How to Mark Your Golf Score Card To Win More Rounds

The goal in playing golf, unlike most sports, is to finish with the lowest score. As you play a round of golf you count one stroke for each time you hit the golf ball. The player who completes the round with the least number of strokes is the winner.

You keep track of your score, the number of strokes you make, one hole at a time. There are eighteen holes in a regular round of golf. You keep a separate score for each of the eighteen holes and in the end, add them up for a final total.

Every hole has a par, i.e. the number of strokes a very good golfer should take to complete the hole. If the par for a hole is 5 that means it should take a skilled golfer 5 strokes to get into the hole. If you play the hole and it takes you 7 strokes to get into the hole, your score would be 7 or 2 over par. If it only takes you 4 strokes to hole out, then your score would be a 4 or 1 under par.

1 under par is known as a “birdie.” 2 under par is called an “eagle.” 1 over par is known as a “bogey.” And 2 over par is a “double bogey.” And getting into the hole in one stroke is an “ace” or “hole-in-one,” a rare but exhilarating experience I’ve been told. (FYI, if  you ever do get a hole-in-one, grab your wallet. You are expected to buy everyone in the clubhouse a round of drinks in celebration!)

You keep your score for each hole that you play, marking it on a score card supplied by the pro shop. On the card you will find the par listed for each hole as well as par for the entire course.

Marking your card… What do all those numbers mean?

Keeping score is relatively simple. You add the names of each of the players in the appropriate box and note the yardage for each hole relative to the tee box each player is using. The total score for each hole goes into the small box opposite each hole’s number. At the end of the first nine holes you insert the scores under the “out” column (referring to the holes played “out” from the club house.) After the second nine holes you insert the scores for that segment under the “in” column (referring to the holes played as you come back “in” to the club house.) (Very clever!) You add up those two numbers and get a total score for each golfer. And that’s all there is to keeping your score.

Playing with handicaps: If you have been playing golf for years and your golf partner is a beginner, it’s obvious you are going to win the round. To level the playing field between golfers, a handicap system is used.

Handicaps reflect the average ability of a golfer. To get an official handicap you submit a series of scores (not less than 20) to the GHIN (Golf Handicap Information Network) system either at your golf club or online at There is a fee for this service. Every month or so your handicap is updated so as you continue to play through the season and submit your scores your handicap can change.

This is where things become fun and where a player with a 32 handicap can actually compete with a player with a handicap of 15. Both players are given strokes on certain holes on a golf course. At the end of the round, those strokes are deducted from the gross score to give each player a final net score.

For example, you have a handicap of 32, your partner has a handicap of 15. After 18 holes of golf your gross score is 110. Your partner has a final gross score of 94. Using your handicaps to determine net score, your final net score would be 110 minus 32 or a net of 78. Your playing partner’s net score would be a net of 79.  (94 – his gross score, minus 15 – his handicap) Final result – you would win the round of golf by one stroke!

On which holes do you get those extra strokes? This is where things get a little complicated. Which holes get extra strokes is determined by three things that together give you the answer. (You may find this information more than you want to know, if so, skip to the bottom of the page.)

  1. The course rating which indicates the difficulty of a course (according to USGA standards). An course of average difficulty would have a course rating close to 74.8. (This number indicates the average score of 50% of scratch golfers who play the course.)
  2. The slope rating which represents the relative difficulty of a course for bogey golfers (those who typically shoot one over par) compared to the course rating. Slope ratings can range from 55 to 155 with 113 being of average difficulty. (The higher the slope rating the more difficult the course.) In the example below, Sandwich Hollows Golf Club has a course/slope rating of 73.8/124 for women playing from the white tees, or 68.4/114 for women playing from the red tees. From the red tees, this course is considered of average difficulty for bogey golfers.

Golf course rating and slope rating close up

3. and your adjusted gross score (your total strokes after allowing for the maximum per-hole totals allowed under ESC (equitable stroke control) – Your ESC number determines the maximum score you can take on any hole. This is to prevent an unusually bad hole from throwing off your handicap. It would be the hole where you hit into the sand, lose a ball in the lake and then three putt. Your actual number of strokes might total 13—lucky number ! But your ESC will limit the number of actual strokes you can take.

How do you know your ESC number? In order to figure your ESC, you need to know the course handicap for the course you are playing. This is usually posted at the club, or you can ask at the pro shop. Once you have that number use the chart below to find the maximum score you can take on any given hole.

Equitable Stroke Control Chart
Course Handicap Maximum Score
0-9 Double Bogey
10-19 7
20-29 8
30-39 9
40 or more 10

So you know the course rating, the slope rating and you know the max score you can take on each hole. But on which holes of the course you are playing do you give yourself those extra strokes?

Look at your golf score card and find the line of numbers called “Handicap.” These numbers will not be in any particular order but what they indicate is the difficulty of each hole relative to the slope and course ratings.

In the example below the handicaps for each hole 1 – 9, are indicated in circles. On this course the most difficult hole for those playing from the B/W (Blue or White) Tees is hole #9 indicated by a #1. But for those playing from the Red Tees, the most difficult hole is the first hole on the course. Another example: the 3rd most difficult hole for those playing from the B/W Tees is the 6th hole, and the 3rd most difficult hole for those playing from the Red Tees is the 9th hole.

Depending on your handicap and the tee box from which you are playing, you can take two strokes on the most difficult hole, two on the second most difficult hole, two on the third most difficult hole, etc. until you have used all the strokes allowed by your handicap. If you have a 12 handicap, you can take 12 strokes off your gross score for handicap purposes. Allow yourself one or two strokes on each hole in a round of golf, beginning with the most difficult hole and working backwards. Whether you can take one or two strokes on a particular hole may be determined by your pro shop. Check with them first. If you are playing in a tournament most pro shops will have figured out which holes get strokes by using the pro shop computer, so you don’t have to worry about it.

If all this seems way too confusing and you don’t want to be bothered getting an official handicap… there is a simple online golf handicap calculator you can use to figure your “unofficial” handicap. You will need to know course rating, slope rating and your score for a minimum of 5 rounds of golf. Click here to use the calculator.

To view a video explaining how to keep your golf score including figuring gross and net scores, click the title: How To Mark Your Golf Score Card.

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