How To Play Golf: The Basics

A quick introduction to playing golf, covering the object of the game, and the 3 most popular match formats.

In a nutshell… get the golf ball into the hole in as few shots as possible. Move onto the next hole!

And actually that’s pretty much it. Robin Williams had it about right!

But to explain a little further…

Golf: Object Of The Game

There are 18 holes in a full round of golf. Although some courses will have 9 holes where you can just play round twice for a full 18.

The course has a ‘par’ which is the average number of shots required for a scratch golfer (handicap of 0) to play all 18 holes.

Each individual hole also has its own ‘par’. This doesn’t really come into account in stroke play (where the total number of shots at the end of the round is what counts), but does matter during stableford, or match play (see match formats below).

Generally golf courses will have a number of par 3s, par 4, and par 5 holes. So on a par 4, to make a ‘par’ you have to get the ball down in 4 shots etc etc.

So what’s it called if you don’t make par on a hole?

  • 4 under par (i.e. a 1 on a par 5) = turn pro immediately!
  • 3 under par (i.e. a 2 on a par 5) = a ‘double eagle’
  • 2 under par (i.e. a 3 on a par 5) = an ‘eagle‘
  • 1 under par (i.e. a 4 on a par 5) = a ‘birdie’
  • 1 over par (i.e. a 6 on a par 5) = a ‘bogie’
  • 2 over par (i.e. a 7 on a par 5) = a ‘double bogie’
  • 3 over par (i.e. an 8 on a par 5) = a ‘triple bogie’
  • 4 over par (i.e. a 9 on a par 5) = time for a beer!

Golf Match Formats

There are 3 main formats in individual golf — stroke play, match play, and stableford.

There are also a number of team formats (Texas Scramble is great fun!), but we won’t go into them here.

1. Stroke Play

At the end of the round you count up your scores from all holes to get a total score. Most major golf tournaments use the stroke play format.

If you have a handicap you will be able to deduct that from the total (gross) score to get a net score for the round.

So for example if your total number of shots taken on all 18 holes was 100, and you had a handicap of 28, your net score for the round would be 72.

If the course had a par of 70, your net score would be 2 over par. A pretty good score!

The handicap system allows golfers of all levels to play against each other competitively. A golfer with a handicap of 5 would have to shoot 77 (7 over par) to match your net score. If he shot a 78, you would win!

2. Match Play

In match play, you are simply playing for holes.

So if you take a 4 and your opponent takes a 5, you win the hole. For each hole you win, you get a point.

If you and your opponent get the same score on a hole, you both get a half point.

At the end of the round, the player with the most points wins!

The Ryder Cup is probably the most famous example of a match play competition.

Match play is a great golf format to play when starting out. Why? Because if you mess up a hole it doesn’t really matter. You’ve only lost one hole and can just pick your ball up and move onto the next one.

In stroke play however ‘blow up holes’ are a lot more punishing. Writing down a 10 on your card can really kill your round.

3. Stableford

Stableford is another good format for beginner golfers as, like match play, it lessens the impact of blow up holes.

Basically for each hole you get a number of points depending on your score. At the end of the round you add up your points.

The number of points you score on each hole depends on your handicap, and it’s a little complicated to explain in a few words, so we recommend reading this article for more on the format.

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