How to Play Golf Tournaments: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

If you are reading this, I am sure you have been playing golf for a few years now with your buddies, where a cold brew is just as important as a good swing.

Or maybe you played a lot with your dad as a teenager.

Either way, you probably have a need for competition, and those leisurely Saturdays are just not cutting it. Go ahead and try a golf tournament, but keep in mind that they are quite different from casual play.

Here you will learn how to go about playing in a golf tournament step by step:

  • How do they work?
  • How long are they?
  • How to prepare
  • How to enter
  • Rule differences from casual play

Keep reading for a thoroughly detailed guide of everything you need to know about golf tournaments.

How Do Golf Tournaments Work?

In order for competition to be fair, tournaments need structure and there is a large variety of ways a tournament can be set up.

Let’s run through all the different terminology piece by piece so you will know what you are dealing with when you get to the course.

Keep in mind before we start, that tournaments can be held both between individuals and teams of a set number of players.

So if you are entering a tournament utilizing team play, substitute “team” for “player” in the following descriptions.

Start Formats

It should go without saying that golf tournaments feature a lot of people ready to play around the same time.

This makes the idea of a “tee time” a little less effective than during casual play. Over the years, starts have been divided into three formats:

  1. Standard
  2. Shotgun
  3. Crossover

1) Standard

The Standard start format is closely aligned with the typical tee time system. Everyone waits their turn to start at hole one.

However, you typically would not be scheduling your time far in advance.

After entering into the tournament, you would be given a number to determine when you will be teeing off. Starts occur every ten minutes, or at some other predetermined interval. Make sure you are ready when it is your turn!

This works great for smaller tournaments of up to 36 really competitive individuals. The game will move fast and everyone is on the same page, for the most part. It also makes it rather easy to follow as a spectator.

Over 36, however, and the game starts to get a bit disjointed. Why?

Well, if you have too many players, you could have a situation where one person is just starting to play as someone else just finished the whole course.

That would make the tournament take twice as long as other starting formats.

If a somewhat large tournament wants to use the standard start but does not have enough players to shut down the whole course, they can try using the flight system to speed it up.

The general idea here is to put championship caliber, highly experienced players in the first “flight” up front and slower, less experienced players in the back “flight.”

In fact, flights can be used to organize players in other useful ways besides just difficulty level, such as:

  • Handicap
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Average scores
  • Past results

2) Shotgun

A shotgun start is when players, or groups of players (at least 60 total), are set to start at every hole at the same time.

This, of course, can only be done if the tournament takes over the whole course.

However, it means that the tournament will be over a lot faster, freeing it up for casual play later in the day or beforehand in the morning.

Under this system:

  • Player 1 starts at hole 1 and ends at hole 18
  • Player 2 starts at hole 2, completes the course through hole 18, and then finishes off by playing hole 1
  • Player 3 would start on 3 and end on 2
  • And so on

That way everyone is still playing the same amount of holes, making the scoring fair, but moving things smoothly along and ending the tournament at one set time.

One disadvantage though, besides needing to shut the whole course down, is that no flight system can be implemented.

One slow player slows down the whole tournament.

3) Crossover

A crossover start is a combination of both standard and shotgun meant for mid-sized tournaments.

It works like standard, but utilizing both holes 1 and 10. That way you can start double the amount of people you otherwise would in standard.

It is a great system if you have too many people for standard, but not quite enough to shut down the whole course like for shotgun.

Crossover start tournaments typically feature 40-56 players.


We all know the basic premise for scoring in golf: Par is the allotted number of swings to complete a hole.

The score you keep throughout the tournament is relative to how close you get to par. While that is basically it for casual play, tournament play can be a little more complicated.

Let’s briefly run through those:

  • Stroke play – The exact same concept described above. Score is tracked both by total gross swings and by par.
  • Match play – Used to simplify things during team competitions. Teams earn a point for each hole in which they beat their opponents. Winner is the one with the most points at the end of the day.
  • Scramble – More relaxed then stroke play. Each player on a team hits off the tee, but then everyone plays from the spot of the best shot.
  • Alternate shot – Two partners form a team and alternate shots on a single ball in either stroke play or match play style competitions.
  • Four ball – Partners form a team but each play their own golf ball. After each hole, the lowest (best) score is used as the team score. This can be used in tandem with match play, using each team’s best score to determine which team gets the point.


Bragging rights are great, but a little bit of materialism does not hurt either.

Most smaller tournaments do not have major prizes besides maybe some cool merchandise at the pro shop, but large ones could certainly have all types of stuff like:

  • Gift cards
  • Vouchers
  • Trips
  • Tickets to concerts or shows
  • Trophies
  • And of course- sweet, sweet cash

Here is the general rule of thumb though: the better the prize, the stiffer the competition. Major tournaments, like the ones on TV, are for large sums of money.

However, there are still plenty of larger tournaments not on television, usually charity events or buy-ins, that have really impressive prizes for the top three.

Some tournaments offer even smaller prizes for various runner up positions.

How Long Are Golf Tournaments?

This is a big deal no matter what kind of tournament you enter, and that is why they are so fun. You really put your golf skills and endurance to the test.

How long a tournament will take depends on three factors:

  • Number of players
  • Start format
  • Number of rounds

In general, we can assume that one round of golf takes about 4 hours, but that is greatly affected by any of those 3 factors.

Number of Players and Start Format

The amount of players of course affects how long the tournament will take, and that is exacerbated by the start format.

Do your homework on these facts in advance if you can. If there are 100 people entering into a Standard start, you may want to pack dinner with your lunch.

Ideally, every one-round tournament would take about four hours.

However, that standard might take a little longer, possibly up to eight hours, if there are even a little bit too many slow flights in the back.

Shotguns should generally stick to four hours, but could get delayed by a couple slow players.

This will become less of an issue as more players finish the course, giving others more space to jump ahead.

Number of Rounds

Tournament length is also affected by how many times players must complete the course. Standard pro PGA tournaments are 4 rounds, but amateurs are typically just 1 or 2 (although some can go all the way up to 9!).

You may want to start off with a 1 round, 1 day tournament to get your feet wet before moving on to multiple day events.

The advantage to 2 round tournaments (besides playing more golf) is that it eliminates the “hot” player, or someone who just had a good day.

By playing more than one day, it is more likely that the overall better golfer will come out on top.

Also, if one hole in particular is a problem for you, playing multiple rounds gives you a chance to redeem yourself and makes the hole less significant.

Sometimes 2 rounds will be played on the same day back to back, but there is the risk of fatigue.

How to Prepare for Golf Tournament?

Now that you have a good idea in general of what to expect during the jump from casual to tournament play, you are probably wondering how to prepare.

After all, part of the joy in casual golf is being able to just show up to the new course your friend invited to you and tee off.

But in tournament play, you are less likely to want surprises that could negatively affect your game.

The best way to minimize surprises is preparation in the form of:

  1. Studying the course
  2. Do a practice round or two
  3. Arriving early

1) Study the Course

The major way to have a leg up on the competition is to know what you are in for. If you have never been to the golf course hosting the tournament before, check it out so you are not flying blind.

Do more than check out the clubhouse though: get a map of the course if it exists. If you do not have a lot of time to prepare beforehand, use Google Maps/Earth.

If you are like me, you may have already used the satellite view or street view in the past to have a better idea of what a new neighborhood is like or for more specific directions.

Thanks to satellite views of golf courses, you can take a look at it first and make some strategic plans beforehand (you may want to check the tournament rules beforehand and make sure they do not have any explicit rules against this).

As long as it is allowed, go ahead and use satellite view to check for things like:

  • Measure water hazards – Google gives you distances, so use that to your advantage to see how big that hazard actually is. If you know you can clear 30 yards and that hazard is 25 yards, you will know you should be good to let it fly.
  • Bunker placements – Find out where all the bunkers are. If there is one hidden around a corner or over a hill, you will be aware of it and be able to compensate for it when you get to that hole.
  • Fairway sizes – See how narrow that fairway really is before you decide to go for it on game day.

However, keep in mind that you cannot anticipate things like wind and rain from looking at Google.

2) Do a Practice Round

If you have more than a couple days, actually going to the course once or twice beforehand and doing practice rounds is a great way to get prepared.

No golf course is designed only for tournaments; they allow casual play too.

If you are signing up for your first golf tournament at your favorite place, you will be at a major advantage.

If you are not familiar with it, those couple of practice rounds will do you plenty of good.

It is one thing to look at a course in satellite view, but still quite another to physically go there and see those distances for yourself and see how far your swing will actually go.

When you do those practice rounds, keep a few things in mind:

  • Take your time, especially if you have never been there before – you want to be go slowing so you can take mental notes on each hole’s attributes. Muscle memory is your friend here.
  • Spend a lot of time on the putting green – so you can get a rough idea what kind of condition they keep it in.
  • It is up to you whether you want to keep score – some people want to know how many swings it takes and how they can improve that. Others just need to get the feel of the course down so they can focus on score later.
  • Try swings from multiple angles – go on a quiet day so you will not be holding anybody up. Sure, your first swing landed the ball in one spot, but what if was a windy day and went into that bunker instead? What you do then? Anticipate different scenarios and play them out so you know the best decision to make before show time.

3) Arrive Early

If you arrive just before tee time, in a competition environment that you have never been in before, you will invariably feel rushed. Feeling rushed in a patient sport like golf will definitely affect your game, adding at least a few strokes.

It is a good rule of thumb to show up to a tournament and be entered about an hour before you are set to begin golfing. That will give you time to:

Any more than an hour and you will have too much time. You want to avoid excessive amounts of sitting around before your first tournament, because that is when you will have time for paranoia and doubt to creep in.

How to Enter Golf Tournaments?

Entering your first golf tournament is really just a matter of signing up, as long as you have done your homework and feel like you are ready for the higher level of competition and difficulty.

Once you do that, either in person on the day of the event or sometimes in advance, you will be given a start time.

If they are using a shotgun or crossover start, they will also give you the starting hole. Which order number they give you is not happenstance though.

This is determined by your handicap, so you will need to have that figured out in advance.

The handicap card is used to determine which flight you will be in, so that way you will be competed with players with about the same skill set as you.

Your average Joe at his first tournament would not feel too great about himself playing against Tiger Woods.

Likewise, Tiger wants to play against people on his same level. The handicap evens the playing field for you.

Here are the steps to have your handicap card ready to go:

  1. Turn in 10 score cards during 1 golf season.
  2. Typically, par for one entire 18 hole golf course is 72.
  3. Keep track of your total score for all 10 outings.
  4. Add up all 10 numbers and then divide the sum by 10 to find your average score.
  5. Your average score minus 72 equals your handicap number. So, if your average score was 90, you would have a handicap of 18. The lower your handicap number, the better.
  6. You are put in a flight determined by your handicap number. Although this can vary depending on the tournament, flights are typically organized as follows:
    • Flight A- 3 to 8
    • Flight B- 8 to 13
    • Flight C- 13 to 18
    • Flight D- 18 and above

After you finish the tournament, the organizers take your score and subtract it by your handicap number to get your final score, so you know how you did relative to everybody else.

If your handicap is 20 and you scored a 94, your final score is 74. 74 is particularly good and will put you in a great spot in the overall day’s rankings.

Rules of Competitive Play

As you may have guessed by now, competitiveness is not the only difference between tournament golf and casual golf.

Any idea of moving the ball a little bit out of a terrible spot or giving it a nudge with your foot on the green, is strictly forbidden.

The rules are serious in tournament golf. Let’s go over some of the specific rule differences you will need to know before signing up for a tournament.

Only 14 Sticks

While you may bring a nice variety of clubs with you on your Saturday mornings, do not think of doing that here. In a golf tournament, only 14 sticks are allowed for each player.

Yes, they will check. If there are more than 14 in your bag when you go to tee off, you will be given a two stroke penalty.

Double check your bag before you start a tournament.

Ball Falling off the Tee

Do not lie, we have all done this: you flat-out whiff on the shot, just barely grazing the ball. The ball drops off the tee.

Your friend was looking away or was too busy scrolling through his phone too notice, so you quickly put the ball back on the tee. He is none the wiser.

That of course is a big no no in tournament golf. If you touch the ball with your club and it falls off the tee, it counts as a stroke.

But if you did not even wind up yet and the wind knocks the ball off the tee, it is not your fault. No penalty there. Just put the ball back on and try again.


There is nothing wrong with asking your friend which iron he used, or where the line is, on a casual golf outing.

In golf tournaments however, such behavior is illegal and will cost you a two stroke penalty.

The only exception is team play, where discussion between teammates is allowed.

Improving the Lie of the Ball

If your ball drops in the woods, you may want to move some moss or branches out of the way before your swing.

In a bunker, you probably want to kick some rocks out of your swing path. Strictly forbidden in tournament golf, I am afraid.

“Play it where it lies” means you cannot change anything about where the ball lies either. If you really cannot swing at the ball, you are going to have to take a penalty.

Lost Ball Time

In casual play, you might spend 20 minutes looking for your ball. You and your friends might be a couple drinks in and making a day out of it anyway, so take your time.

Yeah, not so much in a golf tournament. Once you get to the area where you think the ball went and start looking, you have 5 minutes to find out.

If you cannot find it after that, the ball is considered lost. You have to take the penalty and move on.


The rules were designed for humans and are not completely draconian. There are some instances when you can move the ball within one club length.

That is generally allowed where it is not safe to be swinging from, in spots such as:

  • Cart paths
  • Inside a bush
  • In poison ivy

Ball Identification

Hey, it happens: you hit your ball a little off course and it goes into the rough.

You walk up to find it, but it turns out you were not the first person to make this mistake. There are already a handful of balls in this section.

If you want to make sure you have got the right ball, you are allowed to pick it up and identify it.

But first, announce to your competition that you intend to do so. Mark the spot, and then take a look. Let your competition observe this process.

Once you have identified your ball, put it back down in the exact same spot and take your swing.


Another fun one is when your ball hits a sprinkler, or is in its range while it is spraying. If this happens, you are allowed to move the ball within reason but only the following can be interfered with:

  • The ball itself
  • Intended stance
  • Your full swing

Tapping Down the Green

Someone before you was wearing spikes, so now there are spike marks all over the green. Unfortunate, I know.

Do not attempt to tap them down to smooth out a path though; that will give you a damaging two stroke penalty.

The Flagstick

During casual play, it is essentially personal preference whether your party wants to take out the flag once you are on the green.

However, mishandling the flag under tournament play is a serious violation that can cause you a 1 or 2 stroke penalty.

Here are a few flagstick violations to be careful of in your upcoming golf tournament:

  • Not removing the flag before a successful shot in the hole from the green
  • Hitting the flag or pin that was already taken out of the hole and is lying on the ground
  • Leaving the flag in the hole in an attempt to cause your opponent to commit a penalty