Does a Whiff Count as a Stroke in Golf?

A golfer swinging a golf club, overhead view
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Does a whiff count as a stroke? Yes — or no. The answer depends on the intent. The short version:

  • If the golfer is trying to hit the golf ball but misses: Yes, that's a stroke. You have to count it.
  • If the golfer intentionally misses the ball: No, it's not a stroke. You don't have to count it.

It's All About Intent With the Dreaded Whiff

The scenario is this: A golfer steps up to the ball and makes a swing. But our poor golfer completely misses the ball — no contact at all. He whiffs it. Is that a stroke?

The answer depends on the golfer's intent. If the golfer was trying to hit the ball, then, yes, it's a stroke. However, as noted above, if the golfer missed the ball intentionally, that "whiff" is not a stroke. Why would a golfer miss on purpose? We're talking about things such as a checked-swing, or a last-second distraction that causes the golfer to raise the clubhead and intentionally swing over the top of the ball.

The focus on intent comes from the definition of "stroke" in the Rules of Golf:

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

That definition includes the words "checks his downswing voluntarily before the clubhead reaches the ball" (emphasis mine). Does that mean if the clubhead goes past the ball it's a stroke? Not necessarily. Again, intent is the key.

A Decision in the Rule Book Spells Out the Status of Whiffs

Decision 14/1.5 in "The Decisions on the Rules of Golf", issued by the USGA and R&A, specifically addresses this question. A golfer begins his downswing, the Decision postulates, with the intention of hitting the ball. But during the downswing, he decides not to hit the ball. Because he can't stop his club, he lifts his hands, raising the clubhead and swinging over the ball, intentionally missing it. Is that a stroke?

Decision 14/1.5 says no:

"No. The player is considered to have checked his downswing voluntarily by altering the path of his downswing and missing the ball even though the swing carried the clubhead beyond the ball."

The key takeaway: If a golfer is trying to hit the golf ball and misses, it's a stroke.

Just remember: Even the pros have been known to whiff (although in those exceedingly rare instances, the pros are usually whiffing putts, not full swings). And if you whiff a shot that you meant to hit, be honest with yourself and your playing partners, admit it, count the stroke and move on.