Golf Scoring: How It Works, Terms to Know, & Scores by Skill
Written by Matt Stevens

Matt Callcott-Stevens started playing golf at the age of 4 when Rory Sabattini's father put a 7-iron and putter in his hand. He has experienced all the highs and lows the game can throw at you and has now settled down as a professional golf writer. He holds a Postgraduate in Sports Marketing and has played golf for 28 years. Current Handicap: 8

Updated on December 13, 2023

Adding to the complexities of the game of golf are the multiple scoring features and formats employed on the golf course. In this post, I provide a crash course on golf scoring and explain how it works and the terms to know.

By broadening your knowledge of the scoring features of golf, it helps you maximize your enjoyment of the game. Plus, your newfound knowledge will undoubtedly impress your playing partners.

How Golf Scoring Works

The handicap system evens the playing field when you play strokeplay or Stableford. In the scorecard above, you’ll see 2 figures in each block. The first is the gross score, while the second figure represents Stableford points.  (Apologies for the Spanish, as it’s from my last round at the Palermo Golf Club in Buenos Aires.)

The scorecard shows four golfers with handicaps ranging from scratch to 36. You’ll notice that on the par 3 5th hole, Martin scored the same quantity of points for a double bogey as Rich and Bill did for a par.

Since Martin is a 36 handicapper, he double strokes every hole on the golf course. Therefore, to level out the playing fields, a double bogey for him is equivalent to par for lower handicappers.

Par

Every hole on the golf course is assigned a par score between 3 and 5. The shortest holes on a standard par 72 golf course are par 3’s, while the longest are par 5’s. Par 4 holes are the most common and typically range from 300 to 450 yards. 

The par total is tallied for the front and back nine and the entire 18-hole golf course. The average par rating for 9 holes is 36, resulting in a par-72 golf course for 18 holes. Naturally, this differs depending on the golf course design.

My home course operates on a par rating of 35 for the front 9 holes and 36 for the back 9 holes. A total of 71.

Stroke

Golf holes are assigned a stroke rating from 1 to 18, which determines the difficulty of each hole. The most challenging hole is usually a stroke 1, while the easiest is stroke 18. On a stroke 1 hole, every golfer with a handicap of 1 and above receives a stroke on that hole.

This is relevant for keeping score in Stableford tournaments, where points are awarded relevant to your handicap. For example, when a 1 handicapper makes a par on a stroke 1, they receive 3 points in line with the Stableford score.

However, a 19 handicapper earns 4 points for making par on a stroke 1. This is because the 19 handicapper has a double-stroke advantage on this hole. This is a better accomplishment than the 1 handicapper who scored the same.

In addition, if a 37 handicapper pars that same hole, they receive 5 points for their efforts as they triple stroke that hole.

The stroke also impacts your net score on each hole. For example, if a 37 handicapper scores a double bogey 6 on a par 4, stroke 1, the net score is adjusted to 4. Similarly, if a 19 handicapper cards a bogey 5 on the same hole, their net is altered to a par score of 4.

Format

Stableford and stroke play are the most common formats used in golf. The handicapped Stableford scoring system assigns points to golfers to level the playing field, regardless of your golf handicaps.

Stroke play is based on the premise that every shot counts, and it is the format most commonly used on the PGA Tour. In this form of golf, you do not stop keeping score until the ball is in the cup.

The other format played from time to time is match play, where the player with the lower score on each hole wins 1 point. If the players tie on a hole, the overall score remains unchanged. Unlike other forms of golf, matchplay can finish before you reach the 18th hole. 

If your adversaries score is 4 up and only 3 holes remain, the game is over since you cannot come back. 

 

Golf Scoring Terms

Par

A par is scored when your number of strokes correlates to the assigned par score. For example, when I card a 4 on a par 4, that is par. 

In addition, when you score a par, your overall score for the round remains the same. If you are 10 over par for the golf round before making a par, your total strokes remain 10 over.

Birdie

Birdies mean you scored one stroke lower than the par for that hole. For example, you get the ball into the hole for 4 strokes on a par 5. If your overall score was 10 over par for the round before that hole, you are now 9 over par. 

Eagle

An eagle is a superior score to a birdie, as it helps you reduce your total score by two strokes. You card an eagle when your ball ends in the cup for two fewer strokes than the par score for that hole. 

They are most common on shorter par 5 holes, where longer hitters can reach the green in two and make the putt. You can find players making an eagle on a par 4, but this is rarer, given the distance control and accuracy required to sink your second shot.

I am proud to report that my first eagle came on a short driveable par 4 but involved great luck to slow my ball down. If your score was 5 over par before the hole, an eagle would reduce the overall tally to 3 over par.

Eagles also occur on par-3 holes when a player hits the perfect shot to get the ball into the cup from the tee box. However, golfers rarely call this an eagle. Instead, they refer to it as an ace or hole-in-one,

The National Hole-In-One Registry states that the odds of an average golfer bagging an ace are 12,000 to 1. If you are a low handicapper, the odds drop to 5,000 to 1. I know two golfers who have struck 3 aces in their lives, and after 28 years on the links, I have nothing to show for my efforts.

Albatross

Carding an albatross or a double eagle, as it is also known, is an exceptionally unusual event on the course. However, I am glad to have witnessed one in my lifetime. It transpired on a short par-4 hole, where my playing partner creamed a 3-wood off the tee into a blind green. 

We searched for his golf ball for 2 minutes before our buddy looked in the cup and saw it sitting at the bottom. He holed out for a 3 under par albatross, moving the needle from 2 over par to 1 under for the round. It was a game-changer for my buddy that day, but he has yet to repeat the feat 20 years on. 

Condor

After spending a great deal of my adult life in Argentina, I can confirm that a condor is both majestic and rare to spot. Similarly to the bird, the golf score is both scarce and beautiful to experience.

According to the PGA, only 5 golfers in history have achieved the feat of 4 under par on one hole. The only way to pull off the unthinkable is to hole your tee shot on a par-5 hole, which is impossible for most of us.

However, when the conditions are appropriate, plus the hole is designed ideally, you can achieve it. There are 5 of our peers that have proven it over the years.

Let’s say you are even for the round, and you score a condor, you immediately shave 4 shots off the score and move to 4 under par for the day. Although I consider myself a lucky chap, I have never been that lucky to watch a condor.

The longest condor ever recorded was at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club by Mike Crean. He bombed his drive 517 yards on the par 5, 9th hole. The conditions needed to be perfect for this shot, and the added advantage of Denver’s altitude produced less drag and superior aerodynamics.

Bogey

A bogey is a dreaded score that causes you to drop one shot on a hole. When you card a dreaded bogey, it increases your overall score by one. For instance, if you are 10 over par before, an unfortunate bogey score leads you to 11 over. A bogey on a par 3 is 4, while on a par 4, it is 5, and a par 5 would be a score of 6.

Double Bogey

A double bogey is worse than a bogey as it adds 2 extra strokes to your total score. Players with a score of 5 over for the round would walk off the green with 7 over after a double bogey. 

Although no golfer is exempt from a double bogey, it is more probable to see high-handicappers sporting doubles on their cards than low-handicappers or professionals. 

A double bogey is often the highest score you can obtain when employing the Stableford scoring method. Golfers with higher handicaps may reach into the realm of a triple or quadruple bogey.

Triple Bogey

As the name suggests, a triple bogey leads to a score reaching 3 over par on one hole, which can ruin your round instantly. As a junior, I often played in medal tournaments where every shot counts. On a few occasions, I notched up a triple bogey which obliterated my chances of a worthy round. 

In one of the golf tournaments I played as a junior, I sat even after 17 holes and tripled the par 3 18th to end 3 over par. Unfortunately, I lost the tournament by 2 shots and am still kicking myself 18 years later.

Quadruple Bogey

A quadruple bogey is a rare incident in Stableford golf unless you possess a handicap that risks your scores reaching this point. As the name suggests, a quadruple represents 4 over par on one hole. To put it into context, a quadruple is a 9 on a par 5, 8 on a par 4, and 7 on a par 3.

 

Typical Golf Scores Across Skill Levels

This chart breaks it down:

Handicap Pro Low Handicap Mid Handicap High Handicap
Score (Par 72) <70 70 – 75 76 – 89 >90

 

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Matt Stevens

Matt Callcott-Stevens started playing golf at the age of 4 when Rory Sabattini's father put a 7-iron and putter in his hand. He has experienced all the highs and lows the game can throw at you and has now settled down as a professional golf writer. He holds a Postgraduate in Sports Marketing and has played golf for 28 years. Current Handicap: 8