Why Do The Rules of Golf Seem So Complicated?

In this story and the accompanying video, Jeremy Ellwood and Neil Tappin discuss some of the reasons why the Rules of Golf seem so complicated

What do you do in this scenario? (Photo: Kenny Smith)
(Image credit: Kenny Smith 07809 450119)

In this story and the accompanying video, Jeremy Ellwood and Neil Tappin discuss some of the reasons why the Rules of Golf seem so complicated

Why Do The Rules of Golf Seem So Complicated?

It’s a fairly common complaint among golfers that the Rules of Golf seem so complicated. And it’s an understandable sentiment. Even after the major revisions to the Rules in January 2019, the Player’s Edition of the Rule Book still extends to 160 pages.

Even though that’s a lot shorter than its predecessor, and the number of Rules has been condensed down from 33 to 24, that’s still quite a lot to digest.

So why does it have to be this way?

Well, the first thing to say is that, in many sports the court or pitch is a pretty standard size. But golf is played on a vast arena extending over many acres. The nature of the terrain and everything on it varies enormously from one course to the next.

Golf is played over a vast and varied landscape (Photo: Kenny Smith)

You may encounter mown grass, thick rough, bushes, trees, woodland, bunkers, paths, roads, lakes, rivers, buildings, irrigation boxes… the list could go on.

What do you do if your ball ends up in a building? (Photo: Kenny Smith)

Fair for all

The Rules of Golf have to effectively address countless ‘What if?’ scenarios. And they must detail procedures so that everyone playing in a competition is playing by the same code, and some are not gaining an advantage by proceeding in a more advantageous way.

Your ball can sometimes end up in some pretty strange spots (Photo: Kenny Smith)

In order for you to be able to complete your round, the Rules have to find ways for you to proceed when you can’t find your ball. Or perhaps you can find it, but it’s physically impossible or dangerous to attempt to play it.

How do you proceed if your ball is unplayable? (Photo: Kenny Smith)

For example, you hit your ball miles offline and don’t know whether or not you will find it, or if it will be playable if you do. What do you do?

First and foremost, many of us know that it’s wise to play a provisional ball to avoid a potentially long walk back if you can’t find it. But the Rules have to clarify how you go about doing that. What is the penalty if you have to use that provisional ball, when may you go on playing the provisional ball until and so on?

How and where do you drop away from a cart path? (Photo: Kenny Smith)

If you do find it, but it’s unplayable, perhaps even irretrievable, what then? What does unplayable actually mean and how do you proceed with your round?

Many golfers will know that you have three options for an unplayable ball – two club-lengths, going back on line as far as you like or going back to where you last played from.

So many questions...

But what is the procedure? Where do you drop? How do you drop? What if the ball rolls outside where you are permitted to drop? What if you can see the original ball but can’t physically retrieve it? What is the penalty for proceeding under any of these options?

One simple but fairly typical scenario, and at least half a dozen questions, probably more. They all need to be addressed to ensure that you proceed in the same way as other golfers facing a similar scenario.

You can see your ball but it's by some rocks in a stream. What now? (Photo: Kenny Smith)

When you factor in the host of other things that can, and do, happen out on the golf course (e.g ball lying underwater in a penalty area or right up against a building), it perhaps helps to explain why the Rules of Golf seem so complicated.

They have to have an answer for whatever happens out on the course to allow you to complete your round and be fair to the whole field competing.

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