How to Play a Golf Ladder Tournament

Immigration And Border Security Issues Loom Heavy In Upcoming U.S. Elections
John Moore/Getty Images

A "ladder tournament" is a format used for groups of golfers (usually playing as individuals) who start out ranked from strongest to weakest based on handicaps, with those below trying to improve their position — to "move up the ladder" — by challenging higher-ranked players to matches.

Ladder Tournaments Are Longer-Running

A ladder tournament takes place over an extended period of time (such as over a summer) and can be thought of as self-serve: There aren't necessarily any organized play dates. Rather, the tournament bracket, or ladder, is posted for all to see, and players take it upon themselves to issue challenges and set up times to play matches.

Only lower-ranked players can issue a challenge (No. 8 can challenge No. 7, but 7 can't challenge 8). Challenge rules usually prohibit the challenged player from declining to play; if you are challenged by a lower-ranked player in a Ladder Tournament, you have to accept. Typically, the lower-ranked golfer is limited to challenging the players who are, at most, up to three spots higher on the "ladder."

In order to keep the tournament moving, a time limit for playing agreed-upon matches is a good idea; playing within one week of a challenge is common.

Full handicaps are used in ladder matches. The matches can be 18 holes or 9 holes, at the discretion of the tournament organizers. If organizing a ladder tournament for a more restricted period of time (a long weekend, for example), nine hole matches will help the participating golfers get in more matches.

Moving Up the Ladder

If the challenging player wins, he moves up the ladder, trading places with the golfer he beat. If the golfer who accepted the challenge wins, he maintains his position on the ladder. If the challenger loses, she can't issue another challenge until she has successfully defended her position on the ladder.

The object of a ladder tournament is to move up the ladder; the player at the top at the end of the tournament period is the winner.

In his book Golf Digest's Complete Book of Golf Betting Games, author Ron Kapriskie offers this tip on strategy:

"If you're going to get anywhere in this competition, you have to make challenges that are at least two steps ahead of your position. If you see a player or team ahead of you that you know you can beat, go for it."

Ladder tournaments obviously take time to play. When might a ladder tournament be used? Let's say the Anytown Country Club Men's Golf Association issues its summer schedule, with other kinds of tournaments scheduled from June through August. That 3-month period is an opportunity to schedule a concurrent ladder tournament, running throughout the summer.