Most professional and amateur tournaments are conducted via stroke play. Stroke play is when each player's score is written down on the scorecard for each hole and then the 18-hole total is added up. The player with the lowest total after 18 holes wins that round. In most professional tournaments, a player with the lowest total after four rounds is the winner of the tournament.
Match play is the most traditional way of keeping score and one of the most interesting ways of competing. In match play, the player who wins a particular hole is given a score of plus-1. If a player scores a 4 on the first hole and his competitor gets an 8, the first player is plus-1. If the player that lost the first hole fires a 3 on the second hole and his competitor scores a 4, the match is now even. It doesn't matter that a player won his hole by four strokes while the other player won his by only one stroke. The match continues in this manner until one player is ahead by more holes than remain to be played. If a player wins the 15th hole to go plus-4, the match is over because there are only three holes left to play and the other competitor could not catch up even if he won all three remaining holes.
Stroke Play with Handicap
Handicaps may be used in stroke play. At the end of an 18-hole round of golf, the player's USGA Handicap Index is subtracted from his gross score. This gives him a net score. The player with the lowest net wins. For example, if player A shoots an 85 with a handicap index of 15, his net total is 70. If that is the lowest total of any player in the tournament, player A wins.
Match Play with Handicap
In match play, the handicap index numbers of the two competitors are compared. If player A has a handicap of 10 and player B has a handicap of 5, player A will get a five-stroke advantage over his competitor. The handicaps are applied on the five most difficult holes on the golf course. That is determined on the scorecard where each hole is ranked with 1 being the most difficult and 18 being the easiest. If the two players both shoot 5 on the hole that is ranked the most difficult on the course, the player getting strokes would actually win the hole because it is one of the five on which he would get a stroke from his competitor.
In many professional tournaments, players who are tied for the lead at the end of the fourth round will have a sudden-death playoff. The players who are tied will go back to the 15th hole and begin play again. Once a player has won a hole from his competition, he wins the tournament. Some professional tournaments require a four-hole playoff while others play an additional 18-hole round to determine a winner.