Top 10 Misused Terms in Golf

Knowing the correct terms makes it easier to find answers in the Rules of Golf booklet

April 16, 2009

By Travis Lesser

As a Rules of Golf Associate with the USGA, I answer thousands of telephone calls and e-mail queries each year about the Rules of Golf. I've also worked as a golf professional and tournament director for a golf tour for elite juniors, which means I've seen and heard countless Rules of Golf situations and discussions in the field.

So I know all too well what can happen when golfers use terms incorrectly or which are not defined in the Rules of Golf. Therefore, with apologies to David Letterman, I submit to you the "Top 10 Misused Terms in Golf."

No. 10, "Through the Green"
No. 9, "Rough"
No. 8, "Fairway"

These three terms have a strong relationship to one another in that they are typically misused when referring to areas of the course. The terms "rough" and "fairway" are actually areas of the course that the Rules call " through the green ."

The issue with "through the green" is that most tend to believe it refers to the area over the back of the green. However, by definition within the Rules of Golf, if an area of the golf course is not a hazard (i.e., a bunker or a water hazard), and is not the teeing ground or the putting green of the hole you are playing, it is "through the green."

Did you know the word "rough" does not appear in the Rules of Golf , and the word "fairway" appears only once? Ironically "fairway," while not defined in the Rules, is used to clarify the term "closely mown area" for where a player is entitled to relief for a ball embedded in its own pitch-mark ( Rule 25-2 ). Although golfers at all skill levels use these terms, you will not be able to find these words in the index when attempting to look them up in the Rules of Golf booklet. Quite simply, both fairway and rough fall under one term: "through the green."

No. 7, "Waste Area/Waste Bunker"

Many modern golf courses have areas often referred to as "waste areas" or "waste bunkers." These are typically areas that don't meet the definition of either a water hazard or a bunker . Generally, they are unmaintained natural areas installed by modern-day course architects to add another test for golfers to negotiate (or to reduce maintenance costs), and are simply "through the green." That means the Rules allow you to ground your club and/or take practice swings in these areas. And that can be a good thing.

No. 6, "Trap"

Continuing with bunkers, let's get another misnomer out of the way. A bunker is not a "trap."

By definition, a bunker is a prepared area of ground, often a hollow, from which turf or soil has been removed and replaced with sand or the like. Many golfers like to refer to them as traps or sand traps. Now, the last time I checked, a "trap" is not something anyone or anything wants to be in (i.e., bear traps, rat traps, speed traps). What's more, if one attempts to look up the word "trap" in the Rules of Golf, the search will be fruitless, as the word is not there. A bunker, on the other hand, has a much less punitive connotation and is the proper term as defined in the Rules of Golf.

No. 5, "Cup"
No. 4, "Pin"

It is a bit of a mystery as to how the terms "cup" and "pin" came to replace the proper terms of " hole " and " flagstick ." Seems that it is just as easy to refer to them as a "hole," and a "flag" or a "stick." Most golfers should cringe every time they hear television announcers refer to the hole location as the day's "pin placement." After all, the purpose of the game as laid out in Rule 1-1 is to put the ball in the hole, not in the cup.

No. 3, "Tee Box"

Let's talk about the "tee box." Historically, the tee box was a small wood crate filled with sand used for building a small mound to place the ball for the tee shot; that is until the wooden tee peg became all the rage in the early 1900s. The starting place of each hole is a rectangular area, two club-lengths in depth and the width of the tee-markers, and the proper term for it is " teeing ground ."

No. 2, "Rub of the Green"

Another term often misused by television announcers is "rub of the green." Most use the term to refer to bad luck. According to the Rules of Golf, a rub of the green occurs when a ball in motion is accidentally deflected or stopped by an outside agency. Sure, it's frustrating when a perfectly good shot heads toward the flagstick, only to have the ball strike the flagstick and careen into a greenside bunker. That's a rub of the green that is bad luck. However, a ball destined for out of bounds or a bad place, that miraculously strikes a tree and comes to rest in a more desirable spot is a rub of the green that is good luck. Some know this as a "member's bounce." Here is a link to a terrific video clip of Payne Stewart receiving a very lucky " rub of the green ."

No. 1, "Foursome"

Now, the most often misused term in the game of golf ... foursome .

Most people refer to their group of golf buddies as their "foursome." However, those who watched the Ryder Cup matches last September may have learned that foursomes is a form of play in which partners play one ball alternately from the teeing grounds and alternately during play of each hole. When playing with your buddies in a group of four, you are most likely not alternating shots with a partner.

The USGA understands that many of these words and phrases are used casually. However, it is important to have a proper understanding of the terms and Definitions contained in the Rules of Golf. Understanding the correct terms makes finding answers in the Rules of Golf booklet easier. Besides, having a basic understanding of the terms will make the game more enjoyable for you and your usual Sunday foursome - oops … I meant, group of four.

Travis Lesser is a Rules of Golf Associate at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. To contact him, e-mail ; for general rules inquiries, call 908-234-2300 or submit a question at


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