Golf Explained: How Golf Scoring Works

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Golf is one of the most popular sports worldwide and boasts some of the biggest household names in World sport such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Whilst the concept of hitting the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible may seem simple, unique golfing terms such as birdie, par and eagle make the sport more difficult to follow and understand.

After reading this post, golf jargon won’t sound like a foreign language anymore and you will be able to score your next round of golf with confidence, no matter what rules you are playing!

Golf Scoring Terms

As mentioned before, the aim of golf is to hit the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible. In one ‘round’ of golf 18 holes will be played. Each hole will have what is known as a ‘par score’, either 3,4 or 5. This par score is the amount of shots that it would be expected to take for skilled golfer to get the ball into the hole. Holes that are a ‘par 3’ tend to be much shorter in length compared to ‘par 5’ holes which are the longest holes, often exceeding 500 yards!

Depending on how many shots it takes for the ball to be holed will depend on how it is scored. There are different terms to describe the golfer’s score compared to the par score of the hole, as shown below.

Albatross – 3 shots under par or -3

Eagle – 2 shots under par or -2

Birdie – 1 shot under par or -1

Par – ‘even’ or E

Bogey – 1 shot over par or +1

Double Bogey – 2 shots over par or +2

Triple Bogey – 3 shots over par +3

The combined par scores from all 18 holes represent the overall par score for that golf course. The golfer will end up with a score consisting of their total number of shots which will either be above, below or even with the course par. For example, if the course par score is 72 and a golfer has a total score of 75 shots, this will mean that they are ‘3 shots over par’ (+3) for their round. Another golfer may go around the course in a total of 68 shots, meaning that they would score ‘4 shots under par’ (-4). If someone was to complete 18 holes in 72 shots and the course par was 72, then they would score ‘level par’ or ‘even par’ (E) for their round.

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Penalty strokes

A penalty stroke in golf is where an additional shot is added onto a player’s score. There will be many instances during a round of golf where a player has to take a penalty stroke. If a golfer hits their shot out of bounds or into a water hazard, the player must add an extra stroke to their score and hit their next shot either from the position they hit the wayward shot, or from behind the water hazard, if applicable. If a player loses their ball, they will also have to retake the shot from the original position and add an extra stroke onto their score.

In professional golf, there are a whole host of niche rules that may affect a player’s score. Something as simple as asking another player what club they are using for a shot is an example of a penalty that would lead to strokes being added to the player’s score.

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What are the different formats in Golf?

We’ll now go through the two most popular formats of play in golf; stroke play and match play. All professional golf tournaments will follow one of these two formats in deciding the winner.

Stroke Play

Stroke play is the most common format of golf and is what you will see players on the PGA Tour and DP World Tour playing week-in-week-out and more than likely what you’ll play at your local golf course.

Stroke play will follow the scoring system described in the section above and the winner is decided by counting up everyone’s total shots and whoever has the lowest score (lowest number of total shots) at the end of the round or tournament.

Match Play

Match play is used less frequently on the professional calendar but used for the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and is popular amongst recreational golfers. Commonly played in 1 vs 1 or 2 vs 2 matches the aim of match play is to hit the lowest score every hole in order to win as many holes as possible.   

On each individual hole you will still hear some of the terms that were mentioned earlier in the post such as eagle and par, but the scoring is slightly different to stroke play. For example, if you score less than your opponent on a hole, you will win that hole and go ‘1 up’ in the match and your opponent will go ‘1 down’. If a player/team leads by 2 holes, then they will be 2 up and so on and so forth. If a match is level, then it will be ‘all-square’ (A/S). If both sides score the same on a hole then is ‘halved’ and the overall match score doesn’t change.

The match will carry on until one player/team leads by more holes that there are left to play, so what is known as a ‘4 and 3’ victory would mean a side is four holes up (4 up) with three holes left to play and there aren’t enough holes left for their opponent to overturn the deficit. 

Match play is popular with recreational golfers as it allows players to have a bad hole without affecting their round too much. If you have a bad hole in stroke play it will reflect in your score at the end, which can sometimes be disheartening, whereas in match play, if you struggle on a hole, you will just lose the hole and move on.

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Stroke Play and Match Play game types

Within stroke play and match play golf there are various, fun game types such as alternate shots, best ball and a scramble. These game types are more common in club tournaments and at recreational level but do feature in bi-annual professional team events such as the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and Presidents Cup. In this section, we will go through all these game types, so that you can understand the rules and try them out the next time you play with your friends!

Alternate Shot

Alternate shot is designed for team golf and is most suitable for teams of 2 players, although it can be made to work with larger teams. Each team will only hit one ball per hole and each member of the team will take it in turn to hit shots and reach the hole in as few shots as possible.

Whilst alternate shot can be played using a stroke play scoring system, it is most common to see this format being played as a match play format where the best score will win the hole. In professional team events like the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and President’s cup, alternate shot is played in the match-play format, more commonly known as ‘foursomes’. Two players will partner together and compete against another pairing playing alternate shots, competing to win the match and a point for their respective team.

Best ball

Best ball is where teams of two or more players will hit their own ball on each hole and the lowest score out of the team will count as their team’s score for that hole. If playing best ball in a stroke play format, the lowest score on each hole will count towards the overall round score. If two teams are competing against one another in a match, then the lowest score will win the hole for their respective team.

Like with alternate shot, in the professional team events, best ball is played in a match-play style. Known as ‘fourballs’, players compete in a 2 vs 2 match where the lowest score on the hole wins the hole and the overall match winners will win a point for their respective team.

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Golf Scramble

A golf scramble is a fun game type in golf which allows teams to try and shoot lower scores. Teams of two or more golfers will hit a tee shot each and decide which is the best shot, often one that is in the fairway with an easier shot towards the green. Once the best tee shot has been decided, the other players in the scramble group will pick up their balls and place them in the same spot as where the best tee shot landed. All the players will hit their second shot from this place and the players will again decide which of the shots is the best and all the group will play their third shot from where the best shot landed. This process continues after every shot until one of the balls in the group has been holed.

Scrambles involve great strategy as you have to decide which shot to take and pick what order your teammates will hit in. Weaker players in a team will sometimes hit first to take pressure off their shot as they know there is still chance of a good shot from one of their teammates after. It would also be normal for the strongest player to hit first so they can put a ball in a good position to free up their teammates and give them a safety blanket of knowing there is a good shot already, if their shot ends up wayward. Weaker players will also normally putt first in order to give their teammates rough information about the putt, such as which way the ball will move and how quick or slow the ball is rolling across the green.

Whilst scrambles aren’t used in any professional tournaments on the golf calendar, golf clubs and courses will often host recreational scramble tournaments for their members or keen amateur golfers wanting to enter. Groups just playing for fun at their local golf course may also choose to play a scramble as the chances of hitting a lower under par score are greater, as incurring penalty strokes or having to play tricky shots from the woods and bunkers are less likely, as there is a greater probability of at least one member of the team hitting a good shot, which would eliminate any wayward shots into hazards or out of bounds. This will drastically cut down the team’s overall strokes at the end of a round and lead to a lower score.

 Golf scramble teams can vary in size, although it is most common to see teams of 2-4 players in a scramble tournament. Casual golf scrambles and different scramble tournaments will vary between stroke-play and match play, with teams shooting the lowest overall score winning stroke play tournaments. A match-play scramble will work similarly to any other game of match-play golf, with the teams aiming to win as many holes until their opponents can no longer overturn a lead. Match-play tournaments will run in a round-robin style, with winners progressing through to the next round.

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Golf FAQS

What is a handicap in golf?

A handicap in golf is a numerical value assigned to a golfer which shows on average how many shots over par a golfer will be after an 18-hole round of golf. For example, if a golfer on average hits 86 shots on a course with a par score of 72 then their handicap will be 14.

Handicaps are useful as they will indicate the skill level golfer relative to ‘scratch golfers’. Scratch golfers are those with an official handicap of zero. Handicaps can be constantly updated as you play to reflect your current ability and help you understand whether you are improving or not.

How do you calculate a golf handicap?

Golfers can get an official handicap by being a member of a golf club and submitting a certain amount of their recent scorecards from their rounds, and the golf club will work out their handicap using the World Handicap System, which takes into account factors such as the difficulty of the course and the average score of the golfer. There are also apps available for smart phones and tablets that are programmed to work out a golfer’s handicap using the World Handicap System once the user has inputted their recent scores, and will give the user an unofficial handicap.

How do golf handicaps work?

Handicaps will also allow golfers of varying abilities to play against one another, and in competitions, on a level playing field. For example, two golfers are playing a stroke play match against one another at their local golf club, but player one has a handicap of 10 and has a higher skill level than player 2 who has a handicap of 22. The players will take away their handicap from their final score in order to see who has won their match. If player 1 shoots a score of 81, their adjusted score with their handicap will be 81-10 = 71. Player 2 shoots a score of 94 which would make their adjusted net score 94-22 = 72, which would mean player 1 would win by 1 shot with the adjusted scores and the two players have had a fair competitive match despite their differing skill levels.

Professional golf events don’t use handicaps, but if the golfers were assigned handicaps, they would most likely be a negative number to indicate their great skill and shots would have to be added to their final score. At the time of writing, the only professional event that has a handicapping element to it is the FED EX PGA Tour Championship. The event is a culmination of the PGA Tour season and consists of the top 30 players in the season’s points rankings. The higher the player’s ranking in the season’s points standings the lower their starting score, or handicap, will be to reflect how well they have played over the course of the season. For example, the top ranked player will begin on ten under par (-10) and have a two shot head start over the second placed player in the rankings, who starts on eight under par (-8). The tournament then runs as a four-round stroke-play tournament, with the lowest score combined with the starting handicaps winning the event and the Tour Championship.

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What is Stableford Scoring in Golf?

The Stableford scoring system in golf has been used for over 100 years and was first used in tournament play in 1932 at Wallasey Golf Club. Stableford scoring is a points scoring system which takes into account a player’s handicap and the difficulty of the hole. The aim of the system is to prevent a player from giving up on their round, even if they have bad holes over the course of the 18-hole round.

In Stableford, a player’s handicap and the difficulty of the hole is used to determine how many extra shots per hole the player should be given to make a par.

 Each hole has what is called a ‘stroke index’, which is a number from 1-18 that ranks each hole in order based on it’s difficulty. The easier the hole, the closer the stroke index will be to 18, with the easiest hole on the course having a stroke index of 18. The harder the hole, the closer the stroke index will be to 1, with the hardest hole on the course having a stroke index of 1.

For example, a player with a handicap of 28 will be given a total of 28 extra strokes over the course of the 18-hole round to make par. So, for the 10 hardest holes on the course with stroke index 1-10, that player will receive 2 extra strokes per hole to make a par. Therefore, for a hole where a par is normally 4 shots, a net par will now be 6 shots, birdie 5 shots, eagle 4 shots and bogey 7 shots. For the remaining 8 holes with stroke index 11-18, that are perceived to be easier, the 28-handicap golfer will receive just 1 extra shot to make par on each hole (2 shots x 10 holes + 1 shot x 8 holes = 28 shots). Therefore, for a par 4 hole, a net par will become 5 shots, birdie 4 shots, eagle 3 shots and bogey 6 shots.

To use another example, a player with a 16 handicap will get a total of 16 shots over the course of the round. This means for holes with stroke index 1-16, the golfer will get one extra shot (1 shot x 16 holes = 16 shots) to make a par.

As mentioned before Stableford awards points dependant on the net scores each hole. This takes into consideration the handicap of the golfer and if they receive any extra strokes on that hole, as explained above. Use the table below to see how points are awarded in Stableford.

Net scoreStableford Points
Four strokes under net par6 points
Albatross (3 strokes under net par)5 points
Eagle (2 strokes under net par)4 points
Birdie (1 stroke under net par)3 points
Par (level with net par)2 points
Bogey (1 shot over net par)1 point
Double Bogey (2 shots over net par)0 points

Whilst Stableford scoring is both unique and complicated to get your head around, there are apps available on smart phones and tablets that will work out your Stableford points for you on a hole no matter what your handicap is.

At Net World Sports, we pride ourselves on the quality of our FORB golf equipment. We stock a range of premium quality golf balls, accessories, golf mats, cages and nets perfect for the range or practicing in the comfort of your own home Whether you are new to the game or a scratch golfer we have the equipment to take your game to the next level.   

 By: David Nevin

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