Good Golf Etiquette On The Green

By Jim Corbett
(Copyright 1999)

The Putting Green is a very special place to golfers. Putting is one of the most important parts of the game of golf -- remember that one half of all the strokes allotted for a score of par are putts! And because the green is such a special place and because putting is so important to your game, there are LOTS of etiquette rules to know about when you are on the green.


The first thing to realize when you walk onto the green is that the grass is very delicate and even your very foot prints can be damaging to the green. If you wear spikes on your shoes it will be especially damaging because when golfers twist their feet to turn, they tear out the grass and leave big gashes on the green. Also if the grass is very wet the spikes can leave big holes in the surface of the green.

There was once a time when it was believed that spikes were good for the grass because they aerated the soil. There was also a time when it was believed that the earth was flat and disease was caused by evil spirits. Luckily, human beings learn as they go. And one of the most important things they have learned (right up there with the round earth thing and germs) is that metal spikes can actually damage the greens.

A new, more golf-course-friendly trend in golf today is to require golfers to wear "soft spikes" on their shoes. Soft spikes are plastic spikes that give you good traction on your shoes, but don't damage the surface of the green. So, if you wear spikes on your shoes, be sure to wear soft spikes to protect the greens and keep them rolling true!

Stepping Over the Ball Path

Another thing to notice as soon as you step out onto the green is the location of everyone's ball. The reason you should carefully note where all the other balls are is so you don't step on the path on which someone else will momentarily putt.

If you step on the path of a ball lying on the green what will happen is that your footprint will make a little hole or depression right where that golfer is going to send their putt. That depression may cause their ball to go off course, making them miss their putt. They will not be too happy if that happens.

The best route to your own ball is to walk behind any other balls laying on the green. But if that is not possible, then step over the imaginary line between any ball and the hole. By walking around or stepping over another player's ball path you demonstrate your awareness of their ball and your courtesy to them as a player.

Repairing Your Ball Marks

One of the great thrills in golf is to watch your well-hit shot sail through the air, land on the green and roll up to the cup. What a great feeling! But before you become overwhelmed with joy remember that when that ball landed on the green it, no doubt, made a dent in the surface of the green.

Depending on how hard and fast the ball was traveling, how hard the greens are and how wet the weather has been, that dent may vary from a little bump to a great big gash. When your ball makes a mark on the green you should take out your handy-dandy "ball mark repair tool" and fix it. By fixing the mark you will be ensuring that the golfers who play behind you will have a smooth surface free from blemishes.

Here is the proper way to fix a ball mark, so that no one will even be able to detect that it ever occurred:

First, realize that the ball is rarely, if ever going to fall straight down out of the sky. It comes in to the green at a slight angle. As a result of the angle of approach, most ball marks have a bunch of grass pushed up in the front of them like an accordion and a little patch of exposed brown dirt at the back of them.

So, the obvious thing to do if you want to completely restore the grass is to use your ball mark repair tool to pull back the grass that is bunched up in the front. Gently straighten out the accordion.

If the ball came in really hard there may even be a small chunk of grass that is broken off, if so, get that chunk and put it back in the hole and then gently press the grass down all around to smooth it out. Some golfers like to gently step on the repaired spot, which is okay, but pressing down with your fingers works fine too.

(The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America wants you to know that they appreciate your efforts in this regard. They feel so strongly that repairing ball marks is important that they invited Mr. Golf Etiquette to use their display of the proper method of fixing ball marks. Click here to see their display -- scroll the left side of their frame and click on "Repairing Ballmarks.")

If you have time while waiting for the others to putt, and if you have mastered the technique of fixing the marks, you may want to fix one or two others that less considerate golfers have failed to repair. You can count that as your good deed for the day but, unfortunately, you cannot eliminate strokes from your score for each mark you fix.

(Avoid the technique of sticking the tool in and stirring it around -- that only makes a bigger mess than is already there.)

Marking Your Ball

When you are on the green the Rules of Golf allow you to mark and clean your ball. The cleaning part helps to ensure you will get a nice even roll on your putt; the marking part ensures that you will put the ball back in exactly the same spot when you are done cleaning.

Place a coin or a ball marker directly behind your golf, on the opposite side of the ball as the hole. Don't put your ball marker in front of your ball because you may put an indentation in the ground in front of your ball, causing your own shot to go off course when you hit it.

If your ball is in the direct path of another golfer's shot, you may move your mark up to a club length to either side. Of course, when the other golfer has played the shot, you must return your mark to the original position.

After you have cleaned your ball, if your spot on the green is closer to the hole than any other golfers in your group hang onto your ball until it is your turn. That way your ball won't be a distraction to someone putting before you.

Meanwhile, without disturbing anyone who is putting, you can be evaluating your putt from your ball marker. Then when it is your turn, place the ball on the ground in front of your marker, then remove the marker.

(Avoid the bad habit of taking the marker up then putting the ball down. You cannot put the ball in precisely the same spot with that technique and at some point in a tournament a competitor may question the accuracy of your replacement of the ball.)

Removing/Tending The Flagstick

The Rules of Golf tell us that the ball may not strike the flagstick, in the hole when the ball has been played from on the green. (If your ball is hit from off the green and hits the flagstick, that's okay -- it's especially okay if it hits the flagstick and goes in the hole!) So that means when a golfer is putting, the flagstick must be removed from the hole before the ball enters the hole.

To remove the flagstick from the hole, simply pick it straight up to avoid bashing it against the rim of the hole and damaging the edge. Take the flagstick to the edge of the green and gently lay it down so the knob on the end is off the green. If you just drop it on the green it may leave a big gash on the surface of the green. That's a no-no!

Sometimes, however, due to a long putt or an odd angle or the sunshine or shadows, or who-knows-what, the person putting may not be able to see the hole very well. In this instance another golfer in the group (perhaps that would be YOU) can 'tend the flagstick' for that golfer. Tending the flagstick is a courtesy you extend to the other golfers in your group whenever they need that service, and if you do it properly they will quickly see that you are well schooled in the art of golf etiquette.

Here is the proper way to tend the pin for another golfer:

  • Stand to the side of the cup, left or right, depending on which side your shadow falls (be sure your shadow does not fall over the cup or across the line the golfer is putting on);
  • Stand about arm's length distance from the cup with your feet away from the hole (to avoid damaging the cup), and be sure you are not standing on anyone else's putting line in the process;
  • With your arm nearest the flagstick reach out and hold the flag against the flagstick to keep it from flapping in the breeze;

(Now, there's one more thing you need to do and this is the really hard part...)

Become invisible.

(Becoming invisible means don't fidget, talk, wiggle, waggle, drop your club, or point to the bald eagle that just flew overhead. In fact, the only thing that should make you move is if the guy who is putting forgot to set the brake on his electric cart and it is now rolling into the lake with his clubs his wallet and his keys -- then you can say something. Otherwise be invisible!)

The last thing that happens regarding tending the pin is that the person for whom you are tending it actually putts the ball. Now as the ball is rolling toward the hole, lift the flagstick straight out, walk quietly to the side of the green and lay it down as described above.

Going to School

"Reading the greens" is a tricky business. That is the process of figuring out how the ball is going to roll up and down and across all the little hills and moguls that are all around the green. If you learn to "read" them well you will be an excellent putter. Meanwhile a great way to learn is by watching the other golfers in your group who are putting ahead of you in turn. Golfers refer to this as "going to school" on a putt.

"Going to school" on a putt can save you valuable strokes, but one thing you cannot do is put your education ahead of someone else's opportunity to make a putt. So that means that even though you are studying hard to see where the putt goes, you may not choose a vantage point that is within the peripheral vision of the golfer who is putting or, that will be, in any way, distracting to the putter.

Often at a pro event you will see the pro golfer who is going to school get behind the person putting and after the shot has been hit, quickly scurry to the vantage point where he or she can see the ball break to or away from the hole. Good golf etiquette sometimes means putting yourself at a slight disadvantage in order to allow your playing partner the best chance for a good shot.

General Green Etiquette

  • Treat the green as you would the library -- be very quiet
  • When your group is finished putting out, carefully replace the flagstick without damaging the sides of the hole, move off the green and proceed to the next tee
  • Mark your scores on the next tee, not on the green -- this will allow the next group to begin their shots to the green as soon as you are done and benefits all the groups behind you
  • Remember you're not only wasting your time but other golfers time as well by not following these simple guidelines. It's not like you're at home relaxing on your rattan garden furniture, you're on a public golf course with other people waiting.
  • To allow for the greatest efficiency when leaving the green, be careful to place your clubs off the green and on the shortest route from the green to the next tee. This way you avoid having to walk back across the green to get your clubs while others are waiting for you. (The same thing applies to where you leave your pull cart or motorized cart.) (Thanks to Don Sparks for this reminder.)
  • Always be careful of your shots if near any residential areas. It would be a shame to hit any plastic sheds or any other personal property that you don't own.

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