Order of play perplexing, but it's all in the rulebook

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Order of play is a concept that is often misunderstood. In simplest terms, it refers to who goes first in a group of golfers on the tee box, in the fairway, the rough and on the green. Even in hazards and ground under repair, there is an order of play.

This can all sound trivial to a non-golfer, or someone who does not play a lot of competitive golf, but it is important to know what the order of play is.

When my husband, Gene, first retired, he fulfilled his lifelong dream and played on the Sunbelt Senior Tour for several years. As a fine amateur player with a number of club championships under his belt, he jumped into this very competitive milieu with both feet.

Nearly all the guys on the Sunbelt Tour were PGA professionals or ranked amateurs who had turned pro and were now playing golf for real money. Some of the pros were honing their skills for the Champions Tour; others were testing the waters, deciding whether they would launch second careers as senior tour players.

These guys were serious. This was not the club championship. This was rent or car payment. Golf was their livelihood, and hopes and dreams were pinned on golf performance. Even the amateurs (Gene and a few others) were pretty serious, too.

Before he even started, Gene read the “Rules of Golf” from cover to cover. He knew that order of play was very important. There was none of that “I’m ready so I’ll putt while you rake the trap,” or “You’re off the green, why don’t you come on, and then we’ll all putt.”

Un-uh. That kind of talk did not happen.

Whoever was farthest from the hole, took the shot. If Joe was on the far side of the green looking at a 40-foot putt, and Larry was closer to the pin but in a bunker, Joe putted before Larry hit his sand wedge.

You see, it didn’t matter who was on the putting surface. Order of play is determined by distance from the pin.

Things change a bit when everyone gets closer to the hole. For example, in stroke play, you can choose to putt until your ball is in the hole. However, etiquette dictates that you mark your ball and wait if you will trample the line of your opponent’s putt by continuing.

In match play, you do not have that right. Your opponent can agree to let you proceed with your next putt, but in many cases your opponent will not grant you that right because he doesn’t want to be in a pressure situation when he must make his putt to win or tie the hole.

In a team match, you have control over who putts first on your team, and it does not need to be the partner farthest from the hole. If Ed is 40 feet from the hole, but his partner Joe is closer and in the same line, the partnership may opt to have Joe putt first to show Ed the line of the putt.

On the first tee, order of play is determined by lot. Flip a coin or drop a tee and see who it points to.

On succeeding holes, the order of play is determined by who had the lowest score on the previous hole. If that doesn’t work, go back to the hole before. If that fails, order is again determined by lot.

In match play or in a team event, if you’ve won the previous hole, you are up first on the tee box.

Imagine a long par-3 over water with bunkers behind the green. You won the last hole, and you are one up on your opponent. As you walk to the tee box, various thoughts race through your head. If you put the ball safely on the green and two-putt, you may win the hole, or at least stay one up. But what if you sky it into the water or plop it into the far bunker?

As you take your stance, you wish with all your heart that your opponent could hit first.

If the scoring is counted by a net score hole by hole, the lowest net score goes first. If, however, the handicap strokes are deducted at the end of the round, the lowest gross score goes first.

What about order of play in the fairway?

Technically speaking, the golfer farthest away from the hole always goes first. However, to speed up play in minor events, this rule is often waived. In that case, others may hit while a golfer is selecting a club or finding his ball in the rough.

What about when two people go into the same pond? Who hits first?

The golfer whose ball was farthest from the hole where it was lifted out of the water hazard goes first. If that point cannot be determined, flip a coin.

Despite these rules of engagement and the complications of determining the order of play, golfers should always go to their ball and be ready to hit, whatever the order is.

The rules of who goes first are not difficult to understand. You can check out the United State Golf Association Rules of Golf (Rule 10: Order of Play) in its booklet or on the U.S.G.A. Web site.

Interestingly, there is no penalty for playing out of turn. However, if you go out of turn in match play, your opponent can require you to disregard your shot and to replay it from the original spot. (Rule 10-1c: Playing Out of Turn).

In medal play, there can be serious penalties for playing out of turn. Normally, there is no penalty, but if the tournament committee determines that two competitors have agreed to play out of turn to give one of them an advantage, it’s the big DQ. That’s not Dairy Queen, folks, that’s disqualification.

For example, if one competitor has played badly and is out of the tournament, he might agree to putt first to show the line of the putt to another player, even though the order of play dictates he go second. That’s a DQ if the committee finds out about it.

It all sounds harsh, but golf is a game of rules. Learning the rules will help everyone play a better, less stressful game.


Quotes from famous golfers:

Tom Watson: “A lot of guys who have never choked have never been in a position to do so.”

Johnny Miller: “Golf is 90 percent inspiration and 10 percent perspiration.”

Lee Trevino: “Putts get real difficult the day they hand out the money.”

Ben Hogan: “Relax? How can anyone relax and play golf? You have to grip the club, don’t you?”

Gary Player: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.“

Dinah Shore: “The difference between golf and tennis is that tennis is murder—you just want to kill the other player. Golf is suicide—you just want to kill yourself.”

Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for the Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net.