Let's answer this by posing another question, a pop quiz:
You are playing in a group of four. Several holes in front of your group are open. A single catches up to your group. Should your group:
A. Offer to let the single play through
B. Ignore the single, because singles have no standing on the golf course
"A single player has no standing and should give way to a match of any kind."
John Hutchinson, who runs the Web site RulesHistory.com, explains the reasoning behind that old statement by the R&A and USGA:
"Up to that time, priority went in numerical order - four-ball gave way to three-ball, etc. The basis of this plan was that fewer players were presumed to be faster, and singles were (presumed to be) merely practicing, not competing."
But note above that we said the rulebook used to include the statement about singles having no standing. That's because it no longer does; and, in fact, it now says the opposite.
The statement "a single player has no standing and should give way to a match of any kind" was removed from the Official Rules of Golf in revisions for the 2004 edition, when, Hutchinson notes, "the emphasis changed to how fast any particular group were playing, regardless of the number in the group."
In other words, beginning in 2004, the etiquette guidelines in the rulebook said that speed of play - regardless of how many golfers are in any particular group - determines whether a group should be allowed to play through.
But is a single a group? The 2004 revisions clearly implied that the USGA and R&A consider a single a "group," but did not explicitly state that. So another revision, in 2008, clarified that point and explicitly stated that a single is a "group," and has the same rights as any other group.
Here is what now appears in the Etiquette guidelines of the Official Rules of Golf:
- In the "Pace of Play" section: "It is a group's responsibility to keep up with the group in front. If it loses a clear hole and it is delaying the group behind, it should invite the group behind to play through, irrespective of the number of players in that group." (emphasis mine)
- In the "Priority on the Course" section: "Unless otherwise determined by the Committee, priority on the course is determined by a group's pace of play. Any group playing a whole round is entitled to pass a group playing a shorter round. The term 'group' includes a single player."
So, once and for all, a single on the course deserves the same consideration as any other group of golfers, according to the USGA and the R&A.
Unless. The rulebook does give golf courses an out, however, by including that "unless otherwise determined by the Committee" bit. So while the Rules of Golf are clear that singles do have standing on the course, the rulebook also gives committees the option to decide differently. If you're allowed to play as a single at a course, but then encounter trouble on the course, check with the pro about club policies - and make sure he or she understands the current USGA/R&A guidelines on the issue.
Because many golfers are still unaware of the changes to the rulebook in this area. My sense, when encountering this issue on the course or hearing stories from other golfers, is that most golfers who answer "B" to the question posed up at the top of this article do so because they simply aren't aware that the guidelines have changed.
It should also be noted that a golf course sets its own policies regarding groupings. Some courses that are particularly busy on weekends and holidays might require all groups to include four golfers. Show up alone at one of those courses and you'll have to wait until other golfers come along with whom you can be grouped.
Also, a golfer who begins his or her round alone should always be prepared to pair up with other players during the round if the overall pace of play slows down and the single catches up to another single, a twosome or a threesome, and there is no opening ahead of that group.