Competitive Golf 101: A guide for the curious

All golfers can experience the thrill of putting their skills to the test - not just pros and elite amateurs.
Premier courses, pristine conditions and pro-style infrastructure are available to golfers of all levels who want to play competitively.

Are you interested in taking the part of your life reserved for this great game to the next level? If so, I’ve got an idea for you: play in some golf tournaments.

The notion of competitive golf intimidates a lot of golfers. There’s a reason for this: our exposure to competitive golf comes in the form of the top-flight professional game, with occasional glimpses at elite amateur or college golf.

In other words, we’ve been conditioned to think competitive golf is only for really good players.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Competitive golf is for every golfer who thinks he or she might enjoy seeing how his or her own ability may stack up to those of fellow avid players.

Remember: this is true whether you’re a scratch golfer or whether you consider breaking 100 to be a success.

There are tons of opportunities for you to do more than just hit the ball around the course for fun. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but golf is a game after all, and that word implies some element of competition. Why not take part in it?

Still, if you’ve never played the game at any competitive level before, there are a few things you should know, but that list is shorter and much simpler than you’ve been led to believe.

Let me show you.

Step 1: Show Up

You’ve probably heard some variation of the phrase, “Half of life is just showing up.” It’s true in competitive golf, and it’s far easier than most think.

No matter where you play, there are opportunities to compete all around you, on a local, regional, national and even global scale. It all depends on the level of commitment you’re willing to make.

Not to be a broken record, but: you do not have to be that great a player to take advantage. The handicap system, plus the tendency of most golf tournaments to break down their fields by handicap, age and gender mean everybody is included.

Even more importantly, not all competitive golf events are the sort of high-pressure, hard-nosed affairs that we usually see on TV. Because we regular golfers are not playing for millions of dollars, the sort of amateur competition we do partake in has a great balance of fun mixed with just enough pressure to allow us to feel nervous over shots that matter. That alone is worth the effort it takes to seek out those opportunities.

Speaking of which: here’s a quick breakdown of where you can find them.

Local golf tournaments

The best place to start is your home course. Does it have a men’s or women’s golf association? Are there weekly open leagues you can join?

League golf tends to be 9 holes late one afternoon, with some sort of individual or team element, followed by drinks and maybe dinner in the clubhouse afterward. It’s a perfect way to dip your toe in the waters, because the competitive element of league play is just strong enough to provide topics of conversation and laughter during the aforementioned socializing. Ask your home course pro what the opportunities are.

Several 18-hole versions of this milder competitive setting exist, too. For example, on Saturday mornings, my home golf course hosts a weekly “blitz.” About $20 from each player goes into the pot, which is split between a Stableford quota game and a skins game. It’s just enough money to make players care about putting some birdies on the scorecard, and the Stableford element imposes a double bogey maximum (0 points) on any hole, so play always moves along nicely.

City and county championships often include flighted divisions with gross and net winners. They're serious for those who want serious, and fun for golfers who are out to enjoy the camaraderie as much as hard-nosed competition.

Moving up a level, look into your local county and/or city tournaments. In bigger cities, it may be a scratch tournament, but in suburban areas, courses will host annual tournaments with different flights broken out by age and scoring, with net and gross prizes. That creates more opportunities to grab a piece of the prizes.

And don't forget: even a best-ball match with your weekly foursome counts as competitive golf. There's no need to put more on the line than a couple bucks or a post-round drink because placing even a modest value on the shots you hit creates excitement and drama, which in my experience always makes a round more interesting. Plus, it'll sharpen all facets of your game, both mental and physical. If you feel like your game has been treading water lately, it could probably benefit from a competitive jolt.

State and regional competitive golf

Even though you may associate them primarily with scratch amateur events, chances are your state or regional golf association provides tons of opportunities for handicap golfers to compete in a low- to medium-intensity setting.

The best example of this? One-day golf tournaments, which several associations host throughout the season. These events tend to have reasonable fees, and several of them include opportunities to play private clubs.

Take the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP) and its Member Play Days, for example. The 2020 schedule includes opportunities to play private clubs like LedgeRock Golf Club (June 15), Llanerch Country Club (July 27) and the Gil Hanse-designed French Creek Golf Club (August 18).

One particularly intriguing GAP Member Play Day is June 15 at the 9-hole St. Martins Course at Philadelphia Cricket Club, which hosted the U.S. Open in 1907 and 1910, and cultivates a decidedly old-school vibe to this day. That outing starts at 5:30 pm and includes drinks and hors d’oeuvres after golf. All that’s required to be able to sign up is membership to the GAP via one of several area courses, including public ones and the Philadelphia Publinks Golf Association.

A view of hole #9 at St. Martin's Golf Course from Philadelphia Cricket Club (Evan Schiller)

Here are some links to other prominent golf associations’ similar event schedules:

Mass Golf
New York State Golf Association
Carolinas Golf Association
Georgia State Golf Association
Florida State Golf Association
Golf Association of Michigan
Chicago District Golf Association
Minnesota Golf Association
Texas State Golf Association
Northern California Golf Association
Southern California Golf Association

Don’t worry - if your home golf association isn’t listed above, chances are it still has its own list of one-day events that are perfect for the competitive-curious golfer.

National and global amateur golf tours and events

Who says golf tours are just for the pros?

Using a similar scheme, there are a bunch of independent golf tours that you can join, and take your game on the road. Once again, these organizations provide a level playing field for golfers of disparate abilities, so if you’re a bogey player, you’ll be among friends just as you would if you’re closer to scratch.

The Golfweek Amateur Tour also runs its own series of events, both local and more regional in scale, with its own Tour Championship held in October.

Another interesting version of this concept is City Tour, which runs team tournaments in and around several big American cities, building toward a national championship later in the year. It’s run by NextGenGolf, which also administrates non-varsity-level collegiate events.

Then there are several independent amateur events geared toward the handicap player. The Myrtle Beach World Amateur is the largest event of its kind, bringing together more than 3,000 golfers in more than 50 flights each year at the end of August. I’ve enjoyed playing in it twice, in 2014 and 2018.

For super high-rollers, there's even a World Amateur Tour, with tournaments in Dubai, Europe and Morocco, each with entry fees north of $6,000 that include on-site lodging.

Bottom line: if you have the will to test your golf game – no matter what you usually shoot – in competition, there are hundreds of avenues. You just need two small things…

Step 2: Keep Up

The first: a registered, honest handicap. There are several ways to get one that complies with the United States Golf Association or Royal & Ancient, depending on where you live. This year marks the beginning of a new era in handicapping, as these two golf institutions are operating off a shared system, the World Handicap System (WHS).

To obtain a valid handicap under this system, you have several options. Many golfers simply register with their home course, which typically costs between $25 and $45 per year (the USGA charges courses for hosting handicaps, so courses pass those costs on to players). There is also the option of registering with what the USGA calls an Allied Golf Association (e.g., your home state’s association). The cost is comparable there.

Then there are independent golf handicap services, such as TheGrint, which also offers game-tracking and social networking components. TheGrint used to be free, but with the advent of the World Handicap System, their handicapping service costs $19.99 per year, which is still at least a few dollars less than many other sources.

Whatever club or service you use, a USGA-compliant handicap will unlock a new world of golf possibilities for you.

The second thing you need in order to start enjoying competitive golf is a working understanding of the Rules of Golf. If you’re just coming to competitive golf now, you’ll have the benefit of bringing a clean slate with you in the wake of the moderate changes made to the Rules that took effect at the beginning of 2019.

In addition to the content of the Rules, the USGA modernized their presentation. The physical book, which fits easily in any golf bag, is great to have on hand to clear anything up, and for anyone with a smartphone, the redesigned app is free and essential. The USGA’s Rules Hub site also has further resources, including several videos to help give more visual learners a working understanding. This will help you avoid any penalties or awkward situations on the course in competitive scenarios. I know the Rules can seem complicated, but I promise you will be surprised how quickly you pick up on the most important principles.

One final consideration: possible winnings. The USGA is in the process of overhauling its Rules of Amateur Status, but you can read the current prevailing policy here.

Congratulations! Now you’re ready to test your golf game against other avid players.

Share your thoughts on competitive golf in the comments below!

3 Min Read
January 14, 2020
Join a fraternity that includes Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Join the GOLF Am Tour, the No. 1 tour in North America. GOLFPASS members get $50 off annual membership.

Updated 6/2/20, 08:07 AM: Removed Golf Channel Am Tour due to closure
Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
Commented on

I'm a member of the Golf Channel AM Tour and it's the best thing I've ever done for competitive golf. They do a great job keeping out the sandbaggers.

Only negative is the events can be a little expensive - $135-$200 here in California

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Commented on

At my golf club, Yarra Yarra in Melbourne, we have five competition days a week (every week of the year) for both men and women. At least 80% of these are Stableford events. The most popular scoring system by far, highly competitive and enjoyable. Golf without Stableford is unthinkable.
We play in fours, with club prizes for both singles and doubles (4BBB) and bets for a few dollars (to cover bar expenses) within the fours.
Competition golf, even at the club level, improves your game, provides a clear focus and enhances your knowledge of the rules. It also emphasises the importance of handicap and slope. Try it.

Commented on

Graeme, thanks for the rundown; color me envious of how closely competition is tied into everyday golf life in Australia. If the U.S. were even half that competitive, I think golf would be (even) stronger here.

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Commented on

Tim, Australians are very competitive across a wide range of sports, especially golf.

The Stableford scoring system is the most popular at club levels.

Our handicapping is based on converting all scores to Stableford scores and that method has been adopted by the new World Handicap System.

Dr Frank Stableford should be inducted into the WGHOF.

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Competitive Golf 101: A guide for the curious