Back in 2007, I wrote Golf Digest's Complete Book of Golf Betting Games. Since then, friends, family, even perfect strangers have stopped me on countless occasions to share their "perfect" golf-gambling game. In short, if the game works for you and your group, it's a perfect game. However, if you struggle on the first tee to think of a fun game to play for the next 18 holes, here are my 10 favorites.
PERFECT FOR: Golfers who routinely struggle with a specific hole
DESCRIPTION: Instead of the scorecard mandating where handicap strokes are given, a player can use his or her handicap strokes on any hole until they run out. A maximum of two strokes can be used on any one hole. The only catch is that the handicap stroke (or two) has to be declared before the tee shot on that hole. The player with the low-net score wins the pot. This game is great because, if there are holes on your course where you routinely struggle, you can use your strokes on those holes to avoid a big score.
PERFECT FOR: Threesomes
DESCRIPTION: It's tough to find good games for three players but this one might be the best. There are a total of nine points available on each hole (a point has a predetermined dollar amount). The player with the low score on a hole gets five points. The player with the second-lowest score gets three. And the worst score on a hole gets one. If there are ties, you simply divide the points by the number of players tied. For example, two players tie for the best score on a hole. That means they split the first- and second-place points (5+3/2=4 apiece).
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PERFECT FOR: Golfers who like to keep it simple and fair
DESCRIPTION: The problem with the popular gambling game called a "nassau" is that winning the 18-hole match is often undervalued. If the front, back and 18 are equal in the amount wagered, that means a golfer or team could conceivably win the first 10 holes, and halve all but two of the remaining and win only a third of the amount wagered. Hardly fair. With a closeout, the 18-hole match is worth a set amount and once it's decided, a second match on the remaining holes begins for half the original amount. It reduces the odds of a lackluster payout for really solid play. But the real beauty of this game is that it's simple to keep track of the match.
PERFECT FOR: A group of any size with legitimate Handicap Indexes
DESCRIPTION: Each player takes his or her course handicap, then substracts that number from 36 and that becomes the point quota they have to make during a round. Typical scoring for a mid-handicap group would be 1 point for a bogey, 2 points for a par, 4 for a birdie and 8 for an eagle (points can be adjusted in any way). The player with the most points above their quota wins a predetermined pot. If no one finishes above their quota, you can roll the pot into the next round or decide it by some kind of tiebreaker. I've always liked this game because pars and birdies are worth so much more to average golfers than just being one shot better than a bogey.
5. STRIKE THREE
PERFECT FOR: Mid-to-high handicap groups
DESCRIPTION: At the end of a round, each player gets to throw out his or her score on three holes and then the best 15-hole score wins the pot. This is a great game for mid-to-high handicappers because it keeps everyone involved much deeper into the round, especially if a player or two had a couple of "blow-up" holes along the way.
PERFECT FOR: Learning how to putt better in the clutch
DESCRIPTION: You know those three-footers that your group always swats away as "gimmes?" You can't do that with this game. You have to putt them out. And any time a player three-putts or worse (the ball has to be on the green for the first putt), a specific amount is added to a pot. That money keeps accruing during the round and the last person to three-putt has to pay the other players the amount in the pot. There are many variations of this game including a progressive version where the pot amount starts at a dime and doubles each time someone three-putts. Another version makes the person with the most three-putts pay. It's recommended to play this game when the course isn't crowded because it can slow things down. However, it's a great game to learn how to make short putts and not take other putts for granted.
7. BOUNCE BACK
PERFECT FOR: Shaking off bad holes
DESCRIPTION: Among the many side bets, this one is my favorite because it rewards players who don't give up. Essentially, any time a player follows up a double bogey or worse with a par or better on the next hole, they win a point (dollar value determined in advance by your group). Any time a player makes back-to-back double bogeys or worse, they lose a point.
8. LET IT RIDE
PERFECT FOR: Hardcore gamblers
DESCRIPTION: Players earn points for making a bogey or better on a hole. A typical point distribution would be 5 for a bogey, 15 for a par, 30 for a birdie and 60 for an eagle (better groups can start with par as the first point-eligible score). After earning points on a hole, the player has the option of banking the amount or "letting it ride," meaning the point total can still grow on subsequent holes. The point totals double for every hole that they aren't banked. So a bogey on a second consecutive hole would now be worth 10 and a par would be worth 30 and so on. However, if a player elects to let his or her points ride and a double bogey or worse is made, the player's total points not banked goes back to zero. Banked points can't be taken away and are credited at the end of the round. The players with the highest point totals are paid a predetermined amount for every point they have earned in relation to the other players. This is a great game for golfers who are streaky and also for golfers who love to gamble. Think about it: If you make back-to-back birdies without banking, you'll have earned the equivalent of making 18 bogeys earned at 5 points each.
9. PICK-UP STICKS (BAG RAID)
PERFECT FOR: Twosomes or foursomes looking to break up the monotony of their usual games.
DESCRIPTION: This is a standard match-play competition with a little twist. When a golfer or team wins a hole, they "remove" a club from the opponent or opponents' bags. That means the other team can't use that club for the rest of the round. This continues until the match is decided. A variation of this game allows a team to reinstall clubs to their set if someone on the team makes net birdie or better to win a hole. Things can get really creative and shotmaking becomes a bigger part of the round when certain clubs are eliminated. Obviously, the putter should be first to go.
PERFECT FOR: Improving shot selection and course strategy
DESCRIPTION: Instead of rewarding players for good play, golfers are given points for their mistakes. The players with the lowest point totals are paid a predetermined amount for every point less they have in relation to the other competitors. This can be a side-bet game or the group's main wager. A common point allocation: Hitting a ball in a bunker (1); Hitting into the water (2). Hitting out-of-bounds (3). Three-putting (1). Four-putting (4). Duffing a tee shot (1). Points can also be subtracted for stellar play such as making birdies, holing long putts or stiffing shots from off the green, etc. This is a great game to learn course management and how to stop taking unnecessary risks.