How Do Golf Tournaments Work? (6 Formats)

how do golf tournaments work

Meet Jake

Jake was a competitive golfer for over a decade dating back to the days of being the Captain of his high school golf team. He has played more than 200 courses across 32 different states in the US. Now semi-retired, Jake continues to golf 3-4 days a week with a current 2 handicap, gives golf lessons to his friends and family, and provides a wealth of knowledge to Golf Circuit from his competitive playing days. Jake combines practical expertise with technical knowledge to create golfing strategies and training techniques for both beginners and scratch golfers.

Whether you have a high or low handicap, golfing can be lots of fun. There’s nothing like spending time on the green with friends, enjoying the beautiful weather and the calm and quiet. There’s just nothing like it!

Yet, many newbies can be reluctant to participate in a tournament, fearing they’re not good enough. If this sounds familiar, then, you’ve come to the right place.

This is our guide on how do golf tournaments work. Add a bit of your own unique style to the different formats, and you’ll be competing with the best of them in no time!

Let’s get started.

Golf Tournament Scoring Formats

In general, golf tournaments, especially professional events, are played in a stroke play format. Also known as medal play, the stroke format in golf is where players compete by comparing their total scores.

These tournaments are usually played over 72 holes, or four rounds of 18 holes each.

Then, after the second round, the players with the lowest scores are cut from the tournament, leaving only the top 50 players to move on to the final two rounds.

Finally, at the end of the fourth round, the player with the lowest combined score is the winner.

Yet, stroke play isn’t the only format in golf. There are a number of players that tournaments apply to make the game more competitive and exciting.

Here’s a list of the different scoring formats used in golf tournaments:

Stroke Play

As the name suggests, in stroke play, every stroke counts. Then, at the end of the event, your scores from each round are added together. In pro tournaments, the player with the lowest score is the winner.

Alternatively, in amateur tournaments, players need to subtract their handicap from their final score, which gives them what’s called a ‘net’ score.

Say, for example, you shoot a total score of 85, and you’re a 16 handicap. This means your net score will be 69.

If you are tied at the end of a stroke play golf tournament, you go into a playoff. A playoff is where one, or multiple, golfers play a hole until one comes out on top. Here is a list of the most playoff holes in golf.


The Stableford points system is primarily used in amateur golfing only. It works by awarding points for every hole based on a player’s handicap with the aim of racking up as many points as possible.

A par gets three points, a bogey gets two, and a double bogey gets only one point.

The only pro tournament that sometimes uses Stableford is the Barracuda Championship.

There are also team-based Stableford tournaments. This is where all the team members add their points, and the team with the most points wins.


Matchplay requires a knockout structure of scoring where golfers compete against one another in head-to-head matches. The player with the lowest score wins the hole and goes up one.

It’s usually used only in amateur golf leagues that last an entire season or events that last several days, like the US and British Amateur events.

None of the PGA Tours use this format. The only exception is the WGC Dell Technologies Championship.

Better Ball

Better ball was initially designed for amateur team-based events and relies heavily on the Stableford scoring system.

The teams can either be two or four players. Teams tally up their scores for each hole. Then, the team with the most aggregate points at the end of the tournament wins.


This format isn’t used that much. Though, it’s pretty popular with amateur players looking to make a few bucks off their golfing buddies.

First, each hole is assigned a monetary value, or ‘a skin.’ Then, players get scored on each hole, similar to Matchplay.

The player with the lowest score wins the skin for that hole. If no one wins, the value is either carried on the next hole or just erased, and players start all over again with the next hole.

Needless to say, the player with the most skins at the end of the tournament is the winner.


Foursomes is only used in PGA Tours and professional golfing events, like the Zurich Classic, the Ryder Cup, and the Presidents Cup. It’s rarely used in amateur events because of the challenging scoring system.

The way Foursomes works is that you and your team members hit alternate shots. Yet, to even the playing field, each has to calculate their ‘team handicap.’

To do this, add your handicap to your partner’s, then divide by two. That should give you your team handicap.

Some event organizers use the Stableford scoring system for Foursomes, where you tally up the points for each hole based on your handicap. When using this format, the team with the most points wins.

Others, however, use the Strokeplay system, where players deduct their team handicap from their total score at the end of the event. In this case, the team with the lowest score wins the tournament.


In Scramble tournaments, each player plays their own ball from the best-positioned tee shot. Then, the player with the best score carries the team for that hole.

Read More: What is Scrambling in Golf?

Similar to Better Ball golfing, this format uses the Stableford scoring system. This means that the team with the most points at the end of the tournament wins.

How Do Golf Tournaments Work By Category

With so many scoring formats, it’s no wonder that there are also a handful of golfing categories as well.

Professional Golfing Events

The most competitive and highly publicized are major professional golfing events. The two top examples are the European Tour and the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour.

There are distinct differences, including location, courses, and qualification processes. However, they remain to be two of the most prestigious golfing tournaments in the world.

The one notable difference is that there’s a lot more money riding on the PGA Tour. On average, the PGA purse starts at about $9 million, whereas the European Tour has a starting purse of a little more than $1 million.

For most pro players, their main motivator is the money, so they focus all their energy on getting qualified for the PGA.

Yet, with more money comes more challenging conditions. First of all, it’s exceedingly difficult to get qualified. Then, there’s all the high-class competition waiting for you out on the green.

Players usually start out as either 132, 144, or 156 participants, depending on the season, and then, they get cut back to less than half after the second round, aka after 36 holes. Then, the top 50–70 players with the highest scores are allowed to move on to the two remaining rounds of the event.

All players who make the cut will get a piece of the prize, depending on their ranking. The winner, however, usually receives nearly 18% of the entire tournament purse.

Pro-Am Tournaments

After that come the Pro-Am tournaments. As the name suggests, these tournaments are when a professional golfer teams up with 3–4 amateurs.

These events are almost always single-day tournaments, with one session in the morning and another in the afternoon. Then comes the awards ceremony, where the prizes are handed out.

Organizers usually provide two separate days for playing to provide players with more options and level the playing field.

For example, Monday Pro-Am tournaments are those that feature lesser-known players. As a result, the entry fee is typically less.

In Pro-Am events, this entry fee can range from $2,500 to $10,000, with some exceeding $30,000. Of course, the amount primarily depends on the tournament.

It’s worth noting that these entry fees are charged per team. So, it’s divided between the pro players and the amateurs.

As for the winning team, only the pro players receive the prize money. 

On the other hand, the general rule for amateurs is that they aren’t allowed to accept any money, or else they’d forfeit their Amateur Status. Of course, there are exceptions, like if it’s your first prize or the purse is less than $1000.

Amateur Tournaments

Finally, the last type of golfing category is amateur tournaments. This is where all the golfers who don’t get paid come to play.

While these events aren’t as typically competitive as pro tournaments, they can get pretty intense. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s all about spending time with like-minded people and just having fun playing your favorite sport,

It sounds simple enough, but you’d be surprised to learn that there are some pretty serious tournaments for amateurs out there. They generally have low qualification requirements. Though, you do need to hold a certain handicap to qualify.

There’s also usually an entry fee, which is usually moderately priced. In return, besides taking part in the tournament, organizers provide the players with a gift bag that contains various golf products.

Here’s a brief list of some of the most popular amateur tournaments:

  • Myrtle Beach World Amateur
  • Northeast Amateur Invitational Golf Tournament
  • Pacific Coast Amateur Championship
  • South Beach International Amateur
  • Sunnehanna Amateur
  • Western Amateur

Final Thoughts

This post has uncovered a lot about the world of golfing. Starting with the different scoring formats to the various tournament categories, you’ve become an expert on how golf tournaments work.

The only thing left to do now is to grab your golf clubs and start preparing for the next local event.

Happy golfing!

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