Golf's cardinal sins
The 20 most unforgivable mistakes in golf, ranked
Walter Hagen famously said that in any round of golf, he expected to make seven mistakes. So when had a miscue, he wouldn’t get angry; it was just one of those seven. If an 11-time major champion wasn’t concerned about making mistakes on the course, perhaps amateurs should be easier on themselves.
Though some mistakes are inevitable, there are others that golfers have no business making. We call these the unforgivable mistakes. Some hurt your score, others cause serious embarrassment, but all of them need to be avoided at all costs. We’re not talking about technical glitches—these 20 cardinal sins are entirely preventable for all golfers. (Of course, we’ve all made most—if not all—of these mistakes.) Here are the most unforgivable mistakes in golf.
You Should Know Better Mistakes
20. Not selecting a target
It’s easy to get complacent during our pre-shot routines, especially when playing our home course, where we instinctively know every line. Yet, not selecting a specific target can lead to some big misses. As the cliché goes, aim small, miss small.
19. Not taking enough club
It’s true that you’ve hit your 7-iron 170 yards before. It’s also true that you did it once, with a healthy tailwind. Not only is this one of the most common mistakes amateur golfers make, it’s one of the most preventable ones.
18. Going long to a severely sloped green
The pin is tucked in the back of the green, which slopes hard from back to front. Now is not the time to attack. Any ball that comes close to pin high is a mistake. Over the green? Auto bogey, likely double.
17. Hitting a shot after having doubts over the ball
“I really shouldn’t be trying this.” “Is this the right club?” “Which way is the wind going?” Having these thoughts is normal, but pulling the trigger with them floating in your head is a crucial mental error. Step back, reevaluate and commit.
16. Aiming at a tucked pin
Wipe the image of Tiger’s fairway bunker shot on the final hole of 2000 Canadian Open from your head. Unless you’re a 15-time major champion, you have no business hitting it near a flag tucked in a tiny section of the green, just steps from a water hazard or bunker.
15. Hitting the lip of a bunker
We’re not talking about blading a shot—that’s user error and is forgivable. What is unforgivable, however, is thinking your mid-iron will cover the seven-foot face. Grab some loft and take your medicine.
14. Playing from the wrong set of tees
Double meaning here, and both apply. Lose the ego and choose the appropriate tee markers for the day. You’ll shoot a lower score, have more fun and keep the ranger away.
Also unforgivable—though admittedly less egregious—is playing from the wrong tee markers on a given hole. This writer committed this misdemeanor in a member-guest one summer and was awkwardly forgiven. I shouldn’t have been. We lost. Serves me right.
We’re Embarrassed For You Mistakes
13. Teeing up in front of the tee marker
Sure, no one is going to penalize you in your weekend game, but don’t be surprised if your buddies call you out. Are you gaining a concrete advantage? No. Are you looking like a player desperately seeking an advantage? Yes.
12. Lasering the trees behind the green … instead of the flag
The alarm bells should be blaring if your rangefinder is telling you the 150-yard shot is playing 200. If you pull the trigger with the 200 club, good luck explaining that one to your bewildered partners.
11. Signing an incorrect scorecard
Reviewing your hole-by-hole scores is an annoying, tedious task after grinding for five hours in a competitive round, but it takes 30 seconds. You don’t want the moral crisis of shooting 75 and seeing 74 posted on the leaderboard. Have fun making the “call of shame” to the rules officials.
10. Missing a tap-in because it bounced off the flagstick
Not playing in competition? Laugh and move on. If every stroke counts, however, this one hurts—and was entirely preventable had you read our story on why you should always pull the flagstick.
9. Pulling a 6-iron, when you were looking for the 9
If you’ve committed this cardinal sin, we suggest laying off the bloody marys for a few holes. Yes, the number is the same upside down, but the loft is most certainly not the same.
8. Running out of balls or tees
Sure, you’ll likely get off with a few snide remarks from your buddies, who will ultimately bail you out, but this mistake is entirely avoidable. Check the inventory before heading out.
7. Not writing down your partner’s score in competition
There are few things worse than arriving in the scoring tent and having your partner inquire about what you made on the third hole … and the fifth … and the entire back nine. As a marker for your playing partner, it’s your job to stay on top of it during the round.
Maybe It’s Time To Put The Clubs Away Mistakes
6. Trying the hero shot … but you’re not a hero
Apologies for the bluntness, but it’s OK to admit that you don’t have the low fade that stays below the trees before rising to land softly on the green. If you’re playing a few holes for fun, go for it. But if you’ve got a card in your pocket, know your limits.
5. Trying to hit a 3-wood from thick rough
You’re trying to hit a nail with a screwdriver. You’ve got the wrong tool. Caught a bad lie in heavy rough? Grab your 8-iron, open the face, hack and hope.
4. Leaving a three-footer short
What more is there to say? No, you didn’t misjudge the speed. You were tentative, embarrassingly so. We’ve all done it, but we can’t be forgiven.
3. Laying up in the water
There is no shame in deciding to lay up. There is shame in deciding to lay up … but not actually laying up.
2. Chunking a chip from two feet off the green
In golf, simple is better. If you’re taking a 60-degree wedge from the fringe, a couple feet off the green, you’re not taking the simple approach. You’re playing with fire. Take the putter.
1. Not hitting a provisional
It’s great to be optimistic about finding your ball in the knee-high fescue, but don’t let that fog reality. Hit a second ball to be safe and avoid the golfer’s walk of shame.