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Courtesy on the Course — The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Cara shares her experience and tips on Golf Etiquette and its unwritten rules


When my husband hit one of his endless tee shots, which unfortunately wound up on the opposite fairway, the foursome behind us scolded him for not yelling “fore.” Normally, I would have echoed their complaints, as I often nag him to yell louder; however, this time, with a hill blocking our view, I did not notice our fellow golfers standing on the opposite tee box.

Tiger Woods - FORE
Hitting a wayword shot also happens to the best players in the world

The Bad

The failure to yell “fore” may sound familiar and seems to happen more frequently with larger numbers of folks playing this game. Sometimes, it is an accident as in my husband’s case; however, we have experienced many near misses without any warning, even when we were in full view of the golfers behind us. Unfortunately, courtesy and consideration are diminishing in many walks of life and the golf course is no exception.

So where do we go from here, and what can we do? There are numerous “unwritten” codes of ethics and etiquette in the game. Marshals also do their best to enforce course rules and regulations; however, new players may not possess the knowledge. As in life, there will always be those who simply do not care, but perhaps a little education can go a long way (particularly for those learning to play this glorious game). All players, both old and new to the sport, need convincing that course courtesy and etiquette benefits all those concerned about the game and its enjoyment.

The Ugly

I learned from my family that golf both reveals and builds true character. “If you cheat in golf, you do so in life,” my mother used to say. However, many of us have taken some liberties with scoring during friendly rounds and doing so does not amount to deception in the world beyond golf.

Still, play five hours with someone, and no doubt this individual will reveal their true self by round’s end, or as the famous quote from PG Wodehouse goes: “To find a man's true character, play golf with him. The great caveat being that unless, of course, this person is a con-artist. Maybe it’s the idealist in me, but I do believe that golf can change some players for the better.

The Good

In the Camaraderie of Golf, iconic author and amateur golfer, John Updike described golf as an exercise in “exaggerated courtesy”. Whether through the repression of a cough or an extended search for a stranger’s ball, the behavior of golfers should be superior to their actions in other walks of life. Since “happiness” reaches its peak for so many on the golf course – particularly if one pars every hole! – virtuous behavior should follow, argues Updike.

Bust of Greek Philosopher - Aristotle

The connection between happiness and virtue has long been a topic of philosophical inquiry. According to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “he is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.” Happiness is purposefulness, says Aristotle, not merely a means to an end. And it leads to the greatest good.

Aristotle encouraged habits as ethical exercises; perhaps we might think of course courtesy as a series of good habits that we develop as golfers, rather than rigid rules that we strictly follow. Here are a few that I’ve learned:

Maintain a Decent Pace of Play

If you cannot see golfers for miles and miles in front of you, but see folks behind you waiting patiently to play, then perhaps you are playing too slowly. This is not about ability, as beginners can be mindful of others while advanced players can be careless about others. Sometimes, a rigid ranger will enforce pace of play, but think of those around you. That long conversation on the putting green can wait.

Two golfers shaking hands at an introduction
Golf is one of the most social recreational activities that people can participate in, and is often considered a great way to network and meet people

Create Human Connections

Still, it pays to be friendly, particularly when playing with new folks; a large part of golf is knowing when to create conversation. Although some of us golf for solitude, we often wind up playing with others and they’re often people we do not know (particularly those of us who play public courses). Use this opportunity to bond with other human beings! Ask questions and get to know fellow golfers. I have met some of the most fascinating people through golf (including a lovely person who suggested that I write on this very topic!”)

Boy putting litter in the bin
Putting litter in the bin is "child's play" -- so why do so many of us avoid this?

Keep the Course Clean

Let’s consider courtesy not just to our fellow humans, but also to the natural world that allows us to enjoy this beautiful game. Many of us play because we relish time outdoors, so why not treat our surroundings with some respect? Is it really so arduous to dispose of your beer bottle, or to hold onto empty cans in your golf bag or cart if no garbage cans exist on the course? A clean course means better play for all.

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I am by no means a perfect practitioner of these habits. Just ask my husband about my former tendency to text when it wasn’t my turn to hit. I’m learning and trying to watch others’ shots, out of kindness and courtesy, as well as to keep my eyes out for errant balls. Next time, my husband and I will yell “fore,” regardless of whether we see people, and doing so helps improve the game for everyone’s benefit and just might contribute to the greater good of this glorious game!


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