Understanding par, birdies and more

When you step onto the golf course, the aim is simple: navigate each hole in as few strokes as possible. But the scoring system in golf involves a unique language of its own. PGA Play explores the ins and outs of golf scoring, from the basics of par to the thrill of birdies and beyond.

Par: The standard benchmark

Par sets the baseline for each hole's difficulty. It's the number of strokes an expert golfer is expected to take to complete the hole. Scoring below par is considered excellent, while above-par scores may indicate room for improvement.

A par 3 is the shortest as this requires one shot to hit the green and then you are always allocated two putts to complete the hole. There is no definitive distance about how long or short a par 3 is – they can often measure under 100 yards – but the USGA do offer these guidelines.

  • For men a par 3 is up to 250 yards in length
  • For women a par 3 is up to 210 yards in length

It should be noted that these are not actually measured yards, rather the ‘effective playing length’. So if a hole measures 270 yards but is significantly downhill, and more likely plays as 240 yards, then that hole will be deemed a par 3. This effective playing length is one of the factors taken into account when a course is given its USGA course and slope rating.

Similarly, these are the guidelines for the par 4s and 5s…

  • For men a par 4 is between 251 and 470 yards in length
  • For women a par 4 is between 211 and 400 yards in length
  • For men a par 5 is between 471 and 690 yards in length
  • For women a par 5 is between 401 and 575 yards in length

It isn’t often that we have a par 6 on a golf course but, for men, these will tend to start at 691 yards while for women they will be 576+ yards.

Birdies and eagles: Chasing the feathers

A birdie occurs when you complete a hole in one stroke less than par. It's a moment of triumph that golfers cherish. An eagle takes it a step further, with a score of two strokes under par. These sub-par scores showcase skill and precision.

Bogeys and double bogeys: Navigating challenges

A bogey happens when you complete a hole one stroke over par. It's a reminder that not every shot will be perfect. A double bogey is two strokes over par. While not ideal, these scores are part of the learning process and motivate improvement.

What is an albatross?

An albatross is when a player completes a hole in three strokes less than the par of the hole. Not many of us have one of these on our golfing CVs and it would take a hole-in-one on a par 4 or a two on a par 5 to pull off such a feat. The thinking here is that an albatross bird is very rare, so much so that Tiger Woods is yet to have one on Tour.

What is a condor?

A condor is when a player completes a hole in four strokes less than the par of the hole. This means you would somehow need to hole-in-one on a par 5 or hole your second shot on a par 6. This, unsurprisingly, has never been achieved on Tour.

Understanding the scorecard: A holistic view

Scorecards provide a snapshot of your performance on each hole. The numbers next to each hole indicate how many strokes you took to complete it. Total them up to get your round's score. A lower number is your goal.

Net scores and handicaps: Levelling the playing field

Incorporating your Handicap Index helps level the playing field when golfers of different abilities compete. Net scores factor in your handicap, allowing fair comparisons between players of varying skill levels.

What are the different methods of scoring?

There are three forms of competition; matchplay, stroke play and stableford.


In matchplay, a player and an opponent compete against each other based on holes won, lost or tied.

A player wins a hole when they complete the hole in fewer strokes than the opponent, the opponent concedes the hole or the opponent gets the general penalty (loss of hole)

A hole is tied when the player and opponent complete the hole in the same number of strokes. If the match is tied, depending on the rules of the competition, it will be extended one hole at a time until there is a winner.

A player wins a match when they lead their opponent by more holes than remain to be played, the opponent concedes the match or the opponent is disqualified.

Handicaps should be declared by both the player and opponent and agreed before the match.


In the regular form of strokeplay, all players compete with one another based on the total score – so adding up each player’s total number of strokes (including strokes made and penalty strokes) on each hole in all rounds.

After the round, the player and the marker must certify that the player’s score for each hole is right and the player must return the scorecard.

The winner is the player who completes all rounds in the fewest total strokes and, in a handicap competition, this means the fewest total net strokes.

The score is kept on the card and the player must have the same marker – after each hole the marker should conform with the player the number of strokes and enter the gross score on the scorecard. At the end of the round the marker must certify the hole scores with the player before both sign the card.

In a handicap competition the player’s net score for a hole or the round is a gross score adjusted for the player’s handicap strokes.


Very few professional tournaments use the Stableford scoring system but this is the most friendly method for club golfers to record their scores. Rather than counting the number of strokes, as in strokeplay, it uses a points system based on the number of strokes on each hole.

The system (after shots have been taken off your nett score)

  • 0 points - Double bogey (+2)
  • 1 point - Bogey (+1)
  • 2 points - Par
  • 3 points - Birdie (-1)
  • 4 points - Eagle (-2)
  • 5 points - Albatross (-3)

The benefits of a Stableford are that you can make a mess of a hole and you will just not score any points. So, if you take an 8 on a par 4 it will just be recorded as zero points (and two points fewer than you should score) while, in strokeplay, you will have to record all eight strokes, meaning you can still be competitive even if you have a few bad holes. At the end of the round 36 points would equate to playing to your handicap on the day.

The system was developed by Frank Stableford who was a member at the Glamorganshire in Wales and Wallasey in the North West of England. He came upon the idea to deter golfers to give up after a bad hole early in the round - there is a plaque with his details on the 2nd tee at Wallasey.

Golf scoring is more than numbers; it's a language that conveys your progress, challenges, and triumphs on the course. Understanding terms like par, birdies, bogeys and the different ways you can compete against others adds depth to your golfing experience. Embrace each round as a chance to improve and enjoy the journey, one stroke at a time.

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