Golf 101: Scoring Demystified

golf 101 scoring demystified

In this article, we’re cutting through the jargon to give you a clear, authoritative guide on golf scoring terms. Why? Because understanding these terms is fundamental to understanding the game of golf itself. We’ll cover everything from basic terms like “Par” and “Birdie” to the differences between Stroke Play, Match Play, and Stableford. We’ll conclude with all you need to know, and probably more – on handicaps and how they are calculated. While this article is tailored to beginners, we’ll throw in some obscure facts you might not know. This is a companion to our articles on Golf Etiquette, Golf Terms, Golf Handicaps, and Match Play Golf in our Golf 101 series.

Basic Stroke Play Scoring Terms

Stroke Play is defined as counting each stroke taken per hole and totaling these up for your gross score at the end of the round. Your net score factors in your handicap, which aims to even the playing field against more experienced golfers. Focus first on accurately counting every stroke without penalty; then, you can subtract your handicap later. Over time, scoring becomes second nature as you gain experience playing rounds and learn to adjust your game strategically.

  • Par: The baseline score an expert golfer is expected to achieve on a hole. Varies from 3 to 5 strokes depending on hole difficulty.
  • Birdie: Scoring one stroke less than par on a hole.
  • Eagle: Scoring two strokes less than par on a hole.
  • Bogey: Scoring one stroke more than par on a hole.
  • Double Bogey: Scoring two strokes more than par on a hole.
  • Albatross (or Double Eagle): Scoring three strokes less than par on a hole.
golfers finishing their match

Beyond the Basics

  • Hole-in-One (or Ace): Completing a hole in just one stroke. This feat most commonly occurs on par 3 holes. Since it’s two strokes under par on a par 3, a hole-in-one is also technically an “Eagle.”
    • Example: Landing the ball directly into the hole from the tee box on a par 3.
    • For more fascinating stats and stories about holes-in-one, check out our post “Golf Stats: Aces By the Numbers.”
  • Albatross (or Double Eagle): Scoring three strokes less than par on a hole.
    • Example: Completing a par 5 hole in just 2 strokes.
  • Condor: An extremely rare score of four strokes under par on a single hole.
    • Example: Completing a par 5 hole in just one stroke. There have only been a few condors officially recorded in history.
golfer making hole in one

Penalty Strokes: The Unwanted Additions to Your Score

In golf, not all strokes are made equal. Some, known as penalty strokes, are added to your score as a result of rule infractions or specific course conditions. Understanding these penalties is crucial for both casual rounds and tournament play. Here’s a rundown:

  • Out-of-Bounds: If your ball lands outside the course boundaries, you’ll incur a one-stroke penalty and must replay the shot from the original position.
  • Water Hazards: Landing in a water hazard typically results in a one-stroke penalty. You can either play the ball as it lies or drop a new ball behind the water hazard.
  • Unplayable Lies: If your ball lands in an unplayable position, you have the option to take a one-stroke penalty and drop the ball within two club-lengths of where it lies.
  • Lost Ball: If you can’t find your ball after a reasonable search time, it’s considered lost. The penalty is one stroke, and you must play a new ball from the spot of the previous stroke.
  • Double Hit: Accidentally hitting the ball more than once in a single swing results in a one-stroke penalty.
  • Grounding the Club in a Hazard: Touching the ground with your club in a hazard before making a stroke incurs a two-stroke penalty in stroke play or loss of hole in match play.
  • Provisional Ball: If you suspect your ball may be lost or out-of-bounds, you can play a provisional ball to save time. Before taking the shot, you must announce your intention to play a provisional ball. If your original ball is found in bounds, you continue to play with it and disregard the provisional ball. If the original ball is lost or out-of-bounds, you continue with the provisional ball and incur a one-stroke penalty.
ball out of bounds

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Scoring Systems: More Than One Way to Keep Score

Golf isn’t a one-size-fits-all game, especially when it comes to scoring. Here are some of the most common scoring systems:

  • Stroke Play: The most common form of scoring, where the player with the fewest total strokes wins.
  • Match Play: As covered in our Match Play Golf article, this format involves players competing to win individual holes rather than total strokes. The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is a PGA Tour event that uses this format in an individual form. The Ryder Cup, President’s Cup, and Solheim Cup are all Match Play Team events.
  • Stableford: A point-based system where scores are converted to points based on performance relative to par. For example, a birdie might be worth 2 points, par worth 1 point, and a bogey zero points. The objective is to accumulate the highest point total.
  • Modified Stableford: A variation of Stableford that encourages aggressive play by awarding more points for better scores and penalizing poor performance more severely. For example, a double bogey might result in a loss of 3 points, while an eagle could earn you 5 points. The Barracuda Championship on the PGA Tour uses this scoring system. It’s one of the unique events on the PGA Tour calendar and offers a change of pace from the usual stroke play tournaments.
  • Team Formats: Includes Best Ball, Alternate Shot, and Scramble, among others, where teams rather than individuals are scored.
golfers celebrating

The Scorecard

A golf scorecard contains important information about each hole on the golf course. Understanding how to read a scorecard is key for beginners to keep track of their scores. Here are the key elements of a scorecard:

  • Course name and par: The top of the scorecard displays the name of the golf course and the total par for 18 holes.
  • Course rating and slope: Numbers representing the difficulty of the course.
  • Hole numbers: The holes are listed in order from 1 to 18 down the left side or top of the scorecard.
  • Yardages: The yardage for each hole is shown for different tee boxes, usually color coded.
  • Handicap index: Each hole has a handicap number from 1-18 based on difficulty. 1 is most difficult, 18 is easiest.
  • Par: The par for each hole is shown, typically 3, 4 or 5 strokes.
  • Score boxes: Blank boxes to write each player’s score on every hole.
  • Total score: Add up hole scores to get your total for the round.
  • Signature: Space for player and marker to sign the scorecard.
golf scorecard

Filling Out Your Scorecard

When filling out a golf scorecard, circles and squares around the numbers indicate your performance versus par. Circle a number for a birdie or better, meaning you scored below par on that hole. Use two circles for an eagle or hole-in-one. Square a number for a bogey or worse, meaning you scored above par. These annotations provide a quick visual reference for your scores, making it easy to tally your total. Using circles and squares lets you see where you excelled or struggled during the round.

  • Dots indicate handicap strokes. If you have a handicap of 12, you will have one dot on the 12 hardest holes on the course to indicate you get 1 stroke on each of those holes. More dots indicate more handicap strokes on a given hole.
  • Dashes or triangles typically indicate triples bogeys or worse. Some players use them to mark when they had a really bad hole.
  • Circles indicate birdies (1 circle) or eagles (2 circles). No marking means you scored par on a hole.
  • Squares or X’s indicate bogeys or double bogeys.
  • You can mark your own scorecard with these symbols as you play to easily track your performance. Apps like Golf Pad also auto-generate symbols based on your gross and net scores.
  • Pay attention to dots printed on tournament scorecards. They indicate which holes you get handicap strokes on based on your course handicap.
  • Knowing the meaning of scorecard symbols allows you to quickly assess your performance during and after a round. Focus on reducing X’s and adding circles!
golfer filling out scorecard


A handicap is a number that represents a golfer’s ability based on past performance. It’s designed to level the playing field, allowing golfers of different skill levels to compete against each other.

  • Calculating Handicap: Your handicap is calculated using a specific formula that takes into account your scores, the course rating, and the slope rating.
  • Using Handicap in Scoring: When playing in a handicap event, your handicap is used to adjust your gross score to produce a net score. This allows you to compete fairly against players of varying abilities.
  • Handicap Index: This is a standardized version of a handicap, allowing for easier comparison of skill levels across different courses and conditions.

Understanding your handicap and how to use it can make your golfing experience more competitive and enjoyable. See our deep dive on Golf Handicaps for more detailed information.

golfers-match-play handshake

Key Takeaways

  • Par is the expected number of strokes an expert golfer needs to complete a hole. It varies from 3 to 5 depending on difficulty.
  • Birdie means scoring 1 stroke under par on a hole. Eagle is 2 strokes under par.
  • Bogey is 1 stroke over par. Double bogey is 2 strokes over.
  • Stroke play involves counting total strokes for the round. Match play is hole-by-hole.
  • Penalty strokes are added for infractions like out of bounds or water hazards.
  • The scorecard shows course info, par for each hole, player scores, and signature.
  • Circles and squares on the card indicate birdies/bogeys. Dots are for handicap strokes.
  • A handicap is a number that represents a golfer’s ability based on past performance. It’s designed to level the playing field, allowing golfers of different skill levels to compete against each other.





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