Scramble Tournament in Golf: What It Is, How to Play It

Basics of Golf Scramble Rules, Plus Handicaps, Strategies and Variations

Team of golfers in a scramble tournament
Why are those three golfers waiting behind the one who is putting? Because they are scramble teammates and they'll be putting from the same spot. Tom Grizzle/Getty Images

The Scramble is one of the primary forms of tournament play for golf associations, charity events and the like. A scramble tournament is usually played with 4-person teams, but 3-person and 2-person scrambles work, too. Handicaps are sometimes applied, but scramble tournaments are just as likely to use gross scores as net.

Here's how the basic scramble format works:

  • Each golfer on the team hits a drive.
  • The results of the drives are compared. Which one is best? That ball is selected and marked, and the other golfers on the team pick up their golf balls and move them to that location.
  • The second strokes are played, and the process repeats: Select the best ball, move the other balls to that spot and play the third strokes.
  • And so on, until the ball is holed for one team score.

(Not following? Watch a demonstration of scramble play in this video, which uses a two-person scramble team as an example.)

When moving golf balls to the spot of the selected shot, the other golfers on the team can play from within one-club length of the original spot. But that one-club length cannot be closer to the hole, and it can't improve the lie of the original ball. That is, if the selected drive is in the first cut of rough, then the other members of the team cannot hit from the fairway even if the fairway is within one club-length. Likewise, you can't move a ball onto the putting green when the selected ball is in the fringe.

Order of play on every stroke is usually at the sole discretion of each scramble team. Just because Golfer X hit first off the tee doesn't mean Golfer X has to hit first on the second stroke, and so on. Likewise, your ball being selected as the best after a given stroke doesn't mean you have to hit first (or last) on the next stroke. It's up to the team to decide on order of play.

Strategy in Scramble Tournaments

What should the order of play be? Should a straight hitter tee off first or last? Should terrible putters putt first to get out of the way? Let's go over some scramble strategies. The recommendations that follow are based on the Scramble entry in the book Chi Chi's Golf Games You Gotta Play, co-authored by Chi Chi Rodriguez. Because if you can't trust Chi Ch when it comes to golf games, who can you trust?

For drives and approach shots:

  • Let the weaker players hit first, the long hitters in the middle and the more consistent (and straightest) hitters last. Leaving the anchor spot to the long hitters is putting too much pressure on them to dial back and hit the fairway (or green) if nobody before already has done so. Going second or third lets the long hitter(s) really fire away with freedom. Of course, this means your consistent, straight hitter has to be able to handle the pressure of anchor duties.
  • Let the golfer whose drive was selected hit first on the second shot, since they'll be feeling great about that first stroke.
  • Some golfers are great drivers and lousy iron players. Some are the opposite. Take this into account for the order of play from stroke to stroke. Remember, it's up to the team on each stroke the order in which golfers hit. Keep the weaker players in front, the most consistent golfers in back.
  • On par-5s, let the shorter hitters (regardless of skill level) play first in order to lay up. Then, the big bombers can go last to fire for the green in two.

For short-game shots and on the putting green:

  • Never select a ball in a bunker as the one to play. (Unless all golfers on the team hit into bunkers!)
  • Always remember that the shortest shot is not necessarily the easiest shot. So don't automatically select the ball closest to the green. Consider angles, pin position, any hazards, the lie.
  • On putts, likewise, remember that shortest doesn't necessarily equal easiest.
  • For order on putts, make sure your worst putter never putts first. Let the first putt be taken by a golfer the team knows will give the rest of you a good read.
  • Once a ball is in gimme range, the remaining putters must be aggressive—knock it past the hole if you don't make it. Just be sure to get it to the hole so it has a chance.

Handicaps in Scramble Tournaments

There are no official rules about how to employ handicaps in a scramble tournament; the USGA nor any other handicapping body provides any "rules." That means that tournament organizers can set their own guidelines for team handicaps in a scramble tournament.

However, the following team handicap allowances are the ones most commonly used when net scores are in use at a scramble:

  • For a four-person scramble: Each golfer on the team calculates his or her course handicap. Then, take 20-percent of the A player's course handicap, 15-percent of the B player's, 10-percent of the C player's and 5-percent of the D player's, and add them together. That's the team scramble handicap.
  • For a three-person scramble: Add 20-percent of the A player's course handicap, 15-percent of the B player's and 10-percent of the C player's.
  • For a two-person scramble: Take 35-percent of the A player's course handicap and add it to 15-percent of the B player's.

Another method that works with any number of team members is to add all the course handicaps together and divide by twice the number of golfers on the team. In a two-person scramble, for example, with course handicaps of seven and 13, 20 would be divided by four, yielding a team handicap of five.

Dean Knuth, a k a "The Pope of Slope," has an article about the difficulties of handicapping scramble teams that is an interesting read.

Different Types of Scrambles

There are many variations on the basic scramble golf tournament format. These are some of them:

  • Ambrose: When a tournament is called an "Ambrose scramble," that typically means it is net score using a team handicap.
  • Bloodsome: A "bloodsome scramble" is one in which the team plays its worst ball after each stroke. Rarely played because it takes so long. See "Reverse Scramble" below.
  • Bramble: Think of it as a scramble off the tee but then "regular golf" after that. Same as a shamble.
  • Florida scramble: After each stroke, the golfer whose ball was selected sits out the following stroke.
  • Fort Lauderdale: This name usually just means it's a standard scramble format. "Fort Lauderdale" is a synonym of "scramble," in other words.
  • Las Vegas scramble: You need a 6-side die to play this version of a scramble. (Not to be confused with the more-common Las Vegas betting game.)
  • Miami scramble: The golfer whose drive is selected sits out until the team reaches the green.
  • Powerball scramble: On some holes, team selects one of its golfers to tee off from the forward tees.
  • Reverse scramble: Same as the Bloodsome - use the worst ball after each stroke.
  • Shamble: Pick the best ball off the tee, everyone plays "regular golf" from there into the hole.
  • Step Aside: Same as a Florida Scramble. Also called a Drop Out Scramble, Stand Aside or Stand Out.
  • Texas scramble: The team must select at least four drives from each of its members during the round.