Determining who plays first on the first hole in competitive situations is usually done by some kind of random method (e.g., the order in which the pairings were made, perhaps the flip of a coin in match play, etc.). In casual situations it could be as simple as who wants to (or is willing to) play first, but I've also seen a common practice for years where the members of a threesome or foursome stand facing each other in a small circle, somebody tosses a wooden tee up in the air near the middle of the circle and when it comes to rest on the ground the tip of the tee points nearest to one of the members of the group. That person goes first and the procedure is repeated with the remaining players until everybody has either been "pointed at" by the tee or eliminated. That means in a foursome you'd have to throw the tee up 3 times to establish the playing order for the entire group.
Once play is under way, the next person to play is the person who is "away," or farthest from the hole. In competitive situations this is usually adhered to pretty strictly, and in match play you cannot play out of turn without potential penalty. In casual situations it really doesn't matter much, as long as there are no safety (e.g., getting in another player's potential line of fire) or courtesy (e.g., distracting someone by playing or preparing to play when they expect to be playing) issues.
Once you get to the next tee the honor (which was originally called the "Privilege") goes to the player with the lowest score on the first hole or, if there are ties, it reverts to the order of play on the previous tee. Example: Alan, Bob, Carl and Don are playing together. By a random method it is determined that the order of play off the first tee will be Alan, Bob, Carl and then Don. The scores on the first hole are Alan 5, Bob 6, Carl 5 and Don 4. The order of play on the second tee will be Don, Alan, Carl and then Bob: Don had the low score, so he goes first; Alan and Carl tied, but Alan played before Carl on the previous hole so he retains his position in the order after Don; and Bob had the highest score so he plays last on the second hole.
In situations where members of a group are playing from different tees there may have to be some variation depending on the situation, the preferences of the members of the group, the layout of the course, etc. One example: A foursome consists of two men playing from the men's tees and two women playing from the women's tees. Let's say the men in the group are more comfortable playing without other groups watching them, but the women are fine with playing in front of whomever. It might be a good idea to have the men play first, to increase the chances that the following group will not be nearby enough yet to watch. The group's preferences could just as easily be reversed and there are many possible scenarios. But another consideration in this case, if pace of play is important, is to make sure that the women are as near as possible to their tees (without being unsafe) so that they can be ready to play as soon as possible after the men play their shots, rather than getting back in their golf carts and driving up to the women's tees after the men have played (that would be wasting time and holding up play). That brings me to "let's get real" and "pace of play."
It's nice to know the rules, and it's nice to follow them. And etiquette is certainly an important part of the game of golf. But in casual play, especially in today's world where many courses are crowded, keeping up the pace of play is more important than following correct procedures. I'm not saying to forget about basic etiquette and be rude. Again, as long as there are no safety or courtesy issues, which player actually has the honor or who is exactly away is not important. Now if you are wagering or just playing a friendly match in a casual play situation and it is important to you to tee off in the order that honor dictates then make that clear and play that way. But that starts to get into a gray area between casual play and competitive situations. I guess it depends on how serious the parties involved are; each group will have to determine thatand agree upon the determinationthemselves.
"Ready golf" is very popular among some experienced groups. Ready golf means whoever is ready to play plays, disregarding honor and away as long as safety and courtesy are observed. Example: Let's go back to our foursome above, consisting of Alan, Bob, Carl and Don. Even though Don had the lowest score, 4, let's say that he was the last person to putt out and complete the first hole. And even though Bob had the highest score, 6, he was the first to finish and has been standing off to the side of the green with his bag nearby while all the others have been putting. He is also the closest person to the second tee because he has thought ahead and placed his bag to the side of the green closest to the second tee to save time, knowing that he will have to walk in that direction. As long as the members of the group are in agreement that honor does not matter and that keeping up the pace of play does matter Don can probably be ready to play on the second hole before any of the others, just because he finished the first hole before they did and was able to replace his clubs, etc. sooner than they were. It makes sense for Don to play first rather than standing around waiting while everybody else in the group takes care of their clubs and the details of proceeding toward and arriving at the second tee.
I have certainly seen what I consider to be a rude and extreme version of ready golf, where the first player to finish the hole picks up their bag, makes their way to the next tee and plays before and during the putting of the rest of the group, without regard to holding still, keeping quiet, etc. But perhaps that only seems rude to me. If all the players of a group are in agreement that playing in that manner is fine then it's not rude to them and there's no problem.
Conversely, I have seen many examples of what I consider to be far worse: casual players with long, drawn out pre-shot routines, taking "who is away" to the extreme of measuring the putts by pacing them off, helping other players in the group read putts, conversing when it is their turn to play, putting their bags near the front of the green so when they complete the hole they need to walk BACK to get the bag and then retrace their steps to move toward the next tee, recording scores on the scorecard while still standing on the green after the group has completed play, and on and on... all while the following group is standing there waiting to playHell-Ooo!
Obviously you can take either end of the spectrum to an extreme. And there are times when pace of play is not important at all because there are no groups following. When pace of play is important in casual play situations don't worry too much about honor, away and whose turn it is to play. Most golfers develop a feel for this from experience.
But in formal play, the order of play really is a huge topic with many details and exceptions to rules. For instance, who plays first if more than one player in a group hits their ball into the same hazard and must drop, etc. To get further into this subject see my FAQ on rulings and decisions.
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