The scoring system in golf can seem confusing to a beginner but can easily be broken down into something more understandable.

Every hole has a par which is the predetermined number of strokes that a scratch (zero handicap) golfer should play the hole in.

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.

Where did the word ‘par’ come from?

Par was around for centuries before it became part of the golfing vernacular. According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘par’ derives from the Latin meaning ‘equal’ or ‘equality’ and goes back to the 16th century. But it didn’t enter the world of golf until the late 19th century.

At the time the word ‘bogey’ was referred to as the target score for a hole and, in time, it became accepted that a ‘par’ was the ideal score for the best players while ‘bogey’ was the score that the recreational/average golfer should target. If you look at old scorecards you will see a list for both Par and Bogey. In 1911 par was officially added when the USGA defined it as ‘perfect play without flukes and under ordinary weather conditions, always allowing two strokes on each putting green’.

So, in the early days of the Open and US Open there will be no mention of a player’s score in relation to par, rather their total strokes.

What is a bogey?

A bogey is when a player completes a hole in one stroke more than the par given to the hole. The term ‘bogey’ comes from a song that was popular in the British Isles in the early 1890s, The Bogey Man, and the character of the song was an elusive figure who hid in the shadows –‘I’m the Bogey Man, catch me if you can.’

From here we also have double-bogeys (two over par), treble-bogeys (three over par) and so forth.

What is a birdie?

A birdie is when a player completes a hole in one stroke less than the par given to the hole. The most birdies in a single round on the PGA Tour is by Adam Hadwin and Chip Beck. The term ‘birdie’ is said to have come from America at the Country Club in Atlantic City in 1903. In 19th century slang ‘bird’ refers to anyone or anything excellent. So, the story goes, AB Smith and his brother William were playing with George Crump and Smith hit a shot close. Someone remarked ‘that is a bird of a shot’ and Smith claimed that they should double his money if he played the hole in one-under. They would describe it as a birdie, it caught on with the membership and it then somehow spread around the golfing world.

What is an eagle?

An eagle is when a player completes a hole in two strokes less than the par given to the hole. It is thought that the most number of eagles in a single round is four which is shared by a number of players. The thinking here is that an eagle is bigger than your average bird (and is also the national symbol of America) and is therefore seen as the perfect description for playing a hole in spectacular fashion.

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.

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.

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