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Every round of golf is based on playing a number of holes in a given order. A round typically consists of 18 holes that are played in the order determined by the course layout. On a nine-hole course, a standard round consists of two consecutive nine-hole rounds. Playing a hole on a golf course is initiated by putting a ball into play by striking it with a club on the teeing area (also called the "tee box" or simply "the tee.") When this initial stroke (or "shot") is required to be a long one due to the length of the hole, it is usual (but not required) for a golfer to suspend (or "tee") the ball on a tee prior to striking it. A "tee" in this last sense is a small peg which can be used to elevate the ball slightly above the ground up to a few centimeters high. This elevation is at the discretion of the golfer. Tee pegs are commonly made of wood but may be constructed of any material; the ball may even be "tee'd" on a mound of grass or dirt (at one time a small pile of sand placed by the golfer was routinely used and sand was provided at teeing areas for golfers' use).

When the initial shot on a hole is a long-distance shot intended to move the ball a great distance down the fairway, this shot is commonly called a "drive." Shorter holes generally are initiated with "shorter" clubs. Once the ball comes to rest, the golfer strikes it again as many times as necessary using shots that are variously known as a lay-up, an approach, a "pitch", or a chip, until the ball reaches the green, where he or she then putts the ball into the hole (commonly called "sinking the putt"). The goal of getting the ball into the hole ("holing" the ball) in as few strokes as possible may be impeded by obstacles such as areas of long grass called rough (usually found alongside fairways) which both impedes advancement and makes it harder to advance the golf ball, bunkers ("sand traps"), and water hazards. In most forms of gameplay, each player plays his or her ball until it is holed.

Players can walk or drive in motorized carts over the course. Play can be done either singly or in groups and sometimes accompanied by caddies, who carry and manage the players' equipment and who are allowed by the rules to give advice on the play of the course. A caddies' advice can only be given to the player or players for whom the caddy is working, and not to competing players.

The rules of golf are internationally standardised and are jointly governed by The R&A, spun off in 2004 from The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (founded 1754), and the United States Golf Association (USGA).

The underlying principle of the rules is fairness. As stated on the back cover of the official rule book: Play the ball as it lies, play the course as you find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair.

There are strict regulations regarding the amateur status of golfers. Essentially, anybody who has ever received payment or compensation for giving instruction or played golf for money is not considered an amateur and may not participate in competitions limited solely to amateurs. However, amateur golfers may receive expenses which comply with strict guidelines and they may accept non-cash prizes within the limits established by the Rules of Amateur Status.

In addition to the officially printed rules, golfers also abide by a set of guidelines called golf etiquette. Etiquette guidelines cover matters such as safety, fairness, pace of play, and a player's obligation to contribute to the care of the course. Though there are no penalties for breach of etiquette rules, players generally follow the rules of golf etiquette in an effort to improve everyone's playing experience.