A golf course consists of a series of holes, each consisting of a teeing ground, fairway, rough and other hazards, and a green with a flagstick (pin) and cup, all designed for the game of golf. A standard round of golf consists of playing 18 holes, thus most golf courses have this number of holes. Some, however, only have nine holes and the course is played twice per round, while others have 27 or 36 and choose two groups of nine holes at a time for novelty and maintenance reasons. Many older golf courses, often coastal, are golf links, of a different style to others. For non-municipal courses, there is usually a golf club based at each course.
The first section of every hole consists of what is known as the teeing ground, or tee-box. There is usually more than one available box for a player to place their ball, each one a different distance from the hole. They are generally as level as feasible, and most are slightly raised from the surrounding fairway. The most common tee areas, in increasing order of length from the hole, are the ladies' tee, the men's tee, and the championship tee. Other common tee-boxes include the junior tee, closer to the hole than the ladies' tee, and the senior tee, generally between the ladies' tee and the men's tee. In tournaments, golfers generally tee off from the box one level further from the "normal" box for their class (men use the championship tee, ladies use the senior or men's tee, and juniors use the ladies' tee).
Each tee box has two markers showing the bounds of the legal tee area. The teeing area spans the distance between the markers, and extends from two-club lengths behind the markers up to the markers themselves. A golfer may play the ball from outside the teeing area, but the ball itself must be shot from within the area. A golfer may place his ball directly on the teeing ground (called hitting it "off the deck"), a manufactured support known as a tee, or any natural substance such as sand placed on the teeing surface.
After teeing off, the player again hits the ball toward the green from where it came to rest. The area between the tee box and the putting green is called the fairway. The turf of the fairway is generally cut short and evenly and is an advantageous area from which to hit. The area between the fairway and the out-of-bounds markers and also between the fairway and green is the rough, the turf of which is cut higher than that of the fairway and is generally a disadvantageous area from which to hit. Par three holes expect the player to be able to drive the ball to the green on their first shot from the tee box. Holes longer than par threes are expected to require at least one extra shot made from the fairway or rough.
While many holes are designed with a direct line-of-sight from the tee-off point to the green, some of the holes may bend either to the left or to the right. This is called a "dogleg", in reference to a dog's knee. The hole is called a "dogleg left" if the hole angles leftwards, and a "dogleg right" if the hole angles rightwards. Sometimes, a hole's direction can bend twice, and is called a "double dogleg".
Many holes include hazards, which may be of three types: (1) water hazards such as lakes and rivers; (2) man-made hazards such as bunkers; and (3) natural hazards such as dense vegetation. Special rules apply to playing balls that fall in a hazard. For example, a player may not touch the ground with his club before playing a ball, not even for a practice swing. A ball in any hazard may be played as it lies without penalty. If it cannot be played from the hazard, the ball may be hit from another location, generally with a penalty of one stroke. The Rules of Golf govern exactly from where the ball may be played outside a hazard. Bunkers (or sand traps) are shallow pits filled with sand and generally incorporating a raised lip or barrier, from which the ball is more difficult to play than from grass. As in any hazard, a ball in a sand trap must be played without previously touching the sand with the club.
To putt is to play a stroke on the defined putting surface. Usually, this stroke is played on the green with a putter where the ball does not leave the ground. Once on the green, the ball is putted (struck with the eponymous flat-faced club to roll it along the ground) toward the hole until the ball falls into the cup.
The grass of the putting green (more commonly just green) is cut very short so that a ball can roll long distances. The growth direction of the blades of grass affects the ball's roll and is called the grain of the green. The slope or break of the green also affects the roll of the ball. The cup is always found within the green and must have a diameter of 108 millimeters (4.25 in) and a depth of at least 10 centimeters (3.94 in). Its position on the green is not fixed and should be changed daily by a greenskeeper in order to prevent excessive wear and damage to the turf. The cup usually has a flag on a pole positioned in it so that it may be seen from a distance, but not necessarily from the tee; this flag-and-pole combination is called the pin or less commonly the flagstick.
Putting greens are not all of the same quality. Generally, the finest-quality greens are well kept so that a ball will smoothly roll over the closely-mowed grass. Excess water can be removed from a putting green using a machine called a water hog. Golfers describe a green as fast if a light stroke to the ball makes it roll a long distance; conversely, a slow green is one where a stronger stroke is required to roll the ball the required distance. The exact speed of a green can be found with a stimp meter. By collecting sample measurements, golf courses can be compared in terms of average green speed. It is, however, illegal by the Rules of Golf to test the speed of a green while playing by rolling a ball on it, feeling or rubbing the green.
Most courses have only par three, four, and five holes, though some courses include par six holes. Typical distances for the various holes from standard tees are as follows.
Harder or easier courses may have longer or shorter distances, respectively. Terrain can also be a factor, where a long downhill hole might be rated a par four, but a shorter uphill or treacherous hole might be rated a par five. Professional tournament players will often encounter longer Par 3 holes (up to 290 yards) and longer Par 4 holes (up to 520 yards).
Some areas of the course are designated as ground under repair ("G.U.R."), where greenskeepers are making repairs or where the course is damaged. A ball coming to rest in this spot may be lifted, then played from outside the G.U.R. without penalty. Certain man-made objects on the course are defined as obstructions (i.e. distance posts, gardens, etc.), and specific rules determine how a golfer may proceed when their play is impeded by these.
Often, there is a practice range or driving range, usually with practice greens, bunkers, and driving areas. Markers showing distances are usually included on a practice range to benefit the golfer. There may even be a practice course (often shorter and easier to play than full-scale golf courses), where golfers practice to measure how far they can hit with a specific club or to improve their swing technique.
A specialty of landscape design or landscape architecture, golf course architecture is its own field of study. Some golf course architects become celebrities in their own right. The field is represented by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the European Institute of Golf Course Architects and the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects.
While golf courses often follow the original landscape, some modification is unavoidable. This is increasingly the case as new courses are more likely to be sited on less optimal land. Bunkers and sand traps are almost always artificial, although other forms of roughage may be natural.
The layout of fairways follows certain traditional principles, such as the number of holes (nine and 18 being most common), their par and number of chosen par types per course. It is also preferable to arrange greens to be close to the tee box of the next playable hole, to minimize travel distance while playing. Combined with the need to package all the fairways in a compact square or rectangular land plot, they tend to form an oppositional tiling pattern. In complex areas, sometimes two holes share a single tee box. It is also common for separate tee-off points to be positioned for men, women, and amateurs, each one respectively lying closer to the green.
A successful design is as visually pleasing as it is playable. With golf being an outdoor form of recreation, the strong designer is an adept student of natural landscaping, understanding the aesthetic cohesion of vegetation, water bodies, paths, grasses, stonework and woodwork, among other things.
Environmental concerns over the use of land for golf courses have grown over the past fifty years. Specific issues include the amount of water and chemical pesticides and fertilizers used for maintenance, as well as the perceived destruction of wetlands and other environmentally important areas during construction. The UN estimates that golf courses use about 2.5 billion gallons/9.5 billion liters of water daily. Many golf courses in the world are irrigated with non-potable water and/or rainwater. Diazinon is a toxic chemical used on golf courses. In 1988, the US Environmental Protection Agency prohibited the use of Diazinon on golf courses and sod farms because of negative impact on bird species.
These, along with health and cost concerns, have led to research into more environmentally sound practices and turf grasses. The golf course superintendent is often trained in the uses of these practices and grasses. This has led to significant reduction in the amount of chemicals and water used on courses. The turf on golf courses is an excellent filter for water and has been used in communities to cleanse grey water, such as incorporation of bioswales.
Environmentalists and other activists continue to oppose golf courses for environmental reasons, as they occasionally impede corridors for migrating animals and sanctuaries for birds and other wildlife, though courses frequently become havens for native and non-native creatures.
A result of modern equipment is that today's players can hit the ball much farther than previously. As a result, out of a concern for safety, golf course architects have had to lengthen and widen golf courses. This has led to a ten percent increase in the acreage required to build them. At the same time, water restrictions placed by communities have forced courses to limit the amount of maintained turf grass. While most modern 18-hole golf courses occupy as much as 60 hectares (150 acres) of land, the average course has 30 Ha (75 acres) of maintained turf. (Sources include the National Golf Foundation and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America GCSAA.)
Golf courses can be built on sandy areas along coasts, abandoned farms, strip mines and quarries, deserts and forests. Many Western countries have instituted environmental restrictions on where and how courses can be built.
In some parts of the world, attempts to build courses and resorts have led to protests, vandalism and violence. Golf is perceived by some as elitist, and thus golf courses become a target for popular opposition. Resisting golf tourism and golf's expansion has become an objective of some land-reform movements, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia.
In the Bahamas, opposition to golf developments has become a national issue. Residents of Great Guana Cay and Bimini, for example, are engaged in legal and political opposition to golf developments on their islands, for fear the golf courses will destroy the nutrient-poor balance on which their coral reef and mangrove systems depend.
In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in arid regions, golf courses have been constructed on nothing more than oil-covered sand. Players may use a roller on the "greens" to smooth the intended path before putting. In Coober Pedy, Australia, there is a golf course that consists of nine holes dug into mounds of sand, diesel and oil, with no grass anywhere on the course. Players carry a small piece of astroturf from which they tee the ball. In New Zealand it is not uncommon for rural courses to have greens fenced off and sheep graze the fairways. At the 125-year-old Royal Colombo Golf Club in Sri Lanka steam trains, from the Kelani Valley railway, run through the course at the 6th hole.
Extreme golf is played on environmentally sustainable alternatives to traditional courses. A cross between hiking and golf, the course layout exposes players to a wide range of natural obstacles and challenging terrains.
Based on the growing popularity of the U.X. Open Alternative Golf Tournament the extreme golf course features un-mowed meadows and forest instead of fairways, with "goals" scored on temporary greens (a circle 6 metres (20 ft) in diameter).