Golfing can be an excellent sport for anyone of any age.
With so many public and private courses available to golfing enthusiasts of every skill level, it’s hard not to spend the afternoons swinging away.
But when you first start, there’s one aspect of golfing that might bring up the following question.
How does golf scoring work?
Golf scoring works by counting the number of purposeful swings, accounting for penalties, and totaling with handicaps and par.
Although it may seem like a complicated system, once you understand the basics, scoring for golf becomes effortless.
So, before you take your first swing or yell, “FORE!” read on to learn how golf scoring works in a simple step-by-step guide for newbies.
The first step in any golf game is to obtain a scorecard.
Most golf courses will have premade scorecards that you can gather from the front desk of their clubhouse, or in an enclosure next to the first hole (usually looks like a wooden mailbox).
How to Read a Golf Scorecard
When you are a first time player of golf, there are many elements on a golf scorecard that can be confusing.
From Golf Week, here is an extensive list explaining what each element on a golf scorecard means to the game:
- Hole List – Usually found at the very top of the scorecard is the hole list. This will list the number of holes within the golf course. Usually, you play in numerical order, but if the course is busy, players can start at the halfway point and wrap back to the starting hole after playing the highest-numbered hole. (e.g., from holes 1-18, start at hole ten and play until hole 18, then go to holes 1-9).
- Out and In – These are terms to specify which holes are closest to the clubhouse. Those marked as “Out” (usually holes 1-9) are parts of the course being played away from the clubhouse. Those marked as “In” (usually holes 10-18) are parts of the course being played towards the clubhouse.
- Colored Names – These are labeled to help tell players how far the tee box (starting area) is for each hole. You can think of each color as a ranking system for difficulty.
- Black or gold = Hardest tee
- Blue = Perfect for players at an above-average level
- White = Perfect for players with a high handicap
- Red = Course with the shortest amount of tees (great for quick games or absolute beginners)
- Green = Perfect for any player, but especially beginning golfers
- Numbers – On your scorecard should be numbers that are already filled in.
- The numbers right below each hole number represent the distance from the tee box to the hole.
- The numbers to the right of the colored names represent the rating of difficulty and the slope of the hill.
- Handicaps – May also be labeled as “Index.” It works as a ranking system to tell you what is the most challenging hole.
- If the handicap is closer to 1, that is the most challenging hole on the course.
- If the handicap is closer to 18 (or whatever the highest number of holes is for that course), that is the easiest.
- Pars – Par is essentially the number of strokes (intended swings at the golf ball) it should take to sink it into the hole. Usually, when you add up the total number of pars, it should be around 72 (for an 18 hole course).
How to Fill Out a Scorecard
Now that you understand what each element on a golf scorecard represents, you can adequately fill out the information.
Unlike other sports where the tallies and scores are kept by a third party, each player must keep track of their points in golf.
This includes accurately reporting your handicap and strokes.
According to Golf Week, here are the six steps to filling out a golf scorecard correctly:
- Name of each player – You should have a list of all the players on each scorecard, as well as the name of who is keeping track of your points (also known as the “scorekeeper”).
- Although every player will have their scorecard that they need to report points on, it is an excellent practice to try to keep track of everyone’s score when possible. This is especially true for newer players; that way, there is confirmation of scoring at the end of the game.
- Mark all the strokes for each player – In a game of golf, a stroke is understood to be an intentional swing at the golf ball. Even if the ball doesn’t move, if a player swings at it, that counts as a stroke.
- You can add or subtract the par and handicap at the end of the game.
- Total up the strokes for each player – Simply add the strokes from each hole across the player’s row. It’s a good practice to do this halfway (at hole 9) to make the process go faster at the end.
- Add the par difference – To find this, simply add up all of the par numbers, then subtract your number from that. For example, if the total number of pars on the course is 75 and you had 70 shots (strokes), you had a par under 5 (which is a good thing!)
- Once you know the par difference, add or subtract these numbers to the stroke totals. This is commonly known as “score versus the par.”
- Add the handicap – A handicap is used to help level out the experience levels of the players. Usually, more experienced golfers will have a lower handicap, while less experienced golfers will have a higher handicap.
- To add the handicap to your score, simply subtract your handicap number from the total number of shots you took.
- For handicaps, they can either be found through the average of your past golf games, or you can use the handicaps printed on the scorecard. It is recommended for beginners to use the printed handicaps on the scorecard.
- Scorekeeper’s signature – Whoever kept score should sign the bottom of the scorecard. If they kept score, but someone else wrote down what they were saying, then that person should sign the “marker” section.
- For casual playing, this is not as important, but when it comes to competitions, this could mean the difference between victory and disqualification!
How to Count Purposeful Swings
In golf scoring, the amount of swings a player takes is incredibly essential.
The main goal in golf is to try to sink the golf ball into the hole using the least amount of purposeful swings possible.
But, what is considered a purposeful swing?
Every time you swing at the golf ball intending to hit it, that counts as a swing. Even if you completely miss the ball, it will still count as a stroke!
However, it does mean you are free to swing your clubs as much as you like against the artificial grass, just try not to pull up too much turf!
Of course (pun intended), if everyone in the casual game is a complete newbie and okay with it, you can create your standard for what you would like to consider a “swing.”
However, be aware that in any other game or competition, each swing is counted.
How to Total the Points
To keep score for golf, you need to know when to add or subtract specific numbers for an accurate score. There are two main factors you need to keep in mind when totaling the points at the end of the round.
The main two elements that will impact the total strokes (points) of a player’s game are:
- Par difference
Handicap for golf simply means the variable number of the player’s level of experience that helps people of different levels play together.
Another way to think of a handicap for golf is in the context of playing tag with small children.
You, a full-grown adult, wouldn’t run as fast as you actually can to give the kids a chance to catch you.
It’s the same idea for a golf handicap; it’s so people of any level can play the same field.
To calculate your handicap differential, you need to have the following information:
- Stroke counts (or score) over at least five recent rounds
- Course rating
- Slope number of the golf course
The more rounds you can total together, the more accurate your handicap score will be. With the above information, you can plug your stats into the following formula:
Handicap Differential = (Score – Course Rating) x 113 / Slope Rating
Note: The 113 is a factor of the formula, so do not replace it with another number!
For example, let’s say you have the following golf scorecard for seven rounds:
Note: Everything in bold is already included on the golf scorecard when you first receive it.
*This row will be where you mark the strokes
To find your handicap differential, you would do the following:
Handicap Differential = (Score – Course Rating) x 113 / Slope Rating = [ (74 – 71) x 113] / 131 = [ (3) x 113 ] / 131 = 2.58, or 2.6 handicap
Along with the overall handicap score, you can also find what is known as the “handicap index” with the differential calculation.
In the most basic sense, it is the way to figure out your handicap as you finish each round.
To find the differential calculation, it based off of the number of rounds you play:
- If you played 5-10 rounds: Find the lowest differential from the handicaps and multiply it by 0.96.
- If you played 11-19 rounds: Find the average of the five lowest differentials and multiply that by 0.96.
- If you played 20 rounds: Find the average of the ten lowest differentials and multiply that by 0.96.
Using the sample golf scorecard from before, to find your handicap index, you would do the following:
Handicap index = lowest differential x 0.96 = (6) x 0.96
Handicap index = 5.76, or 5.8 as you always round to the nearest tenth.
The reason your handicap differential and handicap index are different numbers is that your handicap differential is more accurate as it accounts for the total game.
Meanwhile, the handicap index only takes a small sample of your overall game.
So, for the most accurate handicap number, use the handicap differential formula.
Penalties in Golf Scoring
There are 34 basic rules created by the United States Golf Association (USGA).
These rules are in place to help keep the game fair, especially between unevenly matched players.
When it comes to marking penalties in golf scoring, follow these twenty rules:
- If you ask another golfer what club they used to hit the ball with: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If the ball moves after you put your club behind it: Add one stroke to your score for that hole, unless it falls off the tee.
- If you cannot find your ball:
- Add one stroke to your score for that hole.
- Go back to the original spot you hit the lost ball from and try again.
- Add another stroke to your score for that hole.
- If you hit the ball to where it is unplayable:
- Add one stroke to your score for that hole.
- Drop the ball the same distance from the hole (i.e., if you hit the ball 100 feet from the hole into an unplayable spot, you have to place the replacement ball 100 feet from the hole in a playable spot).
- Alternatively, you can take a two-stroke point and start back at the original spot you hit the ball from.
- If you hit the ball out of bounds (the white stakes):
- Add one stroke to your score for that hole.
- Play again from the same position.
- If you move the ball to a better position: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If you play a ball that is in the rough (outside the course) and move any plants: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If you play a ball that was dropped wrong: Add one stroke to your score for that hole.
- If you hit the ball and it hits you back: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If you hit the pin while putting: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If you play a ball that isn’t yours: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If you putt your ball into another player’s ball while still on the green: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If you put your ball marker in the wrong spot: Add one stroke to your score for that hole.
- If someone else corrects your putting direction before you putt: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If you try to cover spike marks before you hole a putt: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If someone else shields you from the elements (rain, wind, etc.) while putting: Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If you wait more than ten seconds for a ball to drop into the hole: Add one stroke to your score for that hole.
- If you put your clubs on the ground (also known as “grounding the club”): Add two strokes to your score for that hole.
- If your ball lands in water that it cannot be recovered from: Add one stroke to your score for that hole.
- If you carry more than 14 clubs in your bag: Add two strokes for each hole played with the extra clubs up to four strokes per round.
Different Scoring Techniques
If the idea of having to track handicaps and strokes seems a bit too advanced for your players’ levels, there are alternative ways to score the golf game that are much more beginner-friendly.
The three most common alternatives to scoring golf are:
- Holes up or holes down
- Scoring based off the par
- Match play
Holes up or Holes Down
Holes up or holes down is an excellent system for scoring golf, especially for complete newbies. It merely means that the player that gets their ball into the hole first gets the point.
If you want to have an equal opportunity for all the players, you can also score by whoever gets their ball in first gets the most points, and everyone who scores after gets one less than that until the last person gets one point when they sink their ball.
For example, if you have four players, the score would look like this:
- First person to sink their ball = 4 points
- Second person to sink their ball = 3 points
- Third person to sink their ball = 2 points
- Last person to sink their ball = 1 point
Scoring Based off Par
Instead of having to rely on handicaps for an idea of how skilled a player is, you can score off of the par.
When you receive your golf scorecard, there should be an already listed Par number for each hole in the course.
This par number tells you how many strokes it should take to sink the ball.
If you get your ball into the hole in fewer strokes than what is labeled on the scorecard, you give yourself a negative number (called “playing under par”) for the difference between the par and the total number of strokes you took.
If you get your ball into the hole in more strokes than what is labeled on the scorecard, you give yourself a positive number (called “playing over par”) for the difference between the par and the total number of strokes you took.
For example, if Hole #3 has a Par number of 9 and you took seven strokes to sink your ball, then your Score Based Off the Par would be -2.
If your partner took ten strokes on the same hole, then their Score Based Off the Par would be +1.
When scoring based off the par, just remember the formula:
Your number of strokes – the Par number = Your net score
Scoring Terms for Based off Par
If you are going to score based off the par, there are eight standard terms you should familiarize yourself with.
Not only will it help communicate the exact score with your fellow players, but it will impress them with your golf knowledge!
The eight common score terms for golf are:
- Condor – Playing four under the par
- Albatross (or Double Eagle) – Playing three under the par
- Eagle – Playing two under the par
- Birdie – Playing one under the par
- Par – Playing the same as the par, usually noted with an “E” on the scorecard
- Bogey – Playing one over the par
- Double Bogey – Playing two over the par
- Triple Bogey – Playing three over the par
Match play scoring for golf puts more of an emphasis on each hole, rather than the course as a complete system.
To score using the match play method, a point is given to the player who had the least amount of strokes per hole.
If there is a tie, each player gets a half-point. If you are playing with teams, the team player that had the least amount of strokes uses their score to determine a winner against the opposing team.
- If you take seven strokes to sink your ball and your opponent takes eight strokes to sink their ball, you win the hole and receive one point.
- If you and your opponent take eight strokes to sink your balls, you both take one-half point for the hole.
- If your team member takes nine strokes to sink their ball, but you only take seven, then your team represents their score as seven.
Vocabulary for Scoring Match Play
Just like scoring based off the par, match play scoring for golf has specific jargon you should familiarize yourself with.
When it comes to establishing the current score for match play, follow these terms:
- All Square – The scores are tied for the round
- Two Up – One player or team is ahead by two holes
- Dormie – If one player or team is ahead by the same amount of holes remaining, they are referred to as “dormie” or “being dormie.”
- Margin of Victory – This is when one player or team is determined to have won because there is no way the opponent could score enough to tie or win.
- X and Y – This is how the final score is delivered. “X” is the number of hole lead, and “Y” is how many holes remained.
- This is usually only for the margin of victory wins.
Can You Get A Negative Score In Golf?
There is a chance to have a negative score in golf. When you score in relation to the par, you can end up being under the expected strokes to complete a hole.
When this happens, you end up with a negative number for your total of strokes in relation to the par.
For example, if the course par is ten strokes and you sink the ball in eight strokes, that would leave you with a score of -2 in relation to the par.
The number comes from how far away your number of strokes is from the established par. You can think of the numbers as being on a number line with the established number of strokes (par) being zero.
You can also have a negative score in golf if your handicap is higher than your stroke count.
At the end of the rounds, you can find your net score (total of strokes) and subtract that by your handicap.
If you played a game where you did not have many strokes, your handicap would be larger; thus, you would end up with a negative score.
Negative and lower scores in golf are a good thing! That means you take fewer swings to get your ball into the hole, which is the entire point.
Golf scoring is only as complicated as the scorekeeper allows it to be.
The hardest part is remembering all the rules and regulations that come with each number’s meaning.
If you record the numbers accurately and take your time at the end of the game, it should be easy enough for any beginner to follow along.
Plus, you have the freedom to score how it best fits the players when it comes to casual golfing.
Just remember the basic rule: golf scoring is based on the total number of strokes a player takes. The smaller the number, the better the player!