Golfing Etiquette

The R&A’s Museum and Heritage Director, Angela Howe, examines the ethos that defines the game.

Golf and etiquette have traditionally gone hand in hand.  Observing a code of practice that places courtesy, respect and fair play at the heart of the game is a fundamental virtue that defines golf and which has its origins in the earliest rules of the game.

The first known Rules of Golf, penned in 1744 by the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh (later to become known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers) for their annual Silver Club Challenge were known as the Articles & Laws in Playing at Golf.  They numbered thirteen in total, the majority of which remain in force today.  The observance of etiquette is not explicit within the Articles; however, rule 7 refers to behaviour on the course, which has parallels with the spirit of the modern game.  It states: “You are to play your Ball honestly for the Hole and not to play upon your Adversary’s Ball not lying in your way to the hole”.

‘Honesty’, ‘Integrity’ and ‘Courtesy’ – these are three words that have come to represent the spirit in which the game of golf is played.  As the playing Rules evolved and expanded, so too did Etiquette customs become enshrined for the benefit of an ever increasing playing public.

The term ‘Etiquette’ first appears as a note at the end of Perth Golf Club’s rules of 1825:

It may not be improper here to mention certain points of etiquette, which it is of importance should be observed by all who are in the habit of attending matches of Golf.  It is understood that no looker-on is entitled to make any observation whatsoever respecting the play - to walk before the player - to remove impediments out of their way - or, in short, to interfere in the most distant manner with the game while playing.  The player is at liberty, at all times, to ask advice from his partner or caddie, but from no other person.

Other clubs followed; in 1828 Burntisland Golf Club, like Perth, added a short paragraph at the end of its rules, which read:

No lookers-on are entitled to make any observations respecting the play, which may be audible to the players – nor walk before players to remove impediments, or in any way interfere with the same.  While playing, the player is at liberty to ask advice from this partner or caddie, but no other person.

At this time, golf clubs were at liberty to devise and follow their own rules, so it is interesting to note the similarity between the Perth and Burntisland wording.  The Honourable Company also picked up on this point of conduct, which came at the end of its code of 1839: All spectators at golf matches are requested to be silent, and to stand still, while the parties are striking, or about to strike.

Unlike Perth, neither Burntisland nor the Honourable Company used the term ‘Etiquette’, but as a code of behaviour, it is clearly implied.  All three of these clubs kept this passage outside the main body of the Rules, although over time a dedicated section on Etiquette was to appear, related to, but distinct from the actual playing Rules.

The first part of the passage in the Perth and Burntisland codes corresponds to the wording that appears in the section on Etiquette in the current Rules of Golf under the heading, ‘No Disturbance or Distraction’:

“Players should always show consideration for other players on the course and should not disturb their play by moving, talking or making unnecessary noise”.

The second part, concerning advice, appears with only a slight modification in the main body of the Rules.  According to Rule 8-1-b: “During a stipulated round, a player must not ask for advice from anyone other than his partner or either of their caddies”.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews went further by introducing a separate section on Etiquette, which came at the end of its 1891 Rules code. 

The following customs belong to the established Etiquette of Golf and should be observed by all golfers:

  1. No player, caddie, or onlooker should move or talk during a stroke.
  2. No player should play from the tee until the party in front have played their second strokes and are out of range, nor play to the Putting Green till the party in front have holed out and moved away.
  3. The player who leads from the tee should be allowed to play before his opponent tees his ball
  4. Players who have holed out should not try their putts over again when other players are following them.
  5. Players looking for a lost ball must allow any other match coming up to pass them.
  6. A party playing three or more balls must allow a two ball match to pass them.
  7. A party playing a shorter round must allow a two ball match playing the whole round to pass them.
  8. A player should not putt at the hole when the flag is in it.
  9. The reckoning of the strokes is kept by the terms “the odd”, “two more”, “three more” &c., and “one off three”, “one off two”, “the like”.  The reckoning of the holes is kept by the terms – so many – “holes up” – or “all even” – and so many “to play.”
  10. Turf cut or displaced by a stroke in playing should be at once replaced.

Study of the Rules codes of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews show some topics that were covered in the actual playing Rules were subsequently transferred to the section on Etiquette, sometimes with modifications.  For example, in the code of 1851, Rule 2 – ‘Place of Teeing’ contains the following wording:

“…When two parties meet on the Putting Green, the party first there may claim the privilege of holing out, and any party coming up must wait till the other party has played out the hole, and on no account to play their balls up, lest they should annoy the parties who are putting. No player may play his teed ball, till the party in front have played their second stroke”.

In 1891, this appeared in a slightly amended form within the Etiquette section, as can be seen above, in point number two. 

Another example from the 1851 code is Rule 14 – ‘Parties Passing Each Other’:

“Any party having lost a ball, and incurring delay by seeking it, shall be passed by any party coming up, and on all occasions a two-ball match – whether by two or four players may pass a three ball match”.

This Rule was moved to the section on Etiquette in 1891, appearing as points 5 and 6, noted above.

The next R&A Rules code to be published was in 1899, two years after The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews had agreed to accept responsibility for the governance of the game and form the Rules of Golf Committee.  Some revisions were made to the section on Etiquette and a new clause was added at the beginning, which read:

“A single player has no standing, and must always give way to a properly constituted match”. The final point read: “It is the duty of an umpire or referee to take cognisance of any breach of rule that he may observe, whether he be appealed to on the point or not”.

From 1902-1931 the Etiquette section did not change much.  In 1933 a new and significant point was added at the end: “Players should at all times play without undue delay”.  By 1949, by which year Etiquette preceded the playing Rules in the book, this had moved to fourth position in the list of Etiquette actions.  In 1996 a new heading, ‘Pace of Play’ was added to what had become an expanded list of Etiquette actions, defined under broader headings of ‘Courtesy on the Course’, ‘Priority on the Course’ and ‘Care on the Course’.

Modern innovations, which could have a behavioural impact on the game, have resulted in new Etiquette customs being introduced.  For example in 1972 a point relating to ‘Golf Carts’ was introduced, with the stipulation that:

“Local Notices regulating the movement of golf carts should be strictly observed”. 

More recently in 2004, in recognition of the fact that mobile phones are now essential to our existence, a point was added under heading, ‘Consideration for Other Players’, which read:

“Players should ensure that any electronic device taken onto the course does not distract other players”.

Crucially, 2004 saw the introduction of a new paragraph at the beginning of the Etiquette section, entitled ‘The Spirit of the Game’, which encapsulates the unique virtues of the game of golf:

Unlike many sports, golf is played, for the most part, without the supervision of a referee or umpire.  The game relies on the integrity of the individual to show consideration for other players and to abide by the Rules.  All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be.  This is the spirit of the game of golf”.

In summary, it is fair to say that the introduction and expansion of Etiquette has gone hand in hand with the evolution of the playing Rules and, in turn, the development of the game itself.  How do you see it evolving in the 21st century?