Taking up golf has been on the bucket list for years! Well, now you’ve got some new clubs. You have booked in a few lessons with your local pro for a bit of improvement and you are keen to get down to the driving range to hit a few balls.

It sounds like you have been well and truly bitten by the golf bug. But there’s one problem – some of the jargon involved. You’re not sure of the difference between stroke play and match play? And scramble? Isn’t that something we do with eggs?

Well here at American Golf, we want to try and enlighten you all. Not only is a golf that can be played by anyone male or female from age eight to 80, but there are a myriad number of formats that can be played, whatever your level, to gain maximum enjoyment from the game. So let’s try and make it all a little bit clearer.

Ways To Play Golf

Stroke Play:

We will begin with the most common format. Stroke play is what we see in pro golf virtually every week and at the biggest events like The Open and the US Masters. This is the format in which Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are SO good.

It is an 18-hole cumulative score where the player with the best aggregate score (the fewest number of shots) wins. Every shot counts towards the final total, so one spectacular hole or more likely, a disastrous hole, can make a huge difference in the final outcome. The dual challenge is playing against both the course and fellow competitors as you have to conquer the course to have the best chance of scoring better than your opponents.

This is the method most commonly used for handicap purposes and to find out the true level of a player’s ability. It can drive you mad and leave you incredibly frustrated, but shooting a low score over 18 holes gives you the best feeling of how well you have played.

A quick guide – once your handicaps are factored in:

  • A score in the 80s – one to forget
  • A score in the 70s (over 18 holes) – not bad but work to be done
  • A score in the 60s – well played

A score in the 50s – you will not be popular with your playing partners! That handicap of yours is coming down fast!!

Match Play:

Rather than playing the course, this is straight up head-to-head competition. The golfer who makes the best score on an individual hole wins the hole and the player who wins the most holes over the 18 holes wins the match.

We see this used in the Ryder Cup and it may throw up funny scores like 4&3. That means a player is four holes ahead after 15 holes and with only three holes remaining, they cannot be caught, so they are declared the winner.

The qualities needed for match play can be different to stroke play where consistency wins the game. Take England’s Ian Poulter for example. He has never won an event like The Open but put him in a Europe jersey for the Ryder Cup and he’s a different animal as he loves the one-on-one contest. If you have one bad hole, forget it, it only costs you one hole rather than completely ruins a round like in stroke play.

Match play also does not require everyone to tap the ball into the hole. If your opponent is so close to the hole and you don’t think they can possibly miss, you can ‘give’ their putt. For example, they have had three shots and are so close to the hole, the putt is given, and the score is counted as four. Also, if one player is having a very bad hole and has had many more shots than their opponent, they can concede that hole as lost. Both players can then pick up their balls and move on to the next tee.

One of my own favourite golfing memories was from a club match years ago where I was five holes down with only seven to play. My only thought stood on the 12thtee was just to win one hole to avoid a complete embarrassment. When I shook hands with my opponent on the 18th green, I had completed a one-hole victory! I had birdied that 12th hole which gave the confidence and momentum to go on a charge. You can be scoring terribly, but as long as there are enough holes remaining, there is always a chance you can turn the match around.


Stableford is a very common club and competition game, which is used a bit more in winter as it is a slightly faster game than stroke play.

It is an individual format where scores on each hole are converted into points. The points are then added up and the player with the most points across the 18 holes is declared the winner.

How the points work:

  • 0pts – Double bogey or worse
  • 1pt – Bogey
  • 2pts – Par
  • 3pts – Birdie (one below par)
  • 4pts – Eagle (two below par)
  • 5pts – Albatross (three below par)

The great thing about stableford compared to a stroke play event is that a terrible hole is only ever worth no points. And if you are having a bad hole, such as a lost ball or you can’t hit out of a bunker, you can pick up, take no points and move on to the next hole.

Four Ball/Better Ball:

A great game for four players. Divide yourself into two pairs and from there, it’s game on. Take the best score on a hole from Team 1 and the best score from Team 2 and the lowest score wins. For example, on Team 1, Player A scores four and Player B takes five, so Player A’s score counts. On Team 2, Player C takes seven and Player D takes four. Player D’s score goes forward and because that is a better lower score than Team 1, they win the hole.

You can decide to do this as either match play or stroke play, but the concept is the same. The better ball of the two counts at the end of each hole and the total cumulative score is added up to decide the winning team.

Team work is required as you can adopt different styles of playing. One of the pair can try to be steady while the other player can take a risk to try by going for a spectacular shot or hole a difficult putt. It’s why when you see pros play this format, a team is aiming for lots of birdies.


One of the most traditional forms of the game, and probably not best suited to the average hacker. This is usually two against two, but using just one ball per team in an alternate shot format. It can also be done as stroke play or stableford across 18 holes in a wider competition.

If Player A from Team 1 tees off, Player B must hit the next shot from wherever it finishes. But regardless of the score the pair gets on the hole, Player B takes the first shot at the second hole. That carries on over the round, so that if the match is played over a full 18 holes, each player will have hit nine tee shots. Course knowledge and a look at the card is vital before starting out in a foursomes game. Is one player better on par threes? Is one player longer and therefore better suited to the tee shot on a par five?

It is commonly used in high level amateur golf, but we only really see it in the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup. It requires team work, skill and strategy and above all, keeping the ball out of trouble. Sergio Garcia is a great example of all of these as he has only lost four out of 19 foursomes matches in the Ryder Cup with a multitude of partners. Believe me, that is a fantastic record.


This is a light-hearted and fun format, and is not one for the purists. You are most likely to come across it on an organised golf day or you could use it for a mini competition with a large number of friends, who could be split into equal groups/teams, whether that is three or four


Most commonly done using four players, a captain is nominated to make the final decision as there are tactics involved. Every player tees off and from there, the best shot is selected. The second shots are all hit from that position and again, the best shot is chosen. That carries on until the first player from the team knocks the ball into the hole.

If there are four players in a team, every member will be required to take four drives or in a three-player team, six drives. That means hitting the second shot from the place where the drive has gone on four (or six) occasions for each player. That is where the captain steps in to work out which drive to choose to make sure there is a balance.

The winning team is the one with either the lowest score or the most points, depending on whether stroke play or stableford scoring is used. From a golf perspective, it can be hard to gain a rhythm because you are stopping and starting, picking your ball up and playing from different spots. It is not always easy to tell if you are playing well but it prevents embarrassment if playing badly.


A slight variety on foursomes. The only difference in this game is that both players in a team hit a tee shot with their own ball. Choose the best one and then it’s alternate shots from that position until the ball is in the hole. Scores are then added up in the same way as they are in foursomes. The advantage of this is that less pressure is placed on the tee shot, especially if one of you hits a terrible shot, as at least there is a chance your partner can save you!


This one is a different version of a scramble. Everybody hits a tee shot and again the best shot from one of the team is selected. But from that position, each player then plays their own ball for the rest of the hole. The lowest final score from an individual team member counts on that hole.

Split Sixes:

We all know the old saying ‘three’s a crowd’ and it certainly can be in golf. Traditionally, a stroke play event will have people playing in threes, but what if you were down for a friendly fourball and one of the group has to cry off? That is where split sixes comes in very handy indeed, as it’s the perfect game for a social three-ball.

The format can be taken off either stroke play or match play, playing against the card or off the handicap differences from the best player. Every hole is worth six points. The winner takes four points, the second gets two and the third a big fat 0. If two players draw the hole, they share three points each. If all three players tie, it’s two points all round. If one player wins and the next two are level, the points are awarded 4-1-1. The total is out of 108 (if playing a full 18) and the winner is the player with the most points. Simple.


This is one that will definitely NOT be allowed in any competition defined by the Rules of Golf. But I don’t see why you can’t include this in any of Stroke Play, Match Play or Stableford, if you are playing socially.

If you hit a disastrous shot – that could be hitting the ball into a lake or water hazard or failing to get out of a bunker – a player may call a Mulligan. That is to say the shot doesn’t count.

The player will then hit another shot from exactly the same position in the hope of hitting it much better! Players can agree on a set number of Mulligans they can use per round, whether that’s one, three, five. But again, this is a light-hearted gimmick to make a game more enjoyable.

About the Author

Adam Lanigan - Golf Writer

Adam is a freelance news and sports journalist who has written for the BBC, The Sunday Post, The I, The Times, The Telegraph and more. He has been writing about golf for nearly two decades and has covered 13 Open Championships and two Ryder Cups. Not only does Adam cover golf, but he has played golf for as long as he can remember. He was a member at Northenden Golf Club for around 25 years until his children arrived and his last official handicap was 11, although on any given day his form fluctuates anywhere between eight and 18.