Math of Golf Scoring

Unlike most sports, in the game of golf the player with the lowest score wins, and negative numbers can indicate a well-played game. Scoring statistics also help project the cut score used in championship tournaments. "Science of Golf" is produced in partnership with the United States Golf Association and Chevron.

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DAN HICKS reporting: From the first drive, to the last putt, golf is a game filled with numbers, statistics, and math.

ROSS GALARNEAULT (Handicapping, USGA): You find numbers everywhere in golf. They're on the golf balls. They're on the clubs. But probably the most important number you get in golf is the score, because that's how people gauge how they're doing.

HICKS: In golf, the lowest score wins. The scoring method most commonly used is called stroke play, where a player counts the number of strokes made for each hole. At the United States Golf Association, Ross Galarneault works with handicapping and championship scoring.

GALARNEAULT: At the conclusion of the round, you total up your score for each of the holes so that you come up with a total score for the round.

HICKS: The scorecard lists the holes and the length in yards from the tee markers to the center of the green. Write the score for each hole on the card, total the first nine holes and add in the second nine for a gross score. If handicaps are used, a predetermined number of strokes that helps equalize competition between golfers of different skill levels, the player's course handicap is usually subtracted from the gross score.

GALARNEAULT: You're going to have a net score at the end, not the actual score you shot, but that score minus a handicap.

HICKS: The scorecard also lists par for the course, with par for each hole usually set at three, four, or five strokes.

GALARNEAULT: Par is the expected score for a hole or for a round. For eighteen holes, generally you see most courses would fall into a total par of 72, and it's made up by a total of the pars on each of the holes.

HICKS: Scores can also be determined by comparing the number of strokes to par. For example, if the first hole has a par of four, and the player made five strokes, that's one over par or plus one, called a bogey. If a player scored a three on the first hole, that's one under par, or minus one, called a birdie. A plus or minus with a number indicates whether it's positive, greater than zero, or negative, less than zero.

Negative numbers are commonly seen in weather temperatures, the stock market, and financial statements. Negative numbers in golf are a good thing. Think of par as zero on a number line, with "under par," or negative numbers, to the left of zero and "over par," or positive numbers, to the right. Say the player is one stroke under par on five holes, one stroke over par on four holes, and at par, or even, for all the others. From par, move to the left once for each stroke under par and then to the right for each stroke over par. The gross score is one under par. Or another way, if par is 72, subtract the five under par strokes and then add the four over par strokes for a gross score of 71. Or, negative five added to positive four, equals negative one. That is, one under par or minus one.

GALARNEAULT: Traditionally, when you take a look at scoreboards, leader boards, you'll see scores expressed in relation to par, plus or minus, sometimes red numbers, black numbers.

HICKS: In tournaments, golfers play multiple rounds over several days. The scores from each round are carried forward to the next day, creating an aggregated, or combined, score. Aggregated scores can total into the hundreds, so leader boards track the golfers' scores according the number of strokes over or under par through the number of holes played.

GALARNEAULT: So having that status to par is very helpful in trying to gauge how you're doing in the competition, but more important, how you're doing against other players in the competition.

BELEN MOZO (LPGA Tour Player): Golf is a sport where you can have a bad day and an amateur can beat you, you know.

HICKS: At the USGA's Open Championships, officials cut the number of players after 36 holes have been played. Players with the best 60 scores, including ties, continue to play. Scoring statistics help project what's called the cut score, the score a player must shoot in order to continue in the competition.

GALARNEAULT: We take the actual scores that players have for the holes that have been completed, and then add that to an average score for each of the holes that they have yet to play. And we are pretty good at predicting what that number's going to be that they need to get in order to make the cut.

HICKS: Apart from competition, scoring statistics can help players improve their play.

DREW WEAVER (2007 British Amateur Champion): Looking at stats and analyzing them is a great way to figure out what you do well and what you need to work on. If you have 40 putts in a round and you shoot 75, then you realize I need to work on my putting.

PATRICK RODGERS (2011 U.S. Walker Cup Team Member): It's impossible to shoot an eighteen, which would be the perfect score but you're just always aspiring to shoot lower scores, to hit the ball better, to make more putts. It's just a never-ending challenge.

HICKS: Stroke by stroke it all adds up to that one final number, the score.

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