There are a thousand types of golf tournaments. To go through an exhaustive list would mean keeping you here all day. That’s not what we’re looking to do. Instead we’re going to walk you through some of the most common types of golf tournaments. These formats are what you’ll play as part of a charity event or amongst friends.
We’re going to give a basic walkthrough of each type. As a warning, we always recommend walking through the rules as you understand them with your opponents before the round. While you’ll have a great handle on what you’re playing after reading our article, others may not. By making sure everyone is on the same page before a shot is hit, it avoids confusion and controversy later on, especially when money is on the line.
Gross vs Net Tournaments
Before we even get into how golf tournaments are played, you need to know the difference between gross and net.
If a tournament is gross, it’s best scores win. Handicaps don’t matter, strokes aren’t given out. The player with the best score goes home winner.
When a tournament is net, it levels the playing field and allows golfers of all skill levels to compete for first place. A net tournament means that a player gets “strokes” which are then subtracted from their gross score. If a player makes a 5 and is getting a stroke on the hole, their net score is 4.
Strokes are assigned based on the difficulty of each hole, with strokes being given on the hardest holes first, and working towards the easier ones. If it’s determined a player should receive 9 strokes during a tournament, they’ll get strokes on the 9 hardest holes. If a player is getting 20 strokes, they will receive two shots on the two most difficult holes, and one stroke on every other hole. This information is always available on the scorecard.
Stroke Play (Medal Play)
Among the easiest golf tournament formats to understand is stroke play. In this type of golf tournament, every player plays the same number of holes, and whoever takes the least number of total strokes is the winner.
An important distinction here is that putts cannot be conceded. In order to move on to the next hole, each player must hit the ball into the hole. Not doing so results in disqualification.
Stroke play is sometimes referred to as medal play, and the rules and format are the same. In some situations, medal play precedes match play, acting as a qualifier for the match play portion of the same tournament.
In this type of golf tournament, one golfer plays directly against another. Each hole is worth one point and whoever has the most points at the end of the match wins. Match play is more common than stroke play among amateurs.
Since match play is one versus one, and each hole is separate, putts can be conceded by the opponent. This format is great because it allows a play to have a bad hole without putting them behind a significant amount. Losing a hole with a par is the same as losing with a quadruple bogey.
Best ball is played can be played as two or four-person teams. It is usually played against another team of the same size, or a larger field of teams, also of the same individual size.
Each member of your team plays their own ball. At the end of the hole, you count the lowest score. So if one player makes 4, and the other three members of your team makes 5, you record a 4 for the team. Since you are part of a team, you are allowed to give each other advice such as what club to hit and what you think a putt might do.
A common misconception with this format is that putts counting towards your best ball score can be conceded. This is incorrect and doing so results in a disqualification for your team. You can only count a score on a hole that has been played to completion. In tournaments with larger fields, ensuring your opponents do not do this is “protecting the field”.
If your teammate is already in, with a score lower or equal to that of which you are going for, you may pick your ball up. After picking the ball up, you write down the score you were most likely to have made, had you played the rest of the hole.
Sometimes while playing as part of a team of four, you have to count the two best scores. This distinction will be very clear from those running the tournament.
One of the more difficult type of golf tournament to play in, the format for alternate shot is simpler. Alternate shot is played with one other teammate and can be part of stroke or match play tournaments.
One teammate (player A) tees off, the other teammate (player B) hits the next shot. This process is repeated until the hole is complete. On the next tee, player B tees off with player A hitting shot #2.
Something important things to remember here is that one ball must be used, and you cannot swap balls with each shot. Also keep in mind that you must flip back and forth on tee shots, not who took the last shot on the previous hole.
Considered the most fun tournament format, and the one that produces the lowest scores, a scramble is what you are most likely to play at a charity tournament. For this type of golf tournament, you can be part of a 2 or 4-person team.
Every player tees off. The team decides the best shot and the other balls are picked up. Every player then hits from where the best shot was. This process is repeated until the hole is complete.
Putts cannot be conceded in this format, meaning someone has to hit the ball into the hole. Scrambles are also preferred lie, meaning you can “fluff” the ball up and give yourself a nice lie on every shot.
A shamble mixes scramble and best ball. As with each of the types of tournaments it combines, you are part of a team.
For the scramble element, each player takes a tee shot. The best shot is determined and every team member takes a second shot from there. After the second shot, each team member plays their ball until finishing the hole.
For the best ball element, it is usually the best one or two scores that will count towards the team total. Again, no putts can be conceded.
A stableford golf tournament is a stroke play variation where points are awarded based on score per hole. For the most part, a stableford is an individual, not team, golf tournament.
Point allotment is on a sliding scale based on skill level. Let’s look at it like this. An eagle is worth 10 points, birdies are 5, pars are 2, and bogeys are 1. Anything higher than bogey is worth 0 points.
A player that makes one birdie, four pars, eight bogeys, and five double bogeys is awarded 21 points. Whichever player has the most points at the end of the day is the winner.
For a group of more skilled golfers, it is common for double bogeys and higher to deduct points from the total. With average golfers, that’s not usually the case.