Everything You Need to Know About Scoring in Golf

Sport & Activity

Golf coaches break down what makes a "good" golf score, plus key terms and what they mean.

Last updated: 6 September 2022
6 min read
Everything You Need to Know About Golf Score Terms

In some ways, a golf score is simple: each time you hit the ball, it's called a stroke. The total number of strokes it takes to get the ball in the hole is your score for that hole.

For example, if it takes five strokes to get the ball in the hole, the score on that hole is 5. The total number of strokes for the entire round is your total score for that round. If you take 100 strokes over 18 holes, your score would be 100. The lower the score, the better.

However, there's more to golf scoring than simple addition.

What Does "Par" Mean in Golf?

When you look at a golf leaderboard, golf scoring may no longer seem so straightforward. You may see a positive or negative number next to each player's name. Their score might be +3, -4, -1 or another number. You might even see an "E".

All these numbers relate to "par", which is a standard number of strokes set for each hole on a course—and also for the entire round on the course. For example, the first hole on a course may be a par 4, which means that to get the score of par, you'd need to get the ball in the hole in four strokes. If you did so in three shots, you'd be "one under par", or -1. So a negative score is a good thing.

According to Jon Whithaus, associate head coach of women's golf at Duke University, golf terminology can sometimes make the game frustrating or confusing to newcomers. Read on to hear from Whithaus and other golf coaches, who explain the numbering and names of golf scores, as well as how to think about scores as a beginner.

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Par and Beyond: Scoring Terms to Know

According to the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA), "par" has been used as a golf scoring term since 1911. Par is a standard number of strokes for a hole but that standard is for experts.

The United States Golf Association (USGA) defines par as the "score that an expert player would be expected to make". So if you're a beginner, trying to score par can be a recipe for frustration.

Different holes have different par scores, usually depending on the length of the hole. The USGA recommends that holes up to 240 metres for men and 200 metres for women be considered a par 3. Holes that are 220 to 450 metres for men or 180 to 380 metres for women are par 4. And holes 410 to 650 metres for men or 340 to 550 metres for women are par 5.

On different courses, you'll find a different mix of these par 3, 4 and 5 holes. On one course, for example, the fourth hole might be a par 4. On another course, the fourth hole might be shorter and therefore, be a par 3.

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In addition to the par score for each hole, each course has a total par score, which equals all the par scores for each hole. That's what the positive and negative numbers on the leaderboard mean: if a player has a score of "-1", they are one stroke under (or better than) overall par. If their score is "+4", they're four strokes over (or worse than) par. And if their score is "E", they're at even par, meaning they have exactly the par score.

Scores that are above or below par on a hole have different names.

  1. 1.One Stroke Under Par: Birdie

    When a player scores a 3 on a par 4, a 2 on a par 3 or a 4 on a par 5, they're one under par for the hole—that's called a "birdie".

  2. 2.Two Strokes Under Par: Eagle

    This rare score is named after a bigger, better bird. If a player scores a 2 on a par 4 hole or a 3 on a par 5, they've scored an eagle. A score of 1 on a par 3 is also technically an eagle, but that's typically called an "ace" (see below for more details on that).

  3. 3.Three Strokes Under Par: Double Eagle or Albatross

    This score is extremely rare. So far in 2022, a score of 3 under par on a hole has only been achieved four times. When this happens, it's almost always a score of 2 on a par 5.

    "My pet peeve is when Americans call it a double eagle", said Jake Amos, head coach of men's golf at East Tennessee State University. The correct term, Amos said, is "albatross".

  4. 4.One Stroke Over Par: Bogey

    Just like the game of golf, this word originates from Scotland. Originally, "bogey" was used interchangeably with "par", according to the PGA. It wasn't until around the middle of the 20th century that it began to be used for "one over par".

    If you're two over par on a hole, that's a "double bogey". And if you score three over par on a hole, that's a "triple bogey".

  5. 5.Any Score of One Stroke on Any Hole: Ace

    You may know this score as a "hole in one" but it's also called an "ace". For many players, scoring an ace would be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, most likely to occur on a par 3.

    The challenge, according to Mike Small, head coach of men's golf at the University of Illinois and a former PGA tour pro, is not getting so amped up by the ace that it throws off the rest of your game.

    "I got a hole in one on the PGA tour and it was exciting as heck. I think I birdied the next hole but then I got a double bogey", he said. "And I thought, 'man, now I'm back where I was'" because the +2 double bogey cancelled out the -2 of his ace score.

What Is a "Good" Golf Score?

Depending on the course, professional golfers tend to score par or better, getting lots of birdies along the way.

But remember, par is the expected score for expert players. When you're a beginner, coaches say, you should forget about par—and maybe even forget about your total score as you're playing.

Think of "Winning" Each Hole, Not Your Total Round Score

"If you compare a round of golf to another sport, it's almost like a season", said Whithaus. His advice: think of a round of golf like a football season that has 18 games, with each hole as its own game. "Deal with the opponent in front of you in this game [or hole] and then move on to the next game later".

Whithaus works with players to determine what a "win" is for each hole based on their skill level, then has them try to get that score to win each individual hole.

"If I'm a beginner, maybe a double bogey or better is a win and a triple bogey or worse is a loss", he said. Thinking about holes this way means you don't have to worry about par but instead focus on hitting your target score.

"If I'm thinking this way, I'm not getting my mind in a grandiose way of scoring a 3 or 4", he said. "If there's a pond or a stream, I'm not attempting to get it over in one long shot. I can take three or four shots to get it over".

Keeping a realistic score in mind for each hole can help with the most important aspect of golf for beginners, Small said: it keeps the game fun.

"From a recreational standpoint, scores get blown out [of proportion] because people are competitive", Small said. "If you go out there hoping to get a good score and have fun at the same time, you'll play better than if it's just all [about the] score".

How to Go for Your "Win" Score on Each Hole

If your "win" score is a 6 on a par 4, you may start planning out those six shots. For example, you might drive the ball to the fairway, then try to hit the ball to another part of the hole. But instead of thinking of exact, perfect shots that will get you that 6, Amos suggested simplifying the way you visualise your goal.

"I need to put it in this area", he said. "If I get the ball in this area off the tee, then I have a chance to hit it in the next area I need to head into to make my score".

Instead of pinpointing an exact spot for the ball, he advised, try to hit it into a large, general area. If you're on a hole that curves to the left around some trees, the worst place for your first shot to land is in those trees. By staying out of the trees, the next shot may still be far but it's easier than if you tried to hit a perfect shot and ended up in the woods.

"That's all golf is: trying to make the next shot you have as easy as possible", said Small.

Different players have different strengths and choosing shots that help them display those strengths can make the next shot easier. Try to take shots that use your strengths or set up shots that showcase your strengths, Small advised. If you need to take a shot that's more challenging for you, try to use that shot to get in a position that will play to your strengths.

Words by Greg Presto

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