies when taking relief under Rules 17, 18 or 19 by playing another ball from where the previous stroke was made because it is lost, out of bounds, unplayable or in a penalty area.

It is your only option in the first two instances, and one of your options for an unplayable ball or from penalty areas.

If you can't find it you will have to go back and play again under stroke and distance (Photo: Kenny Smith)
(Image credit: Kenny Smith)

‘Stroke and distance’ simply means you are penalised one stroke, but also lose all the distance you gained with the original shot. So, if you lost your ball on your second shot, you would replay from the same spot and then be playing your fourth shot.


When is a ball holed? Well, the answer in the Definitions is when your ball is at rest in the hole and all of it is below the surface of the putting green.

However, since 2019 there has been a special case added to the Definition, which is actually not so special a case and now very common as we are allowed to putt with the flagstick in.

This ‘special case’ states that when the ball is resting against the flagstick, it is considered holed when any part of it is below the surface of the putting green rather than all of it.

This ball resting against the flagstick would now be considered 'holed' (Photo: Kenny Smith)
(Image credit: Kenny Smith 07809 450119)

Point of maximum available relief

Normally when taking relief from an abnormal course condition (ACC) or obstruction, you are obliged to take complete relief such that the ACC or obstruction no longer interferes with your stance, the lie of the ball or your area of intended swing.

However, the ‘point of maximum available relief’ applies when taking relief from an abnormal course condition (typically temporary water) in a bunker or on the putting green only.

If there is no nearest point of complete relief you may find the point of maximum available relief in bunkers or on the putting green (Photo: Tom Miles)
(Image credit: Tom Miles)

In these parts of the course, you can take relief at the point where the condition least interferes if there is no point of complete relief – for example, you could still stand in water in a bunker to play a ball that you have been able to drop in the sand clear of the temporary water.

We hope your have found our '7 Rules of Golf Definitions every golfer should know' feature useful.

Jeremy Ellwood
Contributing Editor

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly. He is an expert on the Rules of Golf having qualified through an R&A course to become a golf referee. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played 1,000 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts. He reached the 1,000 mark on his 60th birthday in October 2023 on Vale do Lobo's Ocean course. Put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf

Jeremy is currently playing...

Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft

3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft

Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft

Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)

Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response