How to Play the Chicago Golf Tournament Format

Starting point totals in the Chicago golf format
The negative point totals (minus-39, minus-38, etc.) from which golfers start in the Chicago format.

The Chicago golf format, which can be played as a tournament or as a betting game within a single group of golfers, starts each golfer with a negative amount of points, then awards points for positive achievements during the round. The object is to move from negative points into positive points (known as "clearing your hurdle") and the golfer (or team) who gets farthest into positive territory is the winner.

The point total each golfer starts with is based on handicaps, so all golfers in a Chicago tournament need to have handicaps. (It's possible to use an ex post facto single-day handicap formula, such as the Callaway System or the Peoria System, but doing so greatly complicates post-round scorekeeping and determining winners.)

The Chicago format, because its negative points start at 39, is also known as 39s or Thirty-Nines. And it is very similar to, but not identical to, the format called a Quota Tournament.

Starting Points for Golfers in Chicago Format

The negative points each golfer begins with in the Chicago format are based on handicaps and begin at -39 (minus-39) for scratch golfers. Point totals then go up, towards, zero, from there one stroke/one point at a time:

  • Scratch golfer starts at -39
  • 1-handicapper starts at -38
  • 2-handicapper starts at -37
  • 3-handicapper starts at -36

Continue in this fashion until you reach the 36-handicappers, who start with minus-3 points. All golfers with handicaps at 36 and above begin at -3.

Earning Chicago Points

During the round, golfers earn positive points on this basis:

Not everyone will be able to clear their hurdle (move into positive points), but many will. The golfer with the highest point total once everyone has completely play wins a Chicago tournament for golfers competing as individuals.

Chicago Team Tournament

If the Chicago tournament is team vs. team (rather than individual vs. the field), the team members add up their starting negative points to create a single team starting point. The object is then the same: clear the hurdle (move into positive points) by the largest amount.

One twist you sometimes see is that if any member of a team remains in negative points at the end of the round, those points are subtracted from the team total. That puts the onus on every team member to clear his or her hurdle. For example, if three golfers on a team combined for 22 points, but the fourth member finished with minus-3, then the team total is 19 rather than 22.

Playing Chicago Format as a Betting Game

If you want to play Chicago just within your group as a side game, you can handle the betting a couple different ways:

  • Each golfer puts the same amount of money into the pot, then the pot is divvied up afterward as agreed upon before the start of the round.
  • Or you can make each positive point the golfers hold at the end of the round worth a set amount, and pay out the differences.

Of course, you can also just do winner-takes-all, with each of the losers paying the winner the bet amount.