How to Play Stroke Play

By Herm Otto

golfer hitting from bunker

Golf is a great game for those who want to spend several hours outdoors taking in the sunshine, green grass and outstanding weather conditions. However, golf also brings out the competitor in many athletes. There are many different ways to compete, including the most common format in the United States, stroke play.

Stroke Play

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.

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.

Playoff Scoring

In many professional tournaments, players who are tied for the lead at the end of the final round will have a sudden-death playoff. The players who are tied will go back to a pre-determined hole and begin play again. Once a player has won a hole from his competition, he wins the tournament.

Instructions for Stroke Play

1. Determine Order of Play

Order of play for the initial tee shot is often done by the flip of a coin or golf tee (which competitor the tee points to when it lands--roughly--goes first). Each competitor plays their own ball from the tee until their ball is holed.

2. Tee Off

If any tee shot is hit out-of-bounds, the player is penalized one stroke and takes a second tee shot. If any tee shot is hit out of sight, the competitor has the option of hitting a provisional tee shot.

3. Locate the Tee Shots

The competitor whose ball lies farthest from the hole is the first to play. The other competitors follow in order of furthest to nearest to the green, based on their tee shot ball locations. If the furthest (from the green) competitor is still the furthest (still "away" or "out") after the shot, the competitor will take another shot until the ball is closer to the green than another competitor.

4. Repeat

Each golfer plays in order for each subsequent shot until all competitors have hit their balls onto the green. However, in order to speed up play, golfers may elect to play Ready Golf, and play out of turn when the situation allows.

5. Putting

Putt in order of farthest to closest until all the balls are holed. A competitor who putts has the option of continuing to putt until their ball is in the hole, regardless of the locations of the other competitors' balls, to help save time.

6. Tally the Scores

Each competitor counts each stoke and penalty stroke on the hole to get their score for that hole.

7. Tee Off on the Next Hole

The order of the scores, from lowest to highest, from the previous hole dictates the order of play moving forward. The player with the lowest score on the previous hole "has the honor" to tee off first on the next hole. After the tee shots, play continues as described above. Total each player's scores after 18 holes to determine the total score for the round.

Tips & Warnings

  • Read the "Rules of Golf" before you play to become acquainted with the many situations where penalties and course conditions come into play. A golfer who knows the rules can often use them to her benefit.