Every round of golf is based on playing a number of holes in a given order. A round typically consists of 18 holes that are played in the order determined by the course layout. On a nine-hole course, a standard round consists of two successive nine-hole rounds. Playing a hole on the golf course consists of hitting a ball from a tee on the teeing box (a marked area designated for the first shot of a hole, a tee shot), and once the ball comes to rest, striking it again. This process is repeated until the ball is in the cup. Once the ball is on the green (an area of finely cut grass) the ball is usually putted (hit along the ground) into the hole. The goal of resting the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible may be impeded by hazards, such as bunkers and water hazards. In most typical forms of gameplay, each player plays his or her ball from the tee until it is holed.
Players can walk or drive in motorized carts over the course, either singly or in groups of two, three, or four, sometimes accompanied by caddies who carry and manage the players’ equipment and give them advice.
In stroke play (see below), the score consists of the number of strokes played plus any penalty strokes incurred. Penalty strokes are not actually strokes but penalty points that are added to the score for violations of rules or utilizing relief procedures.
A hole is classified by its par, the number of strokes a skilled golfer should require to complete play of the hole. For example, a skilled golfer expects to reach the green on a par-four hole in two strokes (This would be considered a Green in Regulation): one from the tee (the “drive”) and another, second, stroke to the green (the “approach”); and then roll the ball into the hole in two putts for par. Traditionally, a golf hole is either a par-three, -four or -five; some par-six holes exist, but are not usually found on traditional golf courses.
Primarily, but not exclusively, the par of a hole is determined by the tee-to-green distance. A typical length for a par-three hole ranges between 91 and 224 metres (100–250 yd), for a par-four hole, between 225 and 434 metres (251–475 yd). Typically, par-five holes are at between 435 and 630 metres (476–690 yd), and nontraditional par-six holes are any longer distance. These distances are not absolute rules; for example, it is possible that a 450 metre (492 yd) hole could be classed as a par-four hole, since the par for a hole is determined by its ‘effective playing length’. If the tee-to-green distance on a hole is predominantly downhill, it will play shorter than its physical length and may be given a lower par rating. Par ratings are also affected by factors affecting difficulty; the placement of hazards or the shape of the hole for example can sometimes affect the play of a hole such that it requires an extra stroke to avoid playing into the hazard or out-of-bounds.
Eighteen hole courses may have four par-three, ten par-four, and four par-five holes, though other combinations exist and are not less worthy than courses of par 72. Many major championships are contested on courses playing to a par of 70, 71 or 72. In some countries, courses are classified, in addition to the course’s par, with a course classification describing the play difficulty of a course and may be used to calculate a golfer’s playing handicap for that given course (c.f. golf handicap).
In every form of play, the goal is to play as few strokes per round as possible.Scores for each hole can be described as follows:
|Term on a
|-4||Condor (or triple-eagle)||four strokes under par|
|-3||Albatross (or double-eagle)||three strokes under par|
|-2||Eagle||two strokes under par|
|-1||Birdie||one stroke under par|
|0||Par||strokes equal to par|
|+1||Bogey||one stroke more than par|
|+2||Double bogey||two strokes over par|
|+3||Triple bogey||three strokes over par|
The two basic forms of playing golf are match play and stroke play.
- In match play, two players (or two teams) play each hole as a separate contest against each other. The party with the lower score wins that hole, or if the scores of both players or teams are equal the hole is “halved” (drawn). The game is won by the party that wins more holes than the other. In the case that one team or player has taken a lead that cannot be overcome in the number of holes remaining to be played, the match is deemed to be won by the party in the lead, and the remainder of the holes are not played. For example, if one party already has a lead of six holes, and only five holes remain to be played on the course, the match is over. At any given point, if the lead is equal to the number of holes remaining, the match is said to be “dormie”, and is continued until the leader increases the lead by one hole, thereby winning the match, or until the match ends in a tie. When the game is tied after the predetermined number of holes have been played, it may be continued until one side takes a one-hole lead.
- In stroke play the score achieved for each and every hole of the round or tournament is added to produce the total score, and the player with the lowest score wins (Stroke play is the game most usually played by professional golfers).
There are variations of these basic principles, including skins, stableford scoring, and team games including foursome and four-ball games.
In a skins game, golfers compete on each hole, as a separate contest. Played for prize money on the professional level or as a means of a wager for amateurs, a skin, or the prize money assigned to each hole, carries over to subsequent holes if the hole is tied.
In stableford points play (originated by Dr Frank Stableford, 1870-1959, was first used on 16 May 1932 at Wallasey Golf Club, Cheshire, England) the player gains points for the score achieved on each hole of the round or tournament (1 point for a bogey, 2 points for a par, 3 points for a birdie, 4 points for an eagle). The points achieved for each hole of the round or tournament is added to produce the total points score, and the player with the highest score wins.
- A foursome (defined in Rule 29) is played between two teams of two players each, in which each team has only one ball and players alternate playing it. For example, if players A and B form a team, A tees off on the first hole, B will play the second shot, A the third, and so on until the hole is finished. On the second hole, B will tee off (regardless who played the last putt on the first hole), then A plays the second shot, and so on. Foursomes can be played as match play or stroke play.
- A four-ball (Rules 30 and 31) is also played between two teams of two players each, but every player plays his own ball and for each team, the lower score on each hole is counted. Four-balls can be played as match play or stroke play.
There are also popular unofficial variations on team play:
- In a scramble (also known as Ambrose), each player in a team tees off on each hole, and the players decide which shot was best. Every player then plays his second shot from within a clublength of where the best ball has come to rest, and the procedure is repeated until the hole is finished. In a champagne scramble, each player in a team tees off on each hole. The best drive is used and all players play their own ball from this spot. In best ball, each player plays the hole as normal, but the lowest score of all the players on the team counts as the team’s score.
- In a greensome, also called modified alternate shot, both players tee off, and then pick the best shot as in a scramble. The player who did not shoot the best first shot plays the second shot. The play then alternates as in a foursome.
- A variant of greensome is sometimes played where the opposing team chooses which of their opponent’s tee shots the opponents should use. The player who did not shoot the chosen first shot plays the second shot. Play then continues as a greensome.
- There is also a form of starting called “shotgun”, which is mainly used for tournament play. A “shotgun start” consists of groups starting on different holes, allowing for all players to start and end their round at the same time.
A handicap is a numerical measure of an amateur golfer’s ability to play golf over 18 holes. Handicaps can be applied either for stroke play competition or match play competition. In either competition, a handicap generally represents the number of strokes above par that a player will achieve on an above average day.
In stroke play competition, the competitor’s handicap is subtracted from their total “gross” score at the end of the round, to calculate a “net” score against which standings are calculated. In match play competition, handicap strokes are assigned on a hole-by-hole basis, according to the handicap rating of each hole (which is provided by the course). The hardest holes on the course receive the first handicap strokes, with the easiest holes receiving the last handicap strokes.
Calculating a handicap is often complicated, but essentially it is representative of the average over par of a number of a player’s previous above average rounds, adjusted for course difficulty. Legislations regarding the calculation of handicaps differs among countries. For example, handicap rules may include the difficulty of the course the golfer is playing on by taking into consideration factors such as the number of bunkers, the length of the course, the difficulty and slopes of the greens, the width of the fairways, and so on.
Handicap systems are not used in professional golf. Professional golfers often score several strokes below par for a round and thus have a calculated handicap of 0 or less, meaning that their handicap results in the addition of strokes to their round score. Someone with a handicap of zero or less is often referred to as a ‘scratch golfer.’
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