Gloves Up: Handling Ruling Disagreements

By: Marcela Smith - Apr 14, 2021

Whether you’re a newbie to golf or have been playing for 20 years, you’ve undoubtedly experienced a time when you and another player have had a disagreement about something during a round. It might have been about a score, how she handled free relief from a cart path, or even a problem with pace-of-play. What began as a regular, friendly round of golf somehow became a very stressful and uncomfortable interaction between you and the other player, and you have no idea why.

In golf, just as at work or in a social situation, there are lots of different personality types who have to co-exist. Of course at work you have 40 hours a week and out on the course it’s only about four hours, but those four hours could be so contentious that friendships are lost and reputations are formed. How you handle these sticky situations will set the tone for your future relationship with not only that player, but others at your club, or circle of golf friends.


We all know that golf is a game of honor and we hope that 99% of all players are attempting to report an honest score for each hole they play. However, you may encounter a player who gives you an incorrect score more than once a round, and appear to be trying to cheat. She may have a higher handicap and tends to forget a few shots because those 8’s and 9’s can get confusing. Or there may be distractions during play of a hole that cause her to lose focus and forget what she’s lying. I know I’ve been guilty of this many times if we are looking for a ball in the bushes, or the drink cart comes by (and we must order an adult beverage).

If a player tells you she has a five when you know it’s a seven, try not to quickly snap off a correction to her. Instead, try saying, “I’m not sure if that’s right. Let’s see, your drive went in the bunker, then you were in the rough, and then were you in another bunker?” helping her recount her shots, rather than telling her what they were. Make this a two-way communication that’s a fact-finding mission in a friendly way, rather than a “you’re wrong” statement.

Timing Is Everything

The timing of your clarification or re-count is important. It’s okay to bring it up on the green as you walk away from the hole when all players have putted out, but do it as a conversation starter while you all pull up to the next teeing area. This gives her the time to talk to her cart partner and try to re-count the shots. When you all get up to tee off, do your best to have body language that’s friendly, rather than aggressive. If you still can’t agree on the score, say, “Well, we can think about it a bit more and wait to record that score”.

Tone Of Voice

Tone of voice is so important when dealing with a disagreement on the course. If you’re smiling and have a tone of voice that’s friendly and non-combative, it helps the other person understand that you’re wanting to help, not criticize or accuse. Always take the position that they forgot a stroke, not that they are doing this intentionally. Every player in the world has forgotten a stroke at least once, and some of us are more forgetful than others.

Sometimes ladies think they overhear other women talking about them, so try to minimize any discussion of doubt with your own cart partner, and avoid laughing when this is happening. Even if you aren’t talking about them, it can sometimes appear that you are, and you don’t want that vibe between you.

Rules Disagreements

Let’s face it, most of us aren’t USGA rules officials and aren’t going to be able to recite the 24 Rules of Golf, with all those nuances and exceptions. If you think a player has violated a rule it is your obligation to bring the subject up. However, you must tread extremely lightly here because if you aren’t 100% sure of it (perhaps you didn’t see everything they did, or you aren’t up to date on a new rule) then telling someone they violated a rule can cause more problems.

There are different procedures to follow for a question of the rules, which depend on whether you’re playing a Stroke Play or Match Play format. To simplify this for the article, I’ll quickly share the basics of both.

In Stroke Play you can play two balls in to the hole, letting the other players know which ball you want to be the official ball if it is under the rules, and which you want to be the second ball. Then when you see a rules official or committee member, or at the end of the round as you begin to turn in your scorecard, you will restate what happened and ask for a ruling.

In Match Play you’ll tell your opponent that you believe she has violated a rule. If she agrees, then the appropriate penalty will apply (and carrying your Rules of Golf book is always helpful for this). If you believe your opponent has breached a rule but she doesn’t agree, you can “make a claim” which means the outcome of that Match Play hole is not determined until you see a rules official or committee member.

One helpful way to deal with any rules issues is to tell the other player about the rule, so that they are aware of it. Players are obligated to call themselves out on a rule violation once they are made aware of it. It’s not you calling them out, it’s them calling themselves out. Again, the tone you use here is very important and if you aren’t 100% sure of the rule, then say you think this is the rule, and perhaps we can get clarification when we see an official later.

Of course, if you’re just playing a friendly round, it’s best not to shift the mood and you can always talk about it after the round, as an educational conversation.


Pace-of-play is another sticky situation that can cause the atmosphere to quickly head South. Some players are in the habit of playing very quickly, and others appear to be walking, hitting, and moving like sloths the whole round. A good rule of thumb on pace is if you saw the group ahead of you when you teed off on the first hole, you should see them in your intended landing area on each shot you’re about to take. If one of the players in your group is causing you to fall behind, here are some things you can try:

Leap up to tee off as soon as you reach the teeing area, don’t wait for the perfect order

Keep looking at your watch or the GPS device on the cart that says you’re behind

Say, “Oh wow, we’re a bit behind, I better hit my shot”

Stop telling stories about your kids, work or husband. Leave that for the 19th hole

Jump out of the cart at your ball while your partner goes off to hers

Taking that deep breath, and trying to empathize and understand how the other player might be feeling will go a long way in helping you respond calmly and openly rather than react negatively. You’ll make more friends, have more fun and probably win more rounds than ever before.

Known as the Rules Diva, Marcela found that most recreational players aren’t interested in reading the entire Rules of Golf book, and prefer learning by “doing.” Marcela provides On-Course Rules Experiences where participants learn golf rules and strategies in real life scenarios, which helps them gain more confidence, lower their scores and have more fun. Marcela blogs on all things golf at

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