Golf Scoring: The Ultimate Guide (2023 Rules)
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Golf can be an intimidating sport to learn. There are many rules to wrap your head around and more jargon than a game of Dungeons and Dragons. But, while it may not be as simple as hitting the ball and hoping for the best, I’m here to help you at least understand how golf scoring works.
To give you a good grasp of golf scoring, we will cover the following:
- The basic terminology
- Understanding handicaps
- Penalties you need to avoid
- The different golf formats you can play
Playing a game of golf should be a great experience that takes you out of the stress of life for a few hours. The last thing you should need to do is stress whether you are scoring correctly or not.
The Basic Premise of Golf Scoring
The fundamental premise of golf is to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as humanly possible. This means that in a typical game, the player who plays the least number of strokes wins the game.
Obviously, it is more complex than that, but if you aim to play fewer strokes than your opponent, you are already getting the hang of golf.
Understanding the Golf Course
A typical golf course is made up of 18 holes, each with unique sadistic tricks and obstacles for you to concur. These hazards include dams, sand pits (bunkers), trees, twists, etc.
The three major parts of a hole are the tee, or tee-off, the fairway, and the green. The tee, or tee box, is a small area from where you take your first stroke. The ‘green’ is the area immediately surrounding the hole. This is typically an elegant section of ultra-short grass.
The somewhat manicured area between the tee and the green is known as the fairway, which is where you hope to land your ball after your first stroke. And from there, play your next strokes to approach the green.
The area outside and around those three sections is called the rough. The rough is a magical abyss where golf balls vanish from this plane of existence, and men are led to their demise in the quest of trying to find those balls.
Every hole differs in length, and subsequently, they differ in the number of strokes needed to complete them. This stroke number is referred to as a par number. In layman’s terms, a hole’s par is the number of strokes it should take the average, good golfer to complete it.
Short holes are par-three, meaning you should aim to get the ball in the hole in three strokes or less. Longer holes are par-five, but most of the course will be made of up par-four holes.
Interestingly, the par number includes a provision for two putting strokes. In other words, on a par-five hole, you should aim to reach the green within three strokes and sink the ball within two puts.
The makeup of golf courses has become reasonably standardized in the sense that most 18-hole courses have a combined par score between 70 and 72. For most courses, the idea is to play less than 72 strokes during the entire game. Obviously, this is much easier said than done.
Golf Scoring Terminology
Now that you have a basic grasp of a golf course’s layout, the obstacle to navigating is the terminology attached to golf scoring.
In golf, if you play the exact number of strokes as the holes par score, then you have played “par.” In other words, if you complete a par-3 hole in 3 strokes, you have scored par.
Playing par is one thing, but every golfer dreams of playing fewer strokes than that. If you can complete a hole with one stroke to spare, then you have scored a ‘birdie.’ So, if you are playing that same par-three, you must get onto the green in one shot and sink the ball in another.
If using one stroke less than par isn’t hard enough for you, you can always aim to use two less. This is known as an ‘eagle’, which means getting a hole-in-one on a par three or using only two strokes on a par four.
Moving up the scale in difficulty, we get to an ‘albatross‘. You need to finish a hole in three fewer strokes than par to earn one of these. That’s a hole-in-one on a par four. An albatross is also called a double eagle in some circles.
Finally, in the realm of nearly impossible, we get to a condor, which uses four strokes less than par. It can only be achieved by getting a hole-in-one on a par-five. And typically, only on a hole with a dog leg so you can play your first stroke by cutting across the rough to get to the green.
To date, there have only been six confirmed condors in history.
A ‘hole-in-one‘ is pretty self-explanatory and something everyone has heard about at least once in their lifetime. It simply means that you got the ball in the hole in one stroke.
Moving in the opposite direction from par, toward the area where most new players hack and slash, we get to the bogeys. A bogey is the opposite of a birdie, and you earn it by playing one stroke more than par. As the name suggests, it’s not great.
If you play two strokes more, then you earn a double bogey. Then, you get a triple for three strokes, a quadruple bogey for four strokes more, and beyond that, you should probably pack up and call it a day.
Understanding Golf Handicaps
You’ve most likely heard the term “golf handicap” in conversations among your golfing buddies. In fact, you may also have noticed that the first thing people ask a golfer they’ve just met is, “what’s your handicap?”
Basically, a handicap is to golf what a GPA is to academics. However, unlike a GPA, you will spend your entire golfing career trying to get your handicap as low as possible. A low handicap means that you are considered a good golfer.
What Is A Handicap?
A handicap measures, on average, how a golfer stacks up against par. In other words, if you consistently play par, you will play 72 strokes over 18 holes each time you play.
In this case, your handicap would be zero or “scratch.” This is something all golfers strive for.
On the other hand, if you consistently play double bogeys on every hole, you will total 108 strokes. This means your handicap would be 36, which is the difference between your strokes and the 72 par.
Likewise, if you consistently play bogeys, your score would be 90, and your handicap would be 18.
This doesn’t mean that your handicap is calculated based on one game. Instead, it is calculated using the average score of your best eight games out of your last 20 games. In other words, if you have played 20 games, you would take only the best eight and then calculate your average score.
Let’s assume that your average in these eight games was 95 – that would mean that you have a golf handicap index of 23 because you consistently play 23 strokes over 72.
One thing to note is that your final handicap may differ between courses. This is because each course has a golf course rating, which could either increase or decrease your handicap. Easier courses will obviously lower your handicap and vice versa. But this is only relevant to that specific course.
What Does Your Handicap Mean on the Scorecard?
Now you may wonder what this handicap index practically means for your golf score. Well, this is the exciting part, especially for new players.
Your official handicap is basically your allowance of free strokes. For example, if you have a handicap of 23, you can subtract 23 strokes from your total to get your net score.
This may seem strange, but it is actually a well-thought-out and clever element of golf. In effect, it allows you to compete against and learn from players that are much better than you.
Let’s assume you are a new golfer with a handicap of 54, and you play a game with a friend who is a scratch player, and you play a total of 131 strokes while he plays 78. In that case, you technically won that round of golf.
You see, you would subtract your 54 handicaps from 131, leaving a net score of 77. Your friend has no handicap, so his score stays at 78. So, handicaps allow players to compete against one another based on their own skill and level.
Conversely, pro players who consistently play better than par will actually have negative handicaps. This means that strokes get added to their score.
What Is The Maximum Handicap?
Because of the effect handicaps have on your final score, there is a maximum handicap. The maximum international handicap is set at 54, which isn’t a random number at all.
If you divide 54 by the 18 holes, you end up with three. That means that new players with a handicap of 54 are allowed to take three extra strokes per hole.
Penalties You Should Avoid
Like with any sport, there are rules and penalties for breaking said rules. Unfortunately, golf has more regulations and penalties than I can cover here, but here are some of the most important ones you should know.
Teeing From The Wrong Box
Suppose you make the silly mistake of teeing off from the location or wrong tee box. In that case, you will be smacked with a penalty of two strokes and be forced to tee off again from the correct location. Meaning that your official tee-off will be stroke number four.
Moving Your Ball
If you don’t like where your ball is, I’m sorry to tell you, but you can’t move it. If you do, even accidentally, you will incur a one-stroke penalty and need to move the ball back to where it was.
Although you may move loose debris without penalty, doing so shouldn’t move the ball. Otherwise, the penalty will count.
If your ball is in an area where it can’t be played, you will have to move it back from where you played the shot and take a one-stroke penalty.
However, there is a new rule: if your ball is out of bounds, you can take a two-stroke penalty and drop the ball on the fairway, no closer to the flag. But make sure you check the local course rules before assuming this ok.
Touching The Sand In A Bunker
If your club touches the sand in a bunker before you play a stroke, it is known as “grounding” and is a two-stroke penalty. Obviously, if you smash through the sand on your stroke, that’s ok, but you are not allowed to touch it while you are setting up to take your swing.
Hitting Another Ball On The Green
If you are putting, and during your put, you hit another ball that was already on the green, you will be knocked with a two-stroke penalty. However, this only counts in a stroke play game. In match play, there is no penalty for striking another person’s ball.
The Different Golf Formats You Can Play
In golf, there are quite a few game formats to choose from. These can make the game interesting, depending on how many people you’re playing with or your mood on the day.
Stroke play is probably the most common format of golf. In a stroke play match, the player with the lowest number of strokes at the end of the game wins. Basically, you keep a tally of all your strokes for every hole, adding penalties as needed.
Then, in the end, you subtract your handicap from the total to get your final score. As we saw earlier, your handicap is based on your average stroke play score.
The main idea behind stroke play is that you are actually playing against the golf course itself, but with an added element of competition. In other words, the golfer that wins is simply the golfer that performed better against the field.
Another prevalent format is known as match play. Where stroke play competes for the whole course, match play competes for each individual hole.
This means that the player who plays the least number of strokes on a given hole gets the point for that hole. So, the focus shifts from competing against the course to directly competing against an opponent.
Because you are now competing against each other, you also have the right to enforce or overlook certain penalties on your opponent. For example, you may be well ahead on a hole and can choose to ignore a penalty because that penalty is owed to you, not the course.
However, if both of you deliberately agree to completely ignore specific rules and penalties, you’re both disqualified.
Handicaps are a little more complicated in match play. First, the person with the lowest handicap becomes the baseline and is considered a scratch for that match.
Suppose you have a handicap of 6 and competing against someone with a handicap of 10. In that case, their handicap becomes the baseline, and they don’t get any handicap strokes.
Your handicap for the match equals the difference between your two handicaps, which in this case is 6.
Then, based on their stroke index, you would look at the scorecard and find the six most challenging holes. Then you can subtract one stroke from each of those six holes.
If you still want a points-based competition in a stroke play game, then the Stableford is the way to go.
In this game, players are awarded points based on the number of strokes they play on a hole. The player who finishes the entire game with the most points wins the match.
The points are predetermined and listed in the rules of golf as follows:
- A bogey is worth one point
- Par will earn you two points
- A birdie is worth three points
- An eagle will get you four points
- An albatross yields 5 points
- And a condor is worth 6 points
- Anything over a bogey is worth nothing.
This format allows you to recover well from a lousy hole. Playing a nasty hole or two can sink your entire round on a standard stroke play. But in a Stableford, you can make up for those holes by raking in a few points on easier holes.
Handicaps work similarly to match play, except that your full handicap is allocated as strokes against the holes, starting with the most challenging hole. The most difficult hole is the one with the highest stroke index on the scorecard.
Another option is to modify the points system and tailor it toward players’ skill levels. For example, you could reward beginner players with two points for bogeys and award skilled players only one point for a par. If you do this, you will play without handicaps.
A foursome, or “four ball golf” is a competition between two teams of two players, where each team only plays one ball.
One player is allocated to tee off on all the even-numbered holes, and the other tees off on the odd numbers. After teeing off, the strokes are alternated between the two teammates.
In other words, if player A tees off, player B will play stroke two, followed by player A again, and so forth.
Depending on your preference, a foursome can be played as either stroke play or match play. Then handicaps will work according to the format you have chosen.
Better Ball can also be played as either stroke or match play and is played as a team. Each person in the group plays their own ball, but only the score of the best player counts for that hole.
Ultimately, your team’s final score will likely be a mashup of all the best scores during the game. The great thing here is that even if you have a terrible game or are just learning the game, you aren’t going to pull your team down too much. Also, if you play a good hole, you’ll feel great for contributing.
It’s also an excellent format for the scratch golfer in your group of friends. They can then play alone against the rest of you, playing Better Ball. That should make for a nice challenge for them.
If you are playing in teams of two, you are technically playing “four-ball,” which is basically Better Ball in groups of two.
Scramble and Shamble
Another team-based format focused on the Better Ball is the Scramble. In a “golf Scramble“, every player tees off from every hole. After the tee-off, the team chooses the best ball, and then they all move their balls to within one scorecard distance from that location.
Each golfer then plays their second stroke from there. They then repeat the process throughout the hole, choosing the best ball every stroke and playing from there. You continue doing this even on the green, and the team with the lowest overall score wins.
One interesting variation is the Texas Scramble, in which you have a set number of drives from each player. This means that your weaker players can’t hide behind the players that can punch a golf ball across the Atlantic. It also forces the team to think tactically.
Another option is the “golf shamble“.
A Shamble starts like a scramble, with each team choosing the best ball from the tee. But after that, each player plays their own game for the rest of the hole.
If you enjoy the thrill of the gamble, Skins is the perfect game for you. Skins are in match play format and can be played in teams or individually.
In Skins, each hole counts as a point, or skin. The person who wins the hole wins the skin. However, it must be a decisive win. If it is a draw, the skin is carried over to the next hole and whoever wins that hole wins both skins.
In this way, skins can stack up, and upsets are frequent. For example, you could be having a great game, but drawing every hole, only to lose to a player who was behind but had one good hole.
It’s common for golfers to make a game of skins even more interesting by putting money on the line. Each hole is worth a set amount of cash; if no one wins the hole, the cash pot stacks up.
If you are playing by yourself, an excellent way to practice is to compete against yourself. You do this by playing a game like Scramble by yourself, using two balls. But, unlike Scramble, you continuously choose the worst ball’s location to play your next stroke from.
In other words, you tee off two balls, pick the worst of the two, and play two balls from that location. Continue doing this for the whole game. It’s a great way to practice and improve your skills.
There are a few other interesting, albeit less common, game formats that I haven’t included here, like money ball, strings, and flags. Be sure to have a look at those formats, though, because they are very interesting and good fun.