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 pin and cup, all designed for the game of golf. Because a round of golf consists of playing 18 holes, 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 wooden manufactured stick 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 known as 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 vice versa; rarely, 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 using a putter. Usually, this stroke is played on the green 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 distances of several yards. 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 (at least ten feet from the edge), and must have a diameter of 108 mm (4.25 in.) and a depth of at least 100 mm (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 flagstaff.
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.
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.
While golf courses can and often follow the lay of the original landscape, some degree of modification is unavoidable. This has grown increasingly true as new courses have a higher probability of being sited on less optimal land. Bunkers and sand traps are almost always custom built, although other forms of roughage may "fall out naturally" from the original land.
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.
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