Horse Race in Golf

Horse Race in Golf: It’s all About Survival

Some of my favorite moments on the golf course are playing in horse races.

If you’re like a lot of golfers, chances are you’re a little confused about what horse racing has to do with golf. But we’re not actually talking about horses on an actual race track, instead it’s a golf format that is utilized in certain events.

While you won’t see these types of tournaments on the PGA Tour, they’re very common in local events. Keep reading to learn more about this unique tournament format and learn why it’s unlike anything else in golf.

Horse Racing in Golf

I remember my first horse race like it was yesterday, even though it was in 2010. After the first day of a two-man event everyone was talking about signing up for the horse race. I had no clue what it meant but knew if I could play more golf, I was ready.

We each paid $20 and entered into the competition; it was explained to me that all groups would go out on the first hole and play holes 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9. On each hole a certain number of groups would be eliminated based on highest score until the winner was declared on the final hole (crossing the finish line). 

What no one told me was that all groups played the same hole at the same time (aka no tee times). That meant nearly 20 groups of two-man teams were on the same hole so it was a slow game; not to mention tons of people watching and driving in carts.

All in all, about 100 people were watching so the pressure was 10X normal but it was also 10X more fun. We only made it a few holes but I loved the challenge and thought it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on the golf course.

Horse Race Rules of Golf 

As illustrated in my story, a horse race (also known as a derby or shoot out) is nothing like a normal golf tournament. It’s typically not a tournament but a golf game that is used after the round is complete.

In a horse race, all groups go out on the same hole at the same time. This can be a solo event or a 2-man event using alternate shot format

In our case, it was an alternate shot so we strategize who should tee off on the hole. Then, if you make it to the next hole the other person tees off on even number holes. 

Groups were eliminated one by one and it depends on how many teams or people sign up. The tournament director will do the math and eliminate a certain number on each hole. 

For example, let’s say there are 10 teams playing a 5-hole loop. The first hole will lose three teams, the second hole will lose 2-3 teams, etc. So the final hole should only have 2-3 players or groups all playing for the lowest score.

If there are ties, there is typically a chipping or putting contest to advance to the next hole. In our event it was a chip off and other teams couldn’t watch to see how close it ended up to the hole. Then the tournament director would measure and the closest team(s) of golfers would move on.

Another big difference is that the team or person closest to the hole putts first unlike regular rules, which is opposite of normal golf. Finally, a winner is determined on the last hole via low score or chip off (or some might play extra holes).

The event might also pay out to second or third place as well. It’s usually an exciting finish as cash is on the line and a ton of people are watching. 

What is a Horse Race in Golf

Other Formats 

Additionally, it’s common for a horse race to happen after a full round of 18 holes. It’s usually an extension of the round, not the full round of golf itself.

However, there are some tournaments that are 100% horse race based. In these events, the horse race is the actual tournament; 19 golfers will tee off on the same hole and the player with the highest scores on the hole is eliminated. They do a chipping or putting contest if there is a high score tie while the remaining players advance.

After playing golf for 20+ years I can’t even imagine this type of event but it sounds very exciting… unless you get eliminated early.

Horse Race Golf Tournament Tips 

To play well and go home with the cash here are a few tips to make it to the second tee and beyond.

  • Mark your ballThere will be a ton of balls on the hole so make sure you have a noticeable mark to avoid hitting the wrong ball.
  • Plan ahead. If it’s a team event, strategize who should tee off on the first hole to set your team best up for success.
  • Work on your short game. There’s a good chance you’ll have to chip or putt yourself through a playoff if there are ties. Make sure to spend extra time on your short game practice that week! 
  • Keep breathing. It’s easy to get nervous with that many people watching you play golf. Go through your pre-shot routine, remember to keep breathing, and add in an extra breath to relax yourself between shots. 

FAQs About Horse Race Golf Event

Do you have more questions about a horse race and other golf tournament questions? If so, keep reading to learn more now.

What is a darby in golf?

A darby, also known as derby, is a unique format that happens after a round of golf. All players or teams pay cash to enter and all players tee off on the same hole. 

They play a small loop of holes and each hole a certain number of predetermined players/teams are eliminated by score (or by chip off). This continues until a winner is declared based on the lowest score on each hole. 

What golf app works with a derby?

If you’re running a full 18-hole tournament it’s best to use a golf app like Golf Genius. They make it easy to track the results and allow others to view online as well.

What is a horse race swing in golf?

Greg Norman described the golf swing as a sort of race horse but not every horse leaves at the same time. As he said on his website“In the takeaway, all your ‘horses’ – the arms, legs, hips, shoulders, and club – move away from the ball in a unified movement.

The first horses to reach the top of the swing are the knees and hips, followed by the shoulders (which in fact have had to rotate twice the distance). The arms, which have to go farther still, come next, followed by a complete cocking of the wrists as the weight of the clubhead – the last horse to reach the turn – gives a final downward tug.”

How does Calcutta work? 

A Calcutta is one of the most exciting parts of golf tournaments and they tend to happen at member-member or member-guest tournaments. Teams can be “bought” by others (or themselves) and play against odds to see how they will finish in the tournament.

It can mean big money if a team invests in themselves and wins. You can also diversify and invest in other teams as well.

Click here to learn more about a Calcutta in golf.

Final Thoughts on Horse Race Golf Tournament Format

While it’s not like being at the Kentucky Derby, playing nine holes (or more) paired with chipping and a putting contest make it incredibly fun.

A horse race is a unique tournament format and one of the reasons that makes golf so great. There are so many ways to play this amazing game on different golf courses; from traditional stroke play, match playStableford, and countless other formats. Not to mention endless gambling games as well.

If you ever get a chance to play in a horse race golf event, I highly suggest entering. It’s worth the extra money and can pay off big time if you can deliver in a clutch moment. Plus, it’s something else to see that many golfers and gallery members on one hole.

Picture of Michael Leonard

Michael Leonard

Michael is an avid golfer of 25 years who played in high school, college, and now competes in Arizona amateur events. He is a full-time writer, podcast host of Wicked Smart Golf, and mental golf coach.