What Is a Stroke in Golf?

Golfer Charles Howell III plays a stroke
Golf Charles Howell III plays a stroke — he's about to make contact with the golf ball. David Cannon/Getty Images

In golf, a "stroke" is any swing forward of a golf club by a golfer who is trying to strike the golf ball. Strokes are the means by which golfers advance the ball around the golf course, and each stroke is counted as part of keeping score.

A swing of a club that is voluntarily stopped prior to making contact with the ball, or a swing that is completed but with the golfer intentionally missing the ball, is not a stroke.

A swing of the club forward with the intention of hitting the ball counts as a stroke even if the ball is missed.

Key Takeaways

  • A "stroke" is defined as the forward motion of a golf club to strike the golf ball.
  • Strokes are the unit of scoring in golf: Each stroke a golfer plays, plus any penalty strokes incurred due to rules violations, add up to the golfer's final score.

Definition of 'Stroke' In the Rule Book

What is the official definition of a golf stroke — the definition that appears in the Rules of Golf? The USGA and R&A, golf's governing bodies, defined "stroke" this way in the rule book that was in effect through the end of 2018:

"A 'stroke' is the forward movement of the club made with the intention of striking at and moving the ball, but if a player checks his downswing voluntarily before the clubhead reaches the ball he has not made a stroke."

A new rule book was issued on Jan. 1, 2019, however, and in those rules — rewritten with an emphasis on keeping things a bit simpler — the governing bodies now define "stroke" this way:

"The forward movement of your club made to strike the ball."

In the rule book, the term "playing a ball" is sometimes used a synonym for a stroke.

Strokes Are the Unit of Scoring In Golf

As golfers play strokes to advance around the golf course, those strokes are counted. And counting those strokes serves as the score or contributes to the scoring, depending on what type of golf format is being played:

  • Stroke play: The winner in stroke play is the golfer who uses the fewest number of strokes for the full round of golf (typically 18 holes).
  • Match play: The winner of a hole in match play is the golfer who used the fewest strokes on that hole; the winner of the match is the golfer who wins the most holes.
  • Stableford: In Stableford, the number of strokes a golfer uses on each hole is converted into points earned, fewer strokes resulting in more points. The winner is the golfer with the most points at the end of the round.

When Is a Swing Not a Stroke?

As noted, if a golfer completes her swing but intentionally misses the golf ball, that does not count as a stroke. Why might one do that? Perhaps a last-second distraction arises. Also, if a golfer stops his swing before contacting the ball it's not a stroke.

However, it is possible to miss the golf ball and still have to count that miss as a stroke. For more on this, see "Does a whiff count as a stroke?"

The new definition of "stroke" quoted above is from the condensed Player's Rules; in the Full Rules, the definition is expanded to stipulate conditions when a forward motion of the club does not count as a stroke:

"(The golfer) (d)ecides during the downswing not to strike the ball and avoids doing so by deliberately stopping the clubhead before it reaches the ball or, if unable to stop, by deliberately missing the ball.
"(The golfer) (a)ccidentally strikes the ball when making a practice swing or while preparing to make a stroke."

Other Uses of 'Stroke' In Golf

The word "stroke" is used as part of multiple other terms by golfers. The two most prominent are:

  • Penalty stroke: This is an additional stroke (or strokes) added to a golfer's score as the result of the golfer violating the Rules of Golf.
  • Handicap stroke: This is a subtraction of a stroke (or strokes) from a golfer's score under certain circumstances covered by the USGA Handicap System or other golf handicapping system.

"Stroke" also appears as part of some other terms, including equitable stroke control and obstacle stroke value, elements in the USGA Handicapping System.