March 25, 2023

How Golf Scoring Works

How Golf Scoring Works

Mastering the art of golf scoring is crucial for both beginners and experienced players alike.

In this ultimate guide, we'll unravel the mysteries of golf scoring, explain the different methods, and provide helpful tips to enhance your understanding of this essential aspect of the game.

Whether you're new to the sport or a seasoned golfer, this comprehensive guide will help you confidently navigate the world of golf scoring.

The Basics of How Golf Scoring Works

Golf Basics

While you'll likely learn all of the below if you take golf lessons, it's still good to have an idea before you hit the greens for the first time!

Unlike other games, in golf, less is so much more. To put it simply, you don’t get a point by getting the ball into the hole. 

As professional golfer Jack Nicklaus once said, 'A good golf score is a collection of good decisions, good swings, and good putts.' Understanding the intricacies of golf scoring can help you make better decisions and ultimately improve your overall game.

I'll break it down as simple as possible here:

  • The point of golf is to get the ball into the hole in as few swings as possible. 
  • When you’re keeping score, either for yourself or for your opponent, you’re essentially tracking the number of swings it takes him or her to finish. 
  • Each swing or attempt to hit the ball is known as a stroke.
  • If it takes you 5 strokes to get the ball into your first cup, then your score is 5 for that hole.
  • On the next hole, if it takes you 4 strokes, then your total score for the first two holes is 9. And then it’s just a matter of adding and adding until you finish all 18 holes. 
  • You write each of those scores on the scorecard, in the row or column where each hole is listed. The one with the least amount of strokes wins. It’s that simple!
  • Of course, if both parties intend on strictly playing by the rules, then there are certain scenarios where you might have to add points to scores. These are usually known as penalty strokes. 
  • The type of penalties though varies greatly depending on the kind of scoring system you and your opponent are adhering to.

What’s The Meaning Of Par?

Golf Par Meaning

There will be times when a beginner might hear terms like "2-under par" or "4-over," and be totally thrown off. 

Golf comes with a whole dictionary of terms which can be quite daunting to learn as a beginner.

Don’t worry! These are things you pick up along the way.

A par is the number of strokes that an expert golfer is expected to need to get the ball into the hole. 

Each hole and the golf course has a par rating:

  • If your first hole has a par rating of 4 and it takes you 6 strokes to complete it, then you’re 2 over. 
  • If your next hole has a par rating of 5 and you, as a beginner, magically get it in 3 strokes, then you’re 2-under par.

The same would apply to a golfer's total score for the full round of golf, which is usually around 18 holes.

If the golf course's par is 72 and you shoot 92, you are 20-over par for the round.

Let's consider a real-life example: Hole 7 at Pebble Beach Golf Links is a par-3 hole, which means an expert golfer is expected to complete it in three strokes.

If you manage to complete the hole in three strokes, you have made par."

Golf Scoring Terms

  • Bogey: A score of one stroke over par on a hole.
  • Birdie: A score of one stroke under par on a hole.
  • Eagle: A score of two strokes under par on a hole.
  • Double Bogey: A score of two strokes over par on a hole.
  • Handicap: A numerical measure of a golfer's potential playing ability based on past performance, used to level the playing field in competitions.

The Types Of Scoring

Golf Score Card

There are some variations though to how opponents might choose to score their game:

  • Some are more conducive to beginners
  • Others are best suited for seasoned players looking for a challenge

Knowing the differences between these types of scoring beforehand can save you a lot of time and embarrassment on the golf course.

Here are the three main types of scores listed in the order of commonness:

Stroke Play

Stroke Play

Stroke plays are exactly as their name might imply. All you have to do is religiously count each stroke.

This is one of the reasons why quality swings in golf are so important, something we also stress about in our articles.

Each stroke counts with this kind of scoring system.

Those who use this method are often sticklers for the rules; they won’t think twice about adding to your score due to penalties. Be wary!

How To Keep Score of Stroke Play Matches

step 1

Get A ScoreCard

Scorecards are usually issued for free by the golf course’s club. In golf, it is common practice for you to keep track of your opponent’s score while your opponent does the same for you.

step 2

Count Every Attempt Your Opponent Makes To Hit The Ball

As stated above, every time your opponent swings at the ball, whether it hits or misses, you have to count it as a stroke.

step 3

Know The Penalties

Penalties are shots that cost you extra points. Penalties drive your score up in a game where you want it to be low. That’s why they are often the cause of so many arguments. Here are some examples of penalties:

1) If you hit a ball in the water, drop a new ball in the designated location and take a 1-stroke penalty.

2) If you hit the ball out of bounds (as indicated by white stakes), re-hit from the original location and take a 2-stroke penalty.

3) If you lose a ball, re-hit from the original location and take a 2-stroke penalty.

step 4

Add Up The Points.

After each round, tally all your opponent’s scores and have them checked. This is where a calculator comes in real handy. Each of you looks at the tally of the other and both have to agree on it. If there are no disputes, then both sign each other's scorecard. 

This is a measure that promotes fairness and avoids in-game corruption. Some players also have a third person present who can impartially keep the scores for them. 

The one with the lowest score is the winner. 

step 5

Know Your Handicap

It's important to know your handicap before you begin. After each round, tally all your opponent’s scores and have them checked. This is where a calculator comes in real handy. Each of you looks at the tally of the other and both have to agree on it. If there are no disputes, then both sign each other's scorecard. 

This is a measure that promotes fairness and avoids in-game corruption. Some players also have a third person present who can impartially keep the scores for them. 

The one with the lowest score is the winner. 

Match Play

Where the previous scoring system saw you tallying up scores at the end of each round, Match Play is less meticulous and more conducive to beginners who are still developing their skills. 

Instead of counting the total tally of scores after each round, in Match Play you only have to count the number of strokes it takes to get the ball into a specific hole. 

step 1

Score Each Hole As "holes up" Or "holes down”.

If you take only 3 strokes to get your ball in the hole while it took your opponent 5 strokes, then you win and are 1 hole ahead of your opponents. This is also known as being “one-up”. 

step 2

If Necessary, Concede A Hole.

As beginning players, it’s perfectly understandable that there will be certain cases where it’ll take you an infinite amount of swings before you can get the ball into a hole. Instead of spending an eternity in a golf purgatory, you and your opponent can agree to skip this hole and move on to the next one.

step 3

Keep Track

You either write +1 on the scorecard if you are ahead by a hole or -1 if you’re down.  If it took you both the same amount of strokes to get the ball into the hole, then write AS. This means the hole ended in a draw.

The person with the most amount of holes by the end of the round is the winner.

Stableford Scoring

In the stableford scoring method, your golf score is made up of the number of net points you get per hole:

  • If your net score is equal to the par, you get 2 points
  • If you hit one over par (a bogey), you get 1 point
  • If you get 1 under par (a birdie), you get 3 points
  • If you hit 2 under par (an eagle), you get 4 points

This system is unique in that more is more – the player with the most points wins.

It is also a system used by experienced players looking to improve their handicaps.

Tips and Best Practices for Keeping Score in Golf

  • Use a mobile app or electronic scorecard to track scores easily and accurately.
  • Verify scores with your playing partners after each hole to ensure accuracy and avoid disputes.
  • Familiarize yourself with the local rules and any specific scoring adjustments for the course you're playing.
  • Maintain proper golf etiquette by not distracting other players while they are winging or putting and always being ready to play when it's your turn. 

Common Mistakes and Misconceptions in Golf Scoring

  • Mistaking a bogey for a birdie or vice versa: Remember that a bogey is one stroke over par, while a birdie is one stroke under par.
  • Not counting penalty strokes: Always include penalty strokes in your score to maintain accuracy and fairness.
  • Ignoring the maximum score rule: In some casual or tournament settings, there might be a maximum score rule (e.g., double par) to speed up the game. Be aware of this rule and apply it when necessary.

Variations and Adaptations in Golf Scoring

Keep in mind that some regional or local variations in golf scoring rules may apply, as well as adaptations for different formats such as team events, charity tournaments, or casual games. Always familiarize yourself with any specific rules and adaptations for the event or course you are playing to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience.

Bottom Line…

And that was all you needed to know about the golf scoring system.

Intricate as though it might be, it becomes obvious after reading the article that it’s not as complicated as people make it out to be.

When it comes to the golf jargon or terminologies, these things are naturally picked up on the course.

If there’s anything to take away from this article though, it’s a clearer understanding of why practicing and perfecting your swing is so important.

It's not enough to simply get the ball to roll into the hole, you have to do it in as few strokes as possible.

This only comes through experience, the right equipment, and muscle memory that’s built over time. 

Further Learning Resources

"For those interested in deepening their knowledge of golf scoring and related topics, here are some resources to explore:

        "Golf Rules & Etiquette for Dummies" by John Steinbreder
        "Mastering Golf's Mental Game" by Dr. Michael T. Lardon
        USGA (United States Golf Association) -
        R&A (The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews) -
Online Courses:
        Rules of Golf -
        Golf Channel Academy -

About the author 

Linda Parker

My name is Linda Parker, I’ve been around golf since I was born, and I’ve been golfing since I was four years old!

I’m here to share my love of the game with you, so please do let me know if you have any questions!

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