No matter how much you practice and how good you think you may be, every golfer will make some sort of follies out on the course. If a mistake happens during a casual game with friends, then you may have nothing to worry about (except for maybe a couple of lost balls). Should you make some sort of error in tournament competition, however, the result can be penalties on your score.
These penalties, which can be treated like "fouls" in other sports, are designed to make you pay for you gaffes by adding strokes to your score. This is done to keep the game of golf balanced and prevent any potential cheating during competition.
If you plan to play competitively, you may want to know what exactly you can be penalized so that you can prevent, as best you can, any potential negative effects on your game.
Types of Penalties
Penalties usually come in the form of either one-stroke or two-stroke penalties, unless otherwise stated. Knowing what kind of penalties you can face during your match allows you to be prepared, and make plans for each hole that can help you to prevent the penalties from occurring.
- Grounding: The term "grounding" refers to when you let your club head rest on the ground prior to taking your shot from, or near, a hazard. While striking the sand when taking a shot from a sand trap is bound to happen, and is hence perfectly legal, letting your club head rest on the ground at any point before your shot or striking water in a water hazard can lead to a two-stroke penalty.
- In a similar fashion, you are not able to hit the sand in a sand trap at all during the process of a practice swing, as this is also considered grounding. The reason that a golfer is penalized for grounding is that it is deemed as "testing the terrain" by the USGA, which is not allowed for hazards as they are supposed to be penalties in themselves.
- Whiff: If you are new to golf, chances are you "whiff" a lot, which means that you completely miss your ball when taking your swing. While this is embarrassing in itself, it is even more so in competition as every time you Whiff, it adds one stroke to your score.
- Water Hazard: If you happen to be unfortunate enough to lose your ball in a water hazard, you will gain one extra stroke and have to drop your ball back on land a few feet from the hazard.
- Lost Ball/Out of Bounds: Much like a water hazard, losing your ball or shooting it out of the playing area for the hole you are on will result in an additional stroke and the ball being reset at the place you shot from.
- Unplayable: If your ball lands on a terrain that is considered "unplayable", either due to the location or condition of the area, you will be assessed a one-stroke penalty and have to place your ball within one club length of the unplayable location, no nearer the hole.
- Player Obstruction: If the player interferes with or moves their ball intentionally, the ball is to be reset at the location it was to be hit from, and the player is given a two-stroke penalty.
- The same "Obstruction" rule applies if the player (somehow) manages to hit themselves with their ball after the swing, with the two-stroke penalty being applied.
- Practice Error: Not to be confused with the obstruction rule, if a player touches or otherwise hits the ball during a practice swing, the player will gain an additional stroke.
- Shielding: If you are in tournament play and happen to be caught in a rainstorm, then you may need to be careful of some extra penalties. Should you protect your ball, or someone helps to protect you, from the elements, then you will net yourself a two-stroke "shielding" penalty.
- Carrying Extra Clubs: A golfer is allowed no more than 14 clubs at any given time in their golf bag. Should they be carrying more, then the golfer will get a two-stroke penalty for every hole that the extra clubs are in their bag.
- Hitting Someone Else's Ball: Otherwise known as the "Why I put my name on my balls" rule, if you somehow manage to hit a competitor's ball, either on the green or on the course, you will be given a two-stroke penalty.
- Harming Plants: According to the USGA, Mother Nature is our friend. Should any part of your body be used to break any of the plant life on the course, you will be assessed a two-stroke penalty, as well as gain the knowledge that you are a terrible human being.
Note: While these above penalties apply to both stroke play and match play, and penalty that would otherwise give you two strokes in stroke play instead causes the loss of the hole in match play.
If you play in tournaments or just have a group of golfing buddies that are very strict about the rules, then you are bound to find yourself on the receiving end of a penalty at one time or another. With this knowledge, you now know exactly what penalties to look out for, giving you the chance to avoid them and plan accordingly during your next competitive match!
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few bushes that I need to re-plant for the country club...