How to Keep A Golf Score – A Few Basics To Get You Going

Golf is a unique game in two respects. Firstly, unlike most sports, in golf, you want to score LESS not more. Secondly, it is a game where old and young, male and female, professional and amateur can play together or against each other and compete. To understand how this works we need to know how to keep a golf score.

Let us first consider how the average golf course is set up. A golf course typically has eighteen holes usually four par 3’s, four par 5’s, and 10 par 4’s with a total par rating of 72.

What is a Par?

A par is calculated by the number of shots required to reach the green plus two putts to get in the hole. A par 3 therefore would need you to hit the green with your tee shot and then two-putt. A par four would allow you a tee shot and then a second approach shot to the green and again a two-putt. Par 5’s are the longest holes on the course and for the average golfer would require three shots to the green.

This par definition is determined assuming a proficient golfer plays a flawless round of golf, but this is most unusual, and few players ever shoot a par round with a par on every hole.

Some scoring terminology

If a player takes 5 shots on a par 4 hole that is one over and is known as a Bogey, two shots over would be a double Bogey. Should you score 4 shots on a par 5, that is one under, and is called a Birdie, two shots under is an Eagle. A “Hole in One” on a par 3 would be an Eagle, but hole in one just sounds better.

The Score Card

At every course, you will be able to get a scorecard for that course showing the par for each hole and the rating for that hole, but more about rating later.

Usually, you would keep the score for your opponent, and he would score for you, but there would be able to keep your own score as well. Remember that every stoke counts, a six-inch, tap-in putt count the same as a 250-yard drive.

To avoid disputes it might be an idea to confirm after each hole how many shots were played and to mark the card before playing the next hole. At the end of the round check the scores and sign your card.

Hazards and Penalties

Most courses have water features somewhere around the layout, and should your ball end up in the drink, you will face a penalty. If you can’t retrieve your ball drop another ball on the line of entry to the water or at the designated drop zone and add one penalty shot to your score.

Often found on the boundaries of a golf course you find white markers designating “Out of Bounds”. A ball hit out of bounds must be replayed from the original location and a two-stroke penalty is imposed.

If a ball is declared lost, usually after a wayward shot into deep rough, a new ball must be played from the original spot, and again a two-stroke penalty is taken.

Your Handicap

Once you have submitted around 10 scorecards at the same course the handicap committee will determine your handicap by taking an average of your scores. As your game improves and you continue to submit your scorecards your handicap will be reviewed and adjusted down. The object is always to score better than you did last time and become more proficient.

Course Rating

As mentioned earlier, each hole on the course will have a rating from 1 to 18, with 1 being the most difficult hole and 18 the easiest hole. This rating is also determined by the handicap committee and is based on the averages of all scores on the course over time.

Scoring Stableford

Using your handicap and the ratings of the holes as described above the Stableford method of scoring can be used. This is a popular method of competition scoring, especially during midweek matches. You still need to count your strokes, but you are now looking to score points.

If your net score is equal to par you score 2 points, for a one-over you score 1 point and for one under, that is a birdie, you score 3 points. On the rare occasion, you make an eagle you score 4 points.

Assuming your handicap is 18, you will get an extra shot on each hole, therefore five shots on a par 4 will give you 2 points. Your handicap thus gives you an extra shot per hole to make par.

If your handicap is 12, you will have an extra shot to make par on those holes rated 1 to 12, but on the other 8 holes, you need to make par to score 2 points. In Stableford, fewer strokes equal more points and the most points win the game.

This is a great format to play in mixed company with players of different abilities and in a four-ball better-ball, two players compete against another two with the best score from a pair counting. In this format it is not necessary to play out if you are already two over you may as well pick up.

Stoke Play

This is the format that the professionals play that you watch on TV. Most professional tournaments are played as stroke play and every shot counts you have to play your ball into the hole. There have been some real disasters in the past with players posting scores of 10 and more on a hole.

There have even been four putts on a green. These tournaments invariably end with the winner posting a score of 12, 18 even 23 under for four rounds. Handicaps are not involved.

Match Play

Matchplay is an exciting and fast game, neither strokes nor points are counted. Let’s say the first hole is a par 4, you score a par, but your opponent goes one over 5. You are now “one-up” in the math with 17 holes to play. In the next two holes, you both shoot the same number of shots so they are squared and you remain one up.

On the next hole, a par 3 your opponent gets a birdie to your par and the game is “all square”. You continue in this fashion playing “holes up” or “holes down”. Assuming you get to the 15th and you are 4 up, but there are only 3 holes to play, the game is over, and you are the winner. The win is described as winning “4 and 3”.

Match Play is the format played in the Ryder Cup between the USA and Europe and also in the Presidents Cup between the USA and The Rest.

The handicap system could be used in this format, usually, the player with the lowest handicap would play off scratch. The others reduce their number proportionally and then enjoy an extra shot on the appropriately rated hole.

Should you be “all square” after 18 holes the game is decided on a sudden death basis usually starting from the first tee.

What also helps to speed up this game is that if you find yourself in difficulty and there is no way to get to the hole and match your opponent, concede the hole. Start fresh on the next hole and try to win one back.


We have mentioned “Four Ball Better Ball” and there are other variations based on the three basic scoring methods. Without going into detail, you will find Foursomes, Greensomes, Bloodsomes, Scramble, and Texas Scramble.

Final thoughts

How to score at golf is quite simple with just a few basics to keep in mind. Have a scorecard, know what format you are playing, know your handicap, sore your opponent but keep your own score as well and remember, in golf “less is more”.

Finally, beware of cheats yes, they are out there. If you encounter one avoid playing with him in the future. Golf is supposed to be a fun game, ENJOY!

Final Thoughts

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Nick Lomas is the founder of GolfSpan, an avid golfer, not quite a pro but has over 15-years of experience playing and coaching golfers from all over the world. His mission is to bring the golfing community a better experience then it comes to choosing the right golf gear, and finding the right set up for your game.

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