What are the most popular golf formats?


Few sports contain as many variables as golf. The design and layout of the course, the type of turf, the speed of the greens, the position of the pins and, of course, the weather are factors that make each round of golf unique.

With all of these fickle influences to consider and deal with every time we hit the fairways, it’s understandable that most of us are quite conservative when it comes to choosing the format we play. The vast majority of completed games are played either in the stroke play, Stableford or match play formats that we are all familiar with. Let’s consider them first.

racing game

Cam Smith – He won the Open in a strokeplay competition

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The purest, most traditional form of individual golf – Quite simply, it’s how many strokes you take from the tee box to the hole on every hole. These individual hole scores are added together at the end of the round to give your total score. If you’re playing rough stroke play, as with elite golfers in regular tournaments, the player with the lowest stroke total at the end of the day wins. If playing net strokeplay, each player deducts his playing handicap from his gross strokeplay total at the end of the round and the lower total score wins.


This is an extremely popular format that allows you to keep scoring even if you land one or more holes. Points are awarded for your net score on individual holes. Whether or not you receive a stroke on a hole is dictated by your handicap and the hitting index of that hole. The scoring system is as follows: 0 points for a clean double bogey or worse, 1 point for a clean bogey, 2 points for a clean par, 3 for a clean birdie, 4 for a clean eagle, 5 for a clean albatross. The points for each hole are added together at the end of the round to give a total Stableford score.

play a game

solheim mug

The Solheim Cup is a match play

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In this format, players compete hole by hole. By winning a hole, a player makes a one-up. If they win the next one, they play two and so on. If you reach a point where you are higher than there are holes left to play, i.e. you are five holes away with only four to play, you win the match.

You can either play gross match play (no moves given) or net match play (moves are given) and you can play singles or pairs. You can even try three-ball match play – see below.

These are the basic golf formats, but they can be adapted and there are many more to try – here are some options to consider:

two balls

golf formats

(Image credit: Tom Miles)

Bisque Match Play

Essentially the game is exactly the same as singles match play, the difference is that the player receiving hits (full difference) can choose when to take them. The decision to use strokes must be made at the end of a hole. For example: if a raw five is scored against the opponent’s four, a shot can be fired to win a half. If a player has more than one stroke to play, more than one stroke may be fired at a hole.

String set

Rather than receiving strokes, each player receives a length of rope equivalent to their handicap – one foot per stroke. The rope can be used to move the ball to a more advantageous spot without wasting a shot. The player measures the distance the ball has moved and cuts that length of his string. The ball can be moved out of a hazard or, more importantly, into the hole of the green. The ball can be moved as many times as the player wants, as long as he has some string left.

three balls

golf formats

(Image credit: Tom Miles)

Threesome Match Play

This is one of the best three-ball formats. One player plays against the other two. The solo golfer plays his own ball, the other two play four. This is straight match play and the handicap allowance is the total difference between the individual’s handicap and half of the combined pairings’ total.

Dot game or “Barracuda”

Each hole is played for six points. The full handicap allowance applies to strokes given at the holes according to the stroke index. If a player wins the hole outright, he earns four points, the second earns two points. If second place is shared, both receive one point. If two players halve the hole, they each receive three points. If all three halve the hole, each player receives two points. The winner is the player with the most points after 18 holes.

four balls

golf formats

(Image credit: Kenny Smith)


One of the best four-ball formats is Skins. Each hole is worth a “skin”. If a player wins the hole on the stroke (a full handicap is applied), he gets the skin. If no one wins directly, the skin rolls over and the next hole is worth two skins. This continues until someone wins a hole outright. When this happens, the next hole will again be worth a hide.


Playing in pairs, each team adds up their net scores for each hole. If both score a five on a hole, they score a 55. If the scores are different, the order depends on how the team fared from par. If one team member is par or better, the lower total comes first, but if neither of them is par, the higher total comes first. For example: Team A takes a three and a six on a par four, so their total is 36. Team B takes a five and a six on the same hole, so their total is 65. The total score after 18 holes wins.

Groups – Texas Scramble

Each player starts and the best drive is selected. Each player then plays from that spot and the best move is chosen again. The game continues like this until a ball is out. Scores tend to be quite good in this format. Often there is a requirement that three of each player’s discs must be used during the round.

Groups – Dice Scramble

Each player starts and a die is rolled. If only one appears, the reader of the first person on the scorecard should be used, two is the second person on the scorecard, and so on. A five means the worst of the four discs must be taken and a six means the best must be taken. After that the usual scrambling rules apply – all play a second shot, the best is selected and all play from where it ended and so on until the ball is in the hole.


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