How is golf played?

Feature Image Copyright: Tyler Bolken (Flickr) CC 2.0





Back to basics here. I had the thought, what use is a golf website (that is attempting to target everyone) which doesn’t have an article that explains how golf is played?

Golf is the aim of getting a ball from the starting point (the tee) to the hole (actually a hole) in as few attempts as possible using only a club (metal stick) to do so.

There you go, end of the article……only joking there’s plenty of stuff to talk about, over a few centuries that simple aim has got more and more complex through new rules, new equipment and more and more people who think they can do it better than the last person.

In this article, I will assume nothing and go from the back to the very start. So for many of you, this will be way too simple. And don’t worry, I have plenty more articles planned with very specific advice. But for anyone who is thinking of picking up a club for the first time, you may simply want to know ‘how is golf played?’.

Origins of golf

I thought I would start with the very first origins of golf to give some context. If you just want to get straight into knowing how golf is played then you are more than welcome to skip ahead and leave the history lesson behind if you wish.

Very first origins


As with any game which dates back a long long time the true origins of golf are hotly debated. Ancient pictures from all over the world have been studied and anywhere where somebody appears to be swinging some kind of club and some kind of ball seems to hold a claim.

This ranges from a Chinese scroll all the way back in 1368 in which a man can be seen swinging some sort of ‘club’ towards some sort of ‘ball’. Other historians argue it evolved from other games such as the Persian game Chaugan or the old English game of Chanbuka, all of which involved balls and sticks.

The fact is it is likely people were hitting balls with sticks about in the name of the sport all over the world and a game similar to golf could have evolved several times.

The origin in Europe and what would have led to the modern game seems to be in the Netherlands. In 1297 a game was recorded where players would aim to hit a leather ball with a stick into a target a few hundred meters away in as few attempts as possible. Sounds pretty much like golf to me!

Origins of modern golf


The origins of ‘modern golf’ are much clearer and we don’t need to dust off the old Chinese scrolls to figure it out.

Cast yourself back to the east coast of Scotland, near Edinburgh, in the 15th century. The nation was preparing itself for yet another invasion of the English but there was a problem. The nation had been gripped by a new sport. This new sport was so fun and so addictive that it actually drove many Scots to neglect military training. King James II was so paranoid that this new sport would be a distraction so big that it could lead to defeat by the English. So he banned it altogether!

So for a while golf was an illegal past time. Bad ass Scotsmen would have to sneak out in the cover of the night just to get on the course! So next weekend when you are strolling freely around 18 holes, just be thankful you aren’t sneaking about constantly looking over your shoulder.

It took another King James to come and go until James IV decided, 45 years after the ban was implemented, that the game would go completely to the other end of the scale and get the royal seal of approval! With James IV becoming the first golfing king.

Many kings (and queens) from that point onwards loved the game and it grew and grew in popularity. This culminated in 1754 when the St Andrews Society of Golfers was formed. This society was formed primarily so they could compete at the first 18 hole golf course constructed at St Andrews in 1764. Making the course people today call the ‘home of golf’.

At this point, the game was still quite a way from what we know today. Many of you have probably borrowed a few dodgy clubs or hit a few dud range balls over the years. But try and imagine yourself hacking your way around St Andrews with a wooden club and a ball of horsehide stuffed with feathers…..hard to imagine I know!

The game went global in a relatively short space of time. By 1870 the game had reached all the way to the other side of the world in Australia.

By 1900, 1000 golf clubs had already formed in the US. Talk about an explosion in popularity! And we ended up with the game we have today. The rules have changed slightly but the principles below remain pretty much the same so let us have a look closer at how golf is played.

The aim of the game


So that’s enough of the history lesson (for those of you who stuck with me I thank you. For those of you that just skipped the first section….I don’t blame you).

From an outsiders point of view how golf is played complicated. A sport that you need to do a specialist degree in to know what you are doing. This puts many people off even picking up a club in the first place. I’ve lost count of the number of people that have told me over the years that they don’t play golf because “it just seems too complicated”.

But golf (in theory!) is probably one of the simplest games ever invented. Hit a small ball from a larger point A (the teeing ground) to a much smaller point B (the hole) in as few goes as possible. That is literally it. Despite this, 1000’s of books have been written about it. Look, I’ve created a whole website about it!

But this is just what happens when a game has been around for centuries. Rules get added, equipment gets more and more complex and every single player thinks they’ve figured out another way to get rid of your bad techniques.

This task of getting the ball from A to B occurs usually 18 times in a ’round’ on what is known as a ‘course’. But how do we know who the winner is? How do we score? Well like everything else in golf that started simple and people decided to make it more complicated.

Before we go on to scoring systems I will quickly try and explain handicaps. Bare with me on this one as it is quite complicated, however, it is important to understand when learning how golf is played. Especially for beginners.


golf handicap

Don’t worry about how to calculate it at this stage!

In order to make the game friendlier for beginners, a player has what is known as ‘a handicap’. Simply put, the better you are at golf, the lower your handicap should be. The lowest possible handicap is 0 and this would earn you the title of a scratch golfer. A scratch golfer is expected to, on average, complete all 18 holes in ‘par’ for the course, which is the number of shots the course designer thinks it should take in total over the 18 holes. For every number your handicap is above 0 that is how many extra shots on average it should take you to get around the course.

So if the course par is ’72’ it should take a golfer with a 0 handicap 72 shots on average to complete. But for someone with a handicap of 10 it should take 82 on average, with a handicap of 20 then this would be 92, and so on.

How you calculate your specific handicap is pretty complicated, but I will do my best to summarise and not give you a headache.

You have to play a number of rounds on your local course, somewhere between 5 and 20 rounds to get an average score. However, that is just your average for that particular course. In order to come up with a handicap that can be applied to any course, it gets a little complicated.

To do this you will need to know two things about your local course

      1. the course rating and;
      2. the course slope

Now the slope isn’t the gradient of the course, but just a term used for the difficulty of the course. A course of average difficulty will have a slope of 113 with the most difficult being as high as 155!

Once you know these figures, you subtract the course rating from your score and multiply by 113 (the average slope). The answer to this is then divided by your courses slope to obtain the handicap differential. Complicated I know!

For now, just keep in mind that a handicap is there to make the game fairer and that the lower your handicap the better you are.

What is a scratch golfer?

You may hear this term thrown around and it will no doubt leave you confused. A scratch golf sounds like a golfer who has a skin condition or a tendency to attack with their claws whenever they are having a bad round. But the term scratch golfer means someone who plays off a handicap of zero, so they effectively have no handicap (or scratch). These players aren’t necessarily pros but they are pretty damn good!

The course

Although there are different types of course (explained later in this article). Each course has the same basic elements.

The Tee

Image: Neville Wooton (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

As mentioned already, each hole starts from an area known as the teeing ground or ‘tee’ for short. The name is derived from the tee peg on which the ball is placed to hit off.

The tee is usually marked out by a pair of colored markers from which the player must hit the ball from between. Some courses just have one set of tee markers but many have 2, 3 or even more different colored tees for different standards/ types of player.

These are usually (but not always):

Black/ Gold – Championship or professional

Blue – Local or club championship or for skilled men of low handicap

White – Most typical tee used by men, for those of middle or higher handicap.

Red – Usually the women’s tee

Green – Juniors/ Beginners

Yellow – Seniors

The Fairway

Thought to come from the old nautical term meaning navigable channel or customary course. This is where you are aiming to land the ball after hitting off the tee (if you can’t get it to the green in one shot).

The fairway is the area that lies directly between the tee and the green. The grass is usually mown fairly short to allow the ball to bounce along and to provide a more appealing ‘lie’ (a term in golf used to define how the ball sits on the ground) for the next shot.

The fairway is often straight but can angle off to the left or right in what is referred to as a ‘dog-leg’.

The Rough

Image: Ruttgers2007 (Flickr)  CC BY 2.0

Either side of the fairway usually lies ‘the rough’, so named due to primarily to its appearance. The grass is often coarser and not cut as low as the fairway. This is to give a disadvantage to the player who doesn’t hit their ball straight off the tee.

The Green

Image: Dan Perry (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Once you have hit the ball off the tee, navigated the fairway (and maybe the rough), you will hopefully eventually end up on the putting green. The green is the area on each hole where the grass is cut shortest, it is also where the hole is always located.

On the green, the player is no longer focussed on distance but instead, accuracy is key. Here the player turns to a specialist club known as the putter (which I’ve described later in the equipment section of this article).

The putting green is very rarely flat and often has many bumps and undulations to make the shots more difficult. This means you will often see golfers crouching down in an attempt to ‘read’ the green. They may then decide to hit the ball a few feet to either side of the hole hoping it will curve around perfectly and drop in.


Image: Keith Allison (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

To make the golfers life even trickier, the course usually contains a series of ‘hazards’.

Types of hazard include:

    • Bunker – These are pits of sand dotted around the course, normally concentrated around the greens, but also on the fairways. A player may not ‘ground’ the club in the bunker, even whilst taking a practice swing, otherwise, they receive a penalty stroke. The idea is that it is much harder to play the ball out of the sand than off grass, thus making it a ‘hazard’.
    • Water – Courses often have water hazards including ditches, ponds and even lakes. These not only make the course look more attractive but also act as another threat to the player’s ball. As with a bunker, a player can’t ground the club in the water. They can attempt to hit the ball out of the water if they wish, but this, as you may guess, is often impossible and the player usually takes a ‘drop’. This is where the shot is either retaken, or the ball is dropped in a designated ‘drop zone’ to the side of the hazard (both at the expense of a shot). So if a player hits the ball into a water hazard off the tee they often have to retake the shot but it will be their third shot (and they’ve not even left the tee yet!).
    • Out of bounds – Not strictly a hazard like the others, but still to be avoided. Out-of-bounds markers designate the edges of the course and if a ball is hit beyond these markers a drop must be taken to bring the ball back onto the course.

The different scoring systems

As mentioned previously, the aim is to get your ball into the hole in as few shots as possible. There are no scoring systems where the aim is to take as many shots as you can, as understandably that would be a bit silly and confusing.

But how this art of getting the ball to the hole in as few shots as possible is converted into a competition varies. This is where the different scoring systems come in and I will do my best to explain them here:

Stroke Play

This is the most common scoring system in golf and is the system used in the major tournaments such as The Masters and The Open.

In stroke play, each hole on the course is assigned a difficulty category known as the ‘par’. This number, usually 3, 4 or 5 (very rarely 6), is the number of shots that the course designer thinks it should take a professional or person of scratch (0) handicap to get the ball to the hole.

At the start of the round, everyone starts with a score of 0. If you achieve the designated ‘par’ for a particular hole then nothing happens to your score, it stays at 0. For every shot fewer than the designated par you get a minus point, so a hole in one on a par 3 would get you -2 points. But for every shot greater than the designated par you get a plus point. So if a par 3 hole took you 5 shots your score would go up by +2.

These scores above and below par have some funny nicknames that you may or may not have heard before:

+3 is a  Triple Bogey

+2 is a Double Bogey

+1 is a Bogey

0 is a Par

-1 is a Birdie

-2 is an Eagle

-3 is an Albatross

I was going to write about the origins of these words, but it was actually quite boring. Here is a link to another website that will explain if you are curious.

So by the end of the round, you end up with a score which could be something like -18, which would probably win you the competition or +18 which would probably….not.

Match Play

In match play, the game isn’t focussed on the entire round score. Each hole is a ‘match’, so the person who completes the hole in the fewest shots gets a point (yes in match play the higher your score the better, just to be confusing!). This means that if you have one particularly bad hole, where you take a high number of shots to complete, it won’t ruin your whole round.

If all players take the same amount of shots on a particular hole then that hole is ‘halved’ and half a point is awarded to each player.

Match play can end up with the round finishing before all 18 holes played. If one player wins the first 10 holes then there is no need to play the final 8! Although I hope that never happens to you.


Stableford is most similar to stroke play but flips the scoring system on its head, with the more logical scenario of the higher your points the better your score.

It was a scoring system designed by Dr. Frank Barney Gorton Stableford back in 1898 as a means of stopping golfers giving up after they’ve had one or two bad holes.

A player is awarded a number of points based on the number of strokes taken compared to par. This score is then adjusted according to the player’s handicap.

If a player takes two more shots than the adjusted fixed score for that hole, they can abandon it, put it behind them, and move onto the next hole. You get 0 points from that hole but it means one bad hole won’t ruin your entire day! For taking one shot over par on a hole you get 1 point, for a par you get 2, for a birdie you get 3 and so on.

At the end of the round, you will have a total score and the highest number of points wins.

Team Play

Golf doesn’t have to be lonely. There are team games you can get involved with to take a little bit of pressure off yourself, or maybe apply more, depending on who your friends are!

The two most common team games are foursomes (nothing sexual) and fourballs.

  • Foursomes – is played between two teams of two players, but each team shares just one ball. So one player takes the tee shot, the next player takes the next shot and so on. So if you land the ball in the bunker, it’s your teammate that has to get in the sand and play the next shot.
  • Fourball – in fourball each player has their own ball (hence fourball). The teammate with the best score counts towards your team score. This can be played either as match play or stroke play.

The different types of course

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of golf courses consist of 18 holes but the appearance of these holes differs greatly depending on the type of course.

A Links Course

These are the most traditional and original style of course available in golf. The word actually comes from the old Scot’s word ‘hlinc’ meaning ‘rising ground, ridge’. This basically refers the undulating nature of the coastal sand dunes and parkland where the original Scotish courses were constructed.

The courses are usually built on a sandy soil which was traditionally not good for crop farming and hence it’s use in golf. The courses are often quite barren, lacking any trees.  And being often on the coastline, these courses are associated with testing conditions, with strong sea breezes often sending your drive off into the thick, unforgiving rough.

If you are lucky enough to land your drive on the fairway, it will often run quite far due to the firm soil beneath. You often get characteristic deep ‘pot’ bunkers, designed to stop sand blowing away in the strong winds, leaving some very testing shots indeed!


Image: Maedi (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

These days the word ‘links’ is bandied around by all manner of courses around the world, but many of these are not true links courses. If you want to see the purest examples of links courses tune into the Open where you might see one of the classic British links courses in all its glory.

Parkland Courses

The course that people in the USA may be more used to seeing is a Parkland course. These courses, as the name suggests, are in more of a parkland setting.

In contrast to the often bleak links courses, parkland courses are often surrounded by woodland and have tree-lined fairways. The grass is lush and green and watered often to keep it that way. They are aesthetically pleasing to the eye and the conditions are usually a bit more predictable than on the links.

Think of The Masters and The Augusta National and you will get an idea of the textbook example of a parkland course. Perfect bright green fairways and greens, pine trees everywhere and flowering Azalias to add that bit of extra color to proceedings. They even dye the water blue to make it more idyllic (or so I hear!).


Image: Dave Cooley (Flickr) CC BY 2.0


In very simple terms, a heathland course is pretty much a cross between a links course and a parkland course. The majority of this course style is located in Britain, particularly around London in the county of Surrey.

Heathland habitat has a bit more in the way of vegetation from a links course although not as much as a parkland. You can spot a heathland course from the characteristic heather, bright purple in color in the summertime. Gorse, rhododendron, fir and pine also dot the course to produce some of the most picturesque courses on the planet.

Image: Dan Perry (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

There are also courses in the desert and even in the snow!

The equipment


Now you are beginning to fully understand how golf is played, you will need some equipment to help you get that ball from the tee to the hole.

The clubs


You may have guessed, clubs are used to hit the ball. There are various types of club available for this task. You have the driver and woods for long distance hitting. Irons for shorter distances and then a putter for the shortest distances.

Drivers and woods

Image: Wojciech Kulicki (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Woods were creatively named because they were originally made from….wood. Today this has unsurprisingly evolved quite significantly and these clubs are now composed of materials such as titanium and carbon fibre. The 1 wood is known as the driver, this is the club with the lowest loft (angle of the club face) of the all the woods, usually ranging from 9 degrees up to 12 degrees for beginners who want more control. For more information on what a difference in loft means for shot distance and control check out this earlier article, where I attempt to explain.

Most golfers will then have a 3 wood and 5 wood in their bags which have increasingly higher loft and are for shorter distances. Having these different clubs means the player can use a full swing each time and will have a pretty good idea how far the ball will travel (if they hit it correctly that is!).

These clubs are mainly used off the tee, hit off a tee peg rather than straight off the grass.

The irons

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When a player doesn’t need to hit the ball as far as with a wood or driver they will look to use an ‘iron’. These clubs have shorter shafts (the bit between the handle and club head) and smaller club heads usually made of steel with a flat grooved club face.

Usually the most numerous type of club in the bag, the standard player will usually have between 7 and 11 irons in their bag. Irons are used in all sorts of situations, off the tee on shorter holes, from the fairway, from the rough and from the bunkers.

The higher the number of the iron, the more lofted the club face. This means it will send the ball higher in the air but it will not travel as far. So a 3 iron has a loft usually of around 20 degrees which is useful either off the tee or for long shots from the fairway or rough. At the other end of the scale is the 9 iron which has a loft around 45 degrees. This higher loft sends the ball much higher in the air but not as far. More loft does mean more spin and more control and these higher numbered irons are used on shorter holes or approach shots to the green.


Image: Yanki_01 (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Once you get to a higher loft than a 9 iron you are into the wedges. These are a subcategory of irons, usually composed of the same materials and looking very similar. They are utilized usually for short range shots around the green (typically <130 yards).

The first wedge to find it’s way into a golf bag was the sand wedge in 1931. As you might expect it was invented by Gene Sarazen to solve the problem of hitting the ball from the bunker. The angled face and wide sole prevent the club from digging into and getting stuck in the sand.

Wedges give the ball a high trajectory which prevents the ball from rolling, even making it spin backward if you know what you are doing. The wedges don’t have numbers but instead letters which indicate the function of the club. P for the pitching wedge, S for the sand wedge and L for the Lob wedge (there are others but these are the most common). The lob wedge has the highest degree of loft of all the wedges, usually between 58 and 60 degrees.

The putter

Last on the list (and by no means least!) is the putter. This club is arguably the most important club in the bag accounting for an average of 41.3% of all shots in golf!

Used for the shortest shots in the game, virtually all shots with the putter will take place on the green. The idea of the putter is to hit the ball along the ground with as much accuracy as possible.

The putter is pretty much flat on the face, although there is usually a very small amount of loft to get the ball out of any holes.

You will find putters in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You should be able to find something that suits you whether it is a short shafted putter, a broom handle putter or even a belly putter!

Golf Course Etiquette

Golf course etiquette has it’s good and bad points in my opinion. Certain elements like the clothes you are supposed to wear to me is a relic of a past era and a bit elitist. I always remember me and my brother getting told off by the club pro every time we would turn up in just a t-shirt or heaven forbid a pair of jeans!  There are some etiquette elements I do like however (many of which are common sense) but here is a quick rundown of golf etiquette for dummies: