How Do Golf Scores Work?

For the Beginners FAQ: Keeping Score in Golf

a pair of hands writing down golf scores

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Scoring in golf is sometimes a mystery to those unfamiliar with the sport because in golf - unlike most other sports and games - it's the person with the lowest score who wins.

The object on each hole of the golf course is to get your golf ball into that hole on the green with as few swings as possible. 

The Simple Basic of Golf Scoring: Count Every Swing

Really, basic scorekeeping in golf is very simple: Every time you swing at the golf ball with the intention of hitting it, that's a stroke. Every time you make a stroke, count it. At the end of each hole - after you've rolled the ball into the cup - tally the strokes you used on that hole. And that's your score for the hole.

Did it take you 6 swings on the first hole to put the ball in the hole? Then your score on that hole is 6. If you then make a 4 on Hole 2, your score after two holes is 10. And so on, continuing until the end of play. You write each of these scores on the scorecard, in the row or column where each hole is listed.

Once you're finished with the golf course (or it's finished with you!), add all of those individual hole scores together. That is your total score for the round.

There are some other circumstances - for instance, every beginner (every golfer of every level) will have to add penalty strokes here and there. At least, if you're playing strictly by the rules.

But most simply put, a golf score is the number of times you whacked that little ball around the course.

Scoring In Relation to Par

When you hear a golf score given as "2-under par" or "4-over," it's an example of scoring in relation to par or relative to par.

"Par" is the number of strokes an expert golfer is expected to need to play a hole or to play the golf course as a whole. Every hole on the course has a par rating. If Hole No. 1 has a par of 4, and you score 6, then you are 2-over par (six is two more than four). If Hole No. 2 is a par-5, and you score 4, you are 1-under par. If you make 4 on a hole that is a par-4, you are "even par" or "level par."

The same applies to a golfer's total score for the full round of golf. If the golf course's par is 72 and you shoot 98, you are 26-over par for the round.

There is a whole lexicon in golf for scores in relation to par; for example, 1-under on a hole is called a "birdie" and 1-over is called a "bogey." You'll pick up the lingo as you go.

Different Golf Scoring Formats

There are three main formats used for keeping score when playing golf against buddies or opponents (listed in order of commonness):

  • Stroke play: Stroke play is what we've been describing - count each stroke, write down the number of strokes used on each hole, tally it up. Low strokes wins.
  • Match play: Again, count the number of strokes on each hole. But then compare that to your opponent's result, and keep track of which of you wins each hole. If you make a 4 on Hole 1 and your opponent makes a 5, you win that hole. The winner of the overall match is the one who wins the most holes.
  • Stableford system: In Stableford scoring, your score in relation to par is converted into points, and it's the number of total points (rather than total strokes) that determines the winner.

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