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Golf Playing Formats:

Golf Playing Formats

For indoor golf on TrackMan and golf played outdoors

How many different golf playing formats have you tried? There’s many, and TrackMan now features a significant number for playing Indoor Golf! Here we’ll explain some of the more familiar formats and also some that are a little more obscure. They each offer particular characteristics that can make golf more enjoyable both as an individual sport and as a team game. Even more experienced golfers are unlikely to have played all of these. If you have played all of these, and some of the less familiar variants, we’d love to hear your how you enjoyed them!

Before exploring these formats, for completeness, we need to explain some basic terminology for those less familiar with the game. If you’re already a regular golfer you may want to skip these basics, but you may find some of the formats interesting, so read further below. We’ll also clarify on some golf format terminology which varies between North America and Europe, particularly the UK.

The Basics:

Gross:

A golfer’s Gross score is the number of actual strokes taken during a round (18 holes or 9 holes). It includes any penalty strokes incurred (e.g. lost ball), and also any ‘gimmie’ putts!

Net:

Your net score is your Gross score minus your Handicap. Your playing handicap will vary from course to course and also varies based upon the tees you choose to play from. Play further back at a course and your handicap that applies for that round will likely be marginally higher. Play tees further forward and your handicap for that round may be sightly lower.

The golf handicapping system is key to making golf equitable. Even if you only play social golf, maintaining a handicap ‘index’ enables you to track your scores and monitor your progress. It will also enable you to join events that have a competitive element. Golf Canada has an excellent phone app that enables you to enter your hole scores directly when playing. This will calculate your handicap automatically. That app also features a built in GPS system that will give you distances to the green and other areas on the hole while you’re playing. More detail on handicapping can be found at Golf Canada.

Stroke Index:

Every golf course will have a unique stroke index (1-18) for each of the holes. Why is needed? If two players are competing against each other in a matchplay format, and have different course handicaps, they will need to know on which hole the higher handicap player will receive their strokes. Golf’s matchplay format is discussed in more detail below. A common misunderstanding is that Stroke Index directly represents the difficulty of a hole (i.e. Stroke Index 1 being the most difficult on a course). This is only partially true. Golf Monthly describes the nuances clearly in this article.

Stableford:

Stableford is the most simple alternative to strokeplay. It’s a point system, where a player accumulates points on each hole based upon their handicap. It offers two key benefits. Firstly, unlike strokeplay, it means you can have a ‘nightmare’ on a hole without it destroying your score for the entire round – you’re still in the game! Secondly, it speeds up play. If things have gone very badly on a particular hole you can pick up and score zero Stableford points for that hole and move on. It’s very much suited to friendly competition in the amateur game and social golf generally. Point scoring for any particular hole works as follows:

Net Eagle (net -2):   4 points
Net Birdies (net -1):  3 points
Net Par (net even):  2 points
Net Bogey: (net +1)    1 point
Net Double Bogey (net +2 or worse) 0 points
It’s 5 points for a net albatross (net -3), a very rare bird indeed!
Scroll Right To View Full Table

The winner in a Stableford event is the person with the highest total number of Stableford points for the round. Achieving 36 total Stableford points for a round means on average you have scored 2 points (net par) on each hole – you’ve played to your handicap!

The Stableford points system can also be applied to matchplay (see ‘Matchplay’ format below). A player receives a stroke (or strokes) on a hole depending on their playing handicap for the course and the index for any particular hole. For example, a 17 handicap player will receive a stroke on stroke indexes 1-17, but not on the hole with stroke index 18. A 20 handicap player will receive 1 stroke on stroke indexes 3-18 and 2 strokes on the holes allocated stroke index 1 and stroke index 2.

Elite players who are better than scratch (0 handicap) have to give back strokes to the course. A +2 handicap golfer receives -1 strokes on hole indexes 17 & 18.

Historically in the UK, clubs have held a Stableford competition on a monthly basis – it’s very much part of the regular, socially competitive, golfing scene.

Golf Playing Formats:

Beyond regular individual strokeplay, the formats below are common, with a couple being equally interesting and enjoyable for variety, but are less common. Most of these are available on TrackMan, as highlighted.

Legend:

Available directly on TrackMan

Not available directly on TrackMan, but can easily be played with a little manual scoring intervention

Can’t be played directly on TrackMan…..yet!

Matchplay: (TrackMan: )

Matchplay is a golf format played between individuals (or teams) on a head-to-head basis. Each hole is either won, lost or drawn on the basis of net gross hole score. Most famously, it’s the golf playing format for the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup and Solheim Cup. It’s also the playing format for the later stages of the world’s most prestigious amateur events, such as The British Amateur Championship and US Amateur Championship for men, and the British Women’s Amateur Championship and US Women’s Amateur Championship. In Canada, the Canadian Men’s Amateur Championship has switched between strokeplay and matchplay formats a couple of times and is currently strokeplay. The Canadian Women’s Amateur Championship retains matchplay format in its later stages. When you hear that a match has been won ‘2 & 1’, that means the victor was 2 up after finishing the 17th hole, the losing player therefore could not either draw or win the match by playing further. In friendly amateur games, the round normally continues to completion. In serious competition, the round typically ends once the winner is determined. Note also, that a victory may be described as ‘3&1’ or similar (or “4&2’). A 3&1 victory is where the eventual winner was 3UP after 16 holes and also won the 17th hole. In matchplay, typically, the lowest handicap players will play with zero strokes and the opponent with the higher handicap will play with a match handicap equal to the course handicap differential between the two players.

Fourball Better Ball: (TrackMan: )

The different terms used to describe this one can get confusing. Fourball Better Ball is often just described as ‘Fourball’ especially in the UK and also in the Ryder Cup. It’s perhaps more commonly known in North America as ‘Better Ball’. It’s a pair format. The pair’s score for a hole will be the lowest net score of two players each playing their ball individually. This should not be confused with a similar term ‘Best Ball’. In Best Ball, the best net score of more than two players is used as a single team score. That could be 4-Ball Best Ball, or it could be 3-Ball Best Ball. Better Ball and Best Ball are normally scored based on strokes, but they can both be played on a Stableford basis.

Foursomes: (TrackMan: )

The term ‘foursome’ is commonly used in casual golf play to describe four players playing together as individuals in a group of players (“Let’s make a foursome!”). This is not the same thing as Foursomes playing format, which in North America is typically also called ‘Alternate Shot’. The term “Alternate Shot’ is arguably a clearer description for this format where two players play as a team with a single ball taking shots alternately. Players alternate in sequence teeing off – the pair will usually discuss at the start whether someone should play the odd or even tee-shots based upon their relative strengths or preferences. Pairs also typically agree on the 1st tee that the round won’t endure endless utterances of ‘sorry!’. When you hear that the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup is ‘Foursomes’ for a particular morning or afternoon, it is ‘Alternate Shot’. Regular Foursomes social golf play is historically more common at prestigious private golf clubs in the UK, but is sometimes played in North America for particular events.

Greensomes: (TrackMan: )

Somewhat surprisingly, TrackMan has included this format for Indoor Golf in 2022. It’s variant of Foursomes and arguably more British than Foursomes. We have never seen it played in North America, and in modern times we’re not aware that it is often played in the UK. The only difference to Foursomes is that both players tee off on every hole. They then select the best drive and then play alternate shot from there (where the player whose drive was not selected plays the second shot on the hole. Its fun and has some advantages over Foursomes; both players get to enjoy teeing off on each hole, and there’s a much better chance of having a drive in play than Foursomes – a pace of play consideration.

Scramble: (TrackMan: )

Most golfers will be familiar with the scramble format if they have played in charity or corporate golf events. It can be played as teams of 2,3, or 4 players, but is more commonly played as 4 player scramble. On each hole, every player tees off and then the best drive of the four is selected. Each player then plays their second shot from that spot and the best second shot is selected for the team to play their third short. And so on and so forth until the hole is completed. Scrambles are often played without handicaps, where players in the team must own handicaps in separate handicap ranges. This balances each team in terms of playing ability across the field of competing teams to make an event as equitable as possible. However, handicaps with appropriate ‘haircuts’ can be used in scrambles also. It’s fairly standard in scrambles that a team must use a minimum number of tee-shots from each player. This consideration usually becomes the primary (or only) strategic matter for the team. No-one wants the pressure of being totally relied upon to hit a good shot into the fairway on the 18th hole!

Shamble: (TrackMan: )

A Shamble is a variant of a Scramble. It is very rarely played, but in our opinion is an excellent golf format. Each player in a team tees off and then the best drive is selected. Then each player plays their own ball from there on an individual basis until their ball is holed (or they pick up). The score for the team on any hole will be the lowest net score any player achieves individually. Why is this a good format? Except for drive selection, every player gets to play their own ball while also being a potential contributor to the team on any hole. The format doesn’t need to be especially slow or time consuming; it should be quicker than a regular fourball playing individually within the group.

Skins: (TrackMan: )

Skins format is familiar to many golfers but is quite rarely played. It is often a format involving a small (or not so small) wager. For a ‘Skin’ to be won, a player must have a lower (net) score on a hole. There are two main variants. Playing skins as a single four ball group, if a skin is not won by any player on a particular hole it gets carried over to the next hole. This continues until an individual player wins a hole outright and collects all the skins carried to that point in the game. The next hole has a single skin value once again. Skins can also be played for the entire field of individuals (or possibly teams) in a particular golf event. In this form, skins are typically not carried form hole to hole. Skins prize winnings are normally determined by dividing the total ‘pot’ by the number of holes where an outright skin was won. In smaller fields there can easily be quite a large number of skins. However in larger fields of players, even net birdies are easily ‘sawed off’, such that gross birdies with a shot (net ‘eagles’) may be required to win. Consequently, the number of skins won by anyone can be very small, with the prize winnings per skin being much higher.

High-Low: (TrackMan: )

High-Low doesn’t exist directly as a playing format for indoor golf on TrackMan, but you can still easily play it with manually points scoring. It’s good fun and very competitive. This format is played as a pair against another pair of players in a group of four with each player playing their own ball. The are two objectives for each pair on each hole. Each pair seeks for one of its two players in the team to achieve a lower net score on a particular hole than either of the players in the opposing pair. If that is achieved, they score a point. The pair also wants to avoid either of its players scoring a higher net score on a hole than either player in the opposing team. If you do have that higher net score your opponents are awarded a point. If players on opposing teams are having a bad hole and are continuing on to avoid being the outright worst, this can take a little while, so please be considerate to the group playing behind!

Round Robin, 6-6-6: (TrackMan: )

This pairs team game format should, in theory, be one of the most equitable. It’s played in a group of four and generally resembles Better Ball Matchplay, but it could be played to resemble foursomes or even Greensomes (if anyone has ever played 6-6-6 Greensomes I take my hat off to you….LOL). The key difference with a Round Robin is that you switch partners every six holes so there’s effectively three six hole pairs matches for a full 18 hole round. If someone is having a very good playing day, they confer that benefit to the other three individuals as the round goes on. If some is having a bad day they get to share that with each of their three partners as the round progresses. Fortunes for the adjusting pairs should therefore even out a fair amount for the full round. But often it doesn’t work out that way!

Worst Ball: (TrackMan: )

Play this format at your peril! And only do so on a relatively empty golf course where’s there’s no risk of holding up the groups behind you. It can take some time! However, it can be fun, and sometimes hilarious, even if a little frustrating. It’s possible to play this format as indoor golf on TrackMan, but you’ll need to discard the benchmark of one hour per player for 18 holes. It’s essentially a two person scramble played in pairs against an opposing pair in the same playing group. However, each pair doesn’t get to select their best shot each time as in a normal scramble; your opponents get to choose which of your shots is selected – i.e. the worst! They will obviously select for you a ball hit out of bounds, shanked or topped! It can also mean a bit of time spent in the trees. Short putts missed by either player in a pair also add to the total cost of shots missed.

Summary:

We hope this summary of options offers helpful insight to playing formats available, especially where golf can be played as a team game. The list is absolutely not comprehensive, players have created other innovative and interesting formats to create variety. Golf Canada also offers Game Format options on their website. They also offer some more detail on handicap allowances for various formats.

Another consideration to alternative playing formats is that they offer different insights as to how the game can be approached in terms of shot selection, decision making and general course management to avoid big mistakes and shoot lower scores. Playing in a scramble is very different to supporting your partner in a Foursomes match! We’ll write about that another time.

Play it differently sometimes and have fun!

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