Rules Review

Rules of Golf Review: My opponent is acting like an ass. Do the rules say anything about unsportsmanlike conduct?

February 21, 2024

An obnoxious opponent can lead to a long day on the course.

Dmytro Aksonov

Let's face it. Things got ugly in Rome late last summer. Instead of sipping red wine and enjoying the 2,000-year-old architecture, some Ryder Cup participants spent their time in Italy chirping at each other. The most cringy situation, no doubt, was when Rory McIlroy exchanged words—on and off the course—with Patrick Cantlay's caddie, Joe LaCava (and in the process appeared to give Justin Thomas' caddie Jim Mackay an earful too). 

All that less-than-gentlemanly behavior might have you wondering if the Rules of Golf has anything to say about what you can and can't do on a golf course during a match in terms of behavior. In the NFL and college football, players get penalized for taunting. In other pro sports, fights lead to ejections and fines.

Does golf have a "trash-talking" rule?

Well, yes, it does—but it's not exactly virile.

Rule 1.2 handles the "standards of player conduct." Bullet point No. 2 in the (a) section says players are expected to play in the spirit of the game by "showing consideration to others. For example, by playing at a prompt pace, looking out for the safety of others, and not distracting the play of another player."

You might wonder what the penalty is for violating Rule 1.2? The answer: Nada.

If you think that's a mistake, keep in mind it's hard to assess penalties when you're leaving it to the golfer or his/her opponents to determine what constitutes "showing consideration" and "not distracting the play of another player." If you think there are too many golf-course fights now, imagine a Saturday-morning brawl between foursomes who are disputing whether someone keeps belching during other players' swings.

But that doesn't mean golf is completely toothless here. A course/committee could enact its own rules of conduct using Rule 1.2 (b), and assess a one-stroke or a loss-of-hole penalty—or even disqualify players if their conduct is truly awful. There are some recommendations on how to implement code-of-conduct rules in Section 5-I (5) of the Rules Before Competition guidelines. And it should be noted that if a course/committee does not enact its own conduct rules before the start of a competition, they are virtually powerless to do anything about a competitior who tries to rattle an opponent or acts in some other unsportsmanlike manner.

If specific rules are put in place before a tournament, it's interesting to note that things such as foul language and deliberately distracting opponents as they play shots could result in penalties up to disqualification. Interestingly, things such as slamming golf clubs or inadvertently distracting an opponent are unlikely to be considered "serious misconduct."

The over-arching message to all of this: Behave.