One of the best golf purchases I've ever made was a brief anthology of golf writings by John Updike, called Golf Dreams. It was $6.20 well spent (used, via Amazon).
Updike's essays and reprinted magazine pieces, mixed with great short stories like "Farrell's Caddie," make it both entertaining reading but also insightful commentary from someone who thought and felt deeply about human interaction and how it plays out on the golf course.
One thing that stands out about Golf Dreams is how in many general essays about golf, Updike writes about the game within the context of casual but competitive play. Most often, a weekly match at the local course between four friends was the backdrop for his keen observations.
Though Updike was never an accomplished player, it did not stop him from relishing the game's competitive aspects, especially how under the handicap system, he wrote, "all players are theoretically equalized and an underdog can become, with a small shift of fortunes, a top dog."
The little dramas that drew Updike to golf seem to have declined in recent years. Local tournaments are less popular than they used to be. Even regular foursomes don't seem to play little matches like they used to, whether for a few dollars a side, a beer or just bragging rights. I even tend to have trouble striking up a token game among fellow golf writers at various get-togethers.
This competitive apathy has put some strain on the game. If people have nothing to play for, even among friends, there's less incentive to play better or smarter. Lo and behold, this causes reckless play, lost golf balls and slower rounds. Even people playing for nothing seem skittish about raking back four-foot putts. Why?
In fact, it's becoming a stretch to even call golf a "game" for many players anymore. It's more of an activity for them. If there are no consequences for the shots you hit in a round, are you playing golf, or simply "doing" golf?
If you actually enjoy the competitive possibilities golf holds, or are interested in transitioning from a recreational to at least a casually competitive player, here are my five favorite golf gambling games. Most of them are relatively simple, and I think they are your best options.
Be sure to let me know how you would rank these golf gambling games in the comments below...
Nassau (four-balls or singles)
The G.O.A.T. golf gambling game is the best because it is simple, with the option to be complicated by willing participants. Nassaus are match-play affairs, with a set prize for the front nine, back nine and overall 18. What I like about it is that the potential won/lost amount is pretty clear from the outset, though presses (usually when a nine or the match is closed out) can inject a little volatility.
If no one is trying to soak anyone else, a Nassau is the perfect competitive golf platform beyond just a singular whole-round match. There's a chance to dominate or stage a late rally to stave off the indignity of reaching into your pocket - even for a couple dollars - when the round is over.
6-6-6 (4 players)
One great game for a foursome to play involves switching partners throughout the round, turning an 18-hole outing into three six-hole matches. The normal rotation (if in carts) is to go cart-vs-cart for the first match, drivers-vs-riders and driver/rider-vs-driver/rider.
This can be fun because the changes in partnerships mean changes in dynamics from one stage of the round to the next. One dominant player can really clean up, while someone who struggles all day and is an albatross around the neck of all three partners can lose multiple ways.
Skins (any number of players)
Popularized in the 90s back when off-season pro events offered enough money to be truly enticing, skins is a fun way to reward aggressive play. Whoever makes the lowest score alone on a hole wins a set ante from all players for that particular hole, plus the pot(s) from any prior hole(s) on which there was not a clear winner.
Carry-overs can make single-group skins games particularly exciting in the late stages of a round. Loyalties can shift from hole to hole and no one wants to get blanked.
Skins games can be trickier if your group is larger and has a wide variety of abilities. Mobile scoring apps that factor in each player's stroke index can help, including the Golf Genius Trip Manager, which automatically gives strokes to golfers and scores payouts.
9-point game (3 players)
This is the three-golfer game, in my opinion. Nine points are up for grabs on each hole, and whoever accrues the most points over the course of the round wins. You can play for a certain amount per point, or just stipulate that the bottom point-earner pays the winner a set amount. Points can be allocated on a given hole as follows:
- All three players make different scores on a hole (e.g. birdie, par, bogey): 5-3-1
- Two players tie for low score: 4-4-1
- Two players tie for high score: 5-2-2
- All three players make same score: 3-3-3
Wolf (usually 4 players)
Wolf sounds complicated, but it's easy to get the hang of and a lot of fun to play, as long as there's at least one diligent scorekeeper in the group. The most important points of the basic Wolf game: there is an established order of who hits first off a given tee (i.e. no honors for winning the previous hole) and "dots" - units allocated to the winner of a given hole - are worth a set amount.
Player A hits a tee shot and, after players B, C and D hit, has the option to select one as his or her partner for the hole. Win the hole, win the dots each opponent has put up.
However, the leadoff player may only choose the player who has hit a tee shot most recently, meaning that once player C has teed off, player A cannot partner with player B anymore. This injects some strategy into every tee shot.
If player A is feeling up to it, he or she can choose no one from the group for a partner and go "Lone Wolf" for the hole, playing 1-vs.-3, which is a big-risk-big-reward proposition. Win a hole as Lone Wolf and you get three dots. Lose that hole and you triple your downside.
A couple wrinkles I have played with:
- Players B, C or D on a given tee, once asked to partner with player A, can decline and make themselves Lone Wolf for the hole.
- Each player must go Lone Wolf on at least one hole during the round.
Wolf is a lot of fun in fivesomes, because almost every hole is a 3-vs.-2 match, and Lone Wolf scenarios can be especially lucrative (or disastrous).
What's more, a lot of variations and "junk" can be added to Wolf to make every hole - or even every shot - more volatile. New-media golf troupe No Laying Up popularized a complicated but undoubtedly thrilling variant called Wolf Hammer, which they learned from members of Greenville (S.C.) Country Club.