how to Understand Scoring in Golf

As a golfer, notions like par, handicap or gross and net scores are things we use every time we play. From the new golfer or non-golfer’s perspective, these terms can be quite strange. I tried to explain to a non-golfing friend the other day how to understand scoring in golf and I realised that stuff that was obvious to me really wasn’t for him. After a couple of minutes, I could see his eyes glazing over and he nodded politely as he waited for me to stop essentially hitting him over the head with technical terms!

It doesn’t have to be that hard and I think it should be possible to explain exactly how the scoring system works, at least broadly, without giving someone a headache. Here is my attempt anyway and if something isn’t clear, please just leave me a comment and I will try to do better.

What Exactly Does Par Mean in Golf?

The first key notion to understand is par because really everything else depends on this. I am going to simply slightly, but par is the number of shots a good player should take to play that hole and it is based essentially on how long the hole is. Almost all golf holes are either par 3,4 or 5.

A par three means that it is possible to hit the ball onto the putting area, the green, in one shot and then take two putts to get the ball in the hole, making a score of three. These holes are generally going to be 200 yards long or less although longer par threes certainly exist, especially if you are playing from the back/longer tees.

For a par four, we consider that a golfer can get on the green in to shots and then take two putts for a total score of 4. These holes can vary hugely in length, but are generally going to be in the 250-500 yard area.

A par five is going to take three shots to get on the green and then 2 putts for a total score of 5. These holes might be anywhere from 350-500 yards, but once again this is only a very rough guide.

Before anyone jumps on me, it is often possible to hit the green of a par 5 in two shots, miss a par three completely or take 1,2,3 or more putts. Of course, this is true or else all golfer would simply score par all the time!

So this is our notion of par. If a golf course has 12 par 4 holes, 3 par 3 holes and 3 par 5 holes, it will have a total par score of 72. Depending on exactly how many par 3/4/5 holes there are, the total par score will obviously vary, but a good average might be around 70.

Score to Par and Handicap

So this par score is what a good golfer might score. How exactly do we decide that a golfer is ‘good’ or ‘should’ be shooting a particular score? Golf is a game where things can vary hugely from day to day and even a great golfer can have a poor day. A golfer’s handicap is calculated by looking at his or her’s recent scores. Since the world handicap reform a few years ago, this is calculated by taking the average of the best eight scores from the last twenty rounds.

This handicap is actually a great way for golfers of different abilities to play together and lets us compare scores. As an example, my current handicap is 9.2 (I know, I know I am our of practice!) I played recently on a par 70 course with a golfer who has a handicap of 24. Logically enough, I had a better score than him but did I really play better and win? Let’s look at an example.

On this par 7 course, let’s say I scored 82 and my friend score 90. It looks clear that I won, right? The handicap system actually tells us different. With my handicap of 9, I can essentially take 9 shots off my score which gives me a score of 73 or three over (my) par. My friend with 90 can take his handicap of 24 shots off his score which gives him 66, or four under par. He actually won and played better than me relative to his level.

The system is actually a little bit more subtle than this. Depending on course conditions and difficulty as well as which set of tees I play from, I might get more or less shots than 9. On one course I play, I actually get 13 shots with a nine handicap because it is a hard course! On another, I only get 8. This doesn’t change the basic model of handicap and scoring.

Net Score and Gross Score

To resume, a golfer has a handicap calculated on their level which allows then to essentially take shots off their score and compare how well they played with golfers of all sorts of abilities. The score without this adjustment is called the gross score. On this level, I beat my playing partner by scoring 82 to his 90. The adjusted score is called the net score and here he beat me 66 to my 73.

In competitions, there are often prizes for both net and gross scores, depending on the format. Professional golf obviously works only on gross with no players receiving any shots and this is also the case for serious amateur competitions too.

There is clearly room for a bit of cheating here too with what is known as a ‘bandit’ This is someone who cultivates a higher handicap than he really deserves in order to receive more shots when they play in competition. This is generally frowned on by the rest of the golfing world and someone who does this regularly is never welcome in completion.

In a recent event where I played, the winning pair both had a handicap of 54, the maximum allowed here in France. They won by an absolute mile and actually their gross score was 74 or 4 over par! As a comparison, with my partner, we had a team handicap of four and also played four over par. I am a single figure golfer and my partner plays of 14 because he is slightly older, but back in the day he played off 3 or 4 and is a very solid player!

When the prizes were given our, there were quite a lot of comments as you can imagine! This case isn’t really handicap manipulation though, simply these two guys play quite regularly but never in individual completion and so don’t have official handicaps. They were still told that they wouldn’t be able to play in this sort of event again until they had handicaps that reflected their ability.

Bogey, Birdie and Par

Once we have got the overall idea of scoring, it is time to look at it in a hole by hole situation. We looked at par before being a sort of standard score for a hole. If a player does worse than this, for example shooting 4 on a par 3, he has scored what is known as bogey. If he scores two more, it would be a double bogey and so on.

If on, the other hand, he scores less than par, say a 2 on a par 3, this is known as a birdie. Two under par is an eagle and three under par, extremely rare, is an albatross. This is very useful in tournament play because we can compare scores from golfers all the time without waiting or them to get to then end of their round and seeing the total.

When you look at the leader board, you will see that the person at the top will have the lowest score relative to par. As an example, let’s say that Rory Mcilroy has finished his round of golf on our par 72 golf course. He shot 66. He is a professional and so plays without a handicap. His score will be marked as 6 under par, or -6.

Another golfer, let’s say Dustin Johnson, has only played 10 holes. However, so far he has already had 5 birdies and an eagle. He will be in front of Mcilroy on the leader board because so far he is -7. As he continues to play, scoring more birdies he might move farther ahead. However, perhaps he has a couple of bad holes and gets two bogies, he will drop down the leaderboard to ‘only’ -5, one shot behind the leader McIlroy.

The Basics of Golf Scoring

This gives you the basics of scoring and I have (I hope!) deliberately simplified some aspects. In many ways, golf has a really good scoring system that makes it possible to both compare the scores of golfers of different abilities as well as keep track of who is winning or not without waiting for the end of the completion.

I haven’t talked about how scoring works in the different formats of the game, especially matchplay, but I will undoubtedly get around to writing an article about that at some point too. Please feel free to comment if that is something you would like to know more about.

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