Unlike most other sports, golf rewards players with lower scores. This quirk is not the only aspect of golf scoring that can make the game confusing for golfers. A number of golf scoring terms and methods used for fun side-games add a variety of dimensions to the game. Understanding the basics of golf scoring will help you have more fun while you’re on the course.
Your ultimate goal when playing a round of golf is to get your ball from the tee box and into the hole with the fewest strokes possible. The winner of a round of golf is the player with the fewest total strokes used, not the total number of holes won. You can actually play more holes using fewer strokes than your partner or opponent, but lose the match if you have a few bad holes that give you a higher total number of strokes for all 18 holes.
You can add strokes to your score without even touching the ball through a variety of penalties. If you hit the ball into the water, you take a one-stroke penalty to play another ball. For example, if you hit your tee shot into the fairway, you are “lying one.” This means your ball is lying on the ground and you have only added one stroke to your score. If you hit the ball in the water, you place a new ball on the ground and you are now lying two — one for your stroke and one for your penalty.
Other penalties include losing a ball, hitting one out of bounds, touching the ball with your club and making it roll one ball width before you hit it, moving an object in front of your ball that’s a natural part of the course, touching the sand with your club before you swing it while you are in a trap, hitting the pin with a putt if you choose not to remove the flag from the hole when your ball is on the green, and playing another player’s ball. Depending on your course rules, there may be other penalties, as well.
Courses estimate the number of strokes a top player should use to complete the course and individual holes, noting these scores as “par.” For example, most courses have a par of 72, with individual holes having a three, four or five par designation.
If you finish a hole with the estimated number of par strokes, such as taking four strokes on a par-four hole, you make par. If you take one less stroke to finish the hole, you make birdie. If you use two strokes less to finish the hole, you make eagle. If you use one more stroke than par to finish a hole, you make a bogey, with two strokes a double bogey and so on.
In order to make the game more competitive, golfers can earn a handicap, or an expected number of strokes to finish a regulation par 72 course. You subtract strokes from your score to reach your handicap number, helping you compete with better players. A very good golfer may have a handicap of three, which means he should shoot a 75 on a par 72 score. A less-skilled player might have a handicap of 20, meaning he is expected to finish the same course with 92 strokes.