One of the main attractions of golf is the wide variety of playing options it offers.
It’s one of the very few games which can be played enjoyably by a solitary individual, while groups of friends can play a purely social game, perhaps not even keeping score unless they want to.
For the more competitively minded, golf’s unique handicapping system allows men, women and juniors of all ages and abilities to compete on level terms at stroke or match play as they choose. Even if you have a hard time breaking 100, with golf's handicapping system you have a chance to compete with better players.
So for many golfers the beautiful surroundings of the course, the camaraderie or the physical and technical challenges of the game provide reward enough in themselves.
But there have always been those who like to add spice to their game by introducing an element of gambling.
For many golfers the beautiful surroundings of the course, the camaraderie of the game provide reward enough in themselves. But there have always been those who like to add spice to their game by introducing an element of gambling.
This can be achieved most simply by placing side bets on the result of a conventional stroke play, match play or Stableford contest. But golfers are nothing if not creative, and over the long history of the game have devised a wide variety of stand-alone and add-on gambling games.
They’re not to everyone’s taste, but if you play the game for any length of time the day is certain to come when you’ll be asked if you want to risk a few dollars, so it’s as well to know about some of the better known games.
1. The Nassau
Origins of the Nassau
The $2 or $5 Nassau is probably the best known of all.
But the original Nassau had nothing to do with gambling. It takes its name from the Nassau Country Club of Glen Cove, Long Island, one of a number of similar establishments founded and frequented by wealthy industrialists of the late nineteenth century.
Matches between these clubs were keenly contested and often reported in the newspapers of the day, much to the embarrassment of those prominent individuals who found themselves on the wrong end of heavy defeats. The Nassau Captain, J B Coles Tappan, so the story goes, therefore devised a format whose most decisive possible result could not be reported as any worse than a 3-0 defeat.
Even the most notorious of today’s captains of industry or finance are unlikely to be concerned about their matches being reported in the papers. But with the addition of the gambling element, the Nassau format nevertheless remains hugely popular.
How to Play the Nassau
The classic Nassau is really three separate bets on three separate contests, which are played over the front nine, the back nine and the full 18 holes. For this reason the $2 Nassau is sometimes also known as a 2-2-2.
The Nassau format can be applied to any system of golf scoring, but match play is the most commonly used. Individual players or teams contest each hole, applying their handicap strokes in the normal way, the winner of each hole scoring a point.
Interest can be added to the traditional Nassau by the inclusion of the optional variation known as “pressing”.
This allows a player or team that is 2 or more holes down during a nine hole segment to press – that is to start a new bet of the same value as the original.
For example, if a team was 2 holes (points) behind after 5 holes of the front 9 of a $2 Nassau they would have the option to bet another $2 on the outcome of the remaining 4 holes.
If the press is accepted, and they win the new bet, they will wipe out the potential loss arising from the front 9 match. But of course, if they lose the new bet they will double their overall loss.
Remember, too, that if the team that was leading finds itself behind in the press bet, and if enough holes remain, it may demand a new press of its own.
Pressing therefore gets more interesting as the end of each nine holes approaches, potentially turning the ninth or eighteenth effectively into “double or quits” holes.
In some golfing circles it is regarded almost as an element of correct etiquette for the leading team to accept a press.
But this may be made either mandatory or optional as the participants wish, or pressing may be excluded from the game altogether. All that really matters for the sake of harmony is that the rules are discussed and agreed by all the players before the match begins.
There are different accounts, of varying degrees of plausibility, which purport to explain the origin of the term “Skins”. The USGA notes that Skins are also known in various parts of the US as “scats”, “cats” or “syndicates” and suggests that the latter term is the likely origin of all these variations.
But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “skin” is simply a slang term for a dollar.
This at least gives some clue as to how Skins is played, as a dollar is a common stake amount in the game, but whatever the origins of the name, Skins is now probably second only to the Nassau as the most popular golf gambling game.
Between 1983 and 2008 an unofficial televised Skins game was recognized by the PGA and played by four invited tour pros, most recently at the Indian Wells club in California, for mind-boggling sums of money.
Gary Player defeated Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in the first event, where winnings were a mere $170,000, but in 2001 Greg Norman walked away with a full $1,000,000.
Such was Fred Couples’s proficiency at the game that he became known as “Mr. Skins” and amassed a less than shabby total of $3,515,000 from just 11 outings.
No such sums are remotely available to the average amateur, of course, but an informal Skins game can still add a frisson of financial excitement to an otherwise routine round of golf.
How to Play Skins
One of the beauties of Skins is its great flexibility.
It can be played by any number of individuals or teams; or even by a whole group outing or tournament.
First, a point or dollar value of the skin is assigned to each hole. This may be the same for each hole or, to liven things up even more, values may be gradually increased as the round progresses.
For example, holes 1-6 = 1; holes 7-12 = 2; holes 13-18 = 3 etc.
If values are to be the same throughout, each player will contribute a set amount for each hole. If they are to vary, the contribution will be calculated simply by dividing the total points to be played for by the number of players or teams participating.
Generally the format will be match play and the player or team with the lowest score for a hole will win the points or dollars allocated to that hole.
But of course, the more participants there are, the more likely it is that nobody will win a hole outright.
If One Ties, Everyone Ties
When this happen the usual practice is to apply the “one tie, all tie rule”, so that if two players score pars and the third and fourth players score worse, the hole is nevertheless tied. In other words, someone has to win the hole outright and the player with the high score for the hole does not necessarily lose it.
When a hole is tied in this way its value is generally carried over to the next, but this is something that needs to be agreed between all the players before the game begins.
As with the Nassau, some variations of Skins allow for pressing, or “pushing”, by the player or team behind in the match, but again this is something that needs to be agreed upon at the outset.
Playing “carry over” Skins allows the prize at stake to mount up considerably if a number of consecutive holes are tied, which is a great way to maintain players’ interest as the round goes on.
Another beauty of the carry over is that it allows players who are otherwise having a poor or indifferent round to cash in if their one “shot of the day” happens to come after a run of tied holes.
However, some versions of Skins include what some might regard as a spoilsport rule requiring the winner of a carry over skin to “validate” the win by also winning the next hole. Again, for the avoidance of perhaps heated debate, this is something that needs to be clearly established before the game begins
Extra excitement can be generated by the introduction of side Skin prizes for birdies, longest drives, par saves and almost any other eventuality that golf offers.
All Skins are then calculated and paid out at the end of the round. The beauty in Skins is that one good hole could take all the money.
As the name suggests Vegas is a game strictly for those comfortable with the idea of risking, and losing, their shirts, and perhaps much else besides.
It is a game for teams of two which has a unique and ingenious scoring system.
How to play Vegas
The score for each team on a hole is arrived at by combining the scores of the team members – but not in the way you might expect. If both players in a team score 4, the score for the team is not 8 but 44. If one scores 3 and the other 5, the team score is 35 and so on, the lower of the two scores always being placed first.
This scoring system clearly allows for some startling margins to open up. So in our example, although both teams had an aggregate score of 8, the second team would win the hole by 44 – 35 = 9. It would only need the players from the first team to miss short putts and both take 5, and the margin would become 20.
As a minor concession to the more cautious gambler, if one member of a team hits double figures the normal placement of the scores is reversed, so that for example if the players shoot 4 and 10, their score is 104 not 410.
But if both players hit double figures . . . ., well, let’s not think about it!
At a dollar a point, you can see how losses can mount alarmingly as the game progresses, but of course you can agree to play for quarters, dimes, nickels or anything else a point as you wish.
It’s nevertheless probably wise to agree a cap on total losses before beginning.
Still, the unusual scoring system should be at the forefront of your mind if you're ever asked if you fancy playing Vegas. You’re probably not being offered a run at Caesars Palace.
Wolf is a lesser known game, but as well as adding an enjoyable extra dimension to a traditional fourball, it’s also a great way for players to build confidence under pressure.
How to play Wolf
This is a game for four individuals who take it in turns to be the Wolf for a hole. This order of play is determined on the first tee and remains throughout the round; but the Wolf is always the last to hit their tee shot.
When all four players have hit their first shot the Wolf for that hole must decide whether to select another player to be his team mate or to continue playing the hole as a “Lone Wolf”.
The incentive to do this is that by winning the hole a Lone Wolf can capture 4 points; but if the Wolf wins with a partner both will earn just two.
If the Wolf and his partner lose the hole, the other team get 3 points each. If any other player beats a Lone Wolf, each player receives a point except the Lone Wolf.
The object of the game is to score the most points during the round, gambling on the outcome as desired. And the best way to do this of course is to win holes as a Lone Wolf when you have the opportunity.
It takes confidence and a cool nerve to do this, but fans of the game cite the opportunity to develop these qualities as a great reason for playing it.
An elegant variation, which requires even more confidence in your game, is so called “Blind Wolf”, which allows the Wolf to decide to be a Lone Wolf even before any shots have been hit.
5. Sixes (aka “Six-Six-Six”, “Hollywood” or “Round Robin”)
This is another game for four, but with a difference.
As the name(s) suggests, the idea is that players rotate partners every six holes so that a round consists of three separate six hole matches.
Sixes is generally played in a matchplay, better ball, format. Bets can be placed on the outcome of each match and on the aggregate of the three; each player aiming to be on the winning side in at least two of the three matches.
6. Bingo, Bango, Bongo!
This is an imaginative game which is great for allowing weaker players and even beginners an opportunity to take points and dollars from more experienced competitors.
Points are scored on each hole as follows –
Bingo – the first player to hit the green, whether in regulation or not
Bango – the player closest to the pin after all balls are on the green
Bongo – the first player to get the ball into the cup
With so many point scoring opportunities, the game can generate considerable enthusiasm. But more introverted players should be reassured that it is not necessary, or at more exclusive clubs even permissible, to shout out the words themselves.
The great thing about this game is that the total score on a hole is irrelevant to the winning of points. So that players with a weaker tee to green game can still compete.
Even if they take two or more shots over regulation to get to the green, it doesn’t matter. If their final shot to the green is just a short chip shot, they may still have a good chance of being closest to the pin and scoring Bango.
Likewise, any player may from time to time see a longish putt drop in and score Bongo.
For this reason, the game is a popular choice for association and society golf days, but it can of course also be played alongside more conventional stroke and match play formats if desired.
Rabbit is a sort of variation of the childhood game of “It” or “Tag”, and can be played by 2 or 4 golfers.
The rules are simple. The first player to win a hole captures (or becomes) the “Rabbit” and remains holder until another player wins a hole outright.
When this happens the Rabbit is either set free until any player wins a subsequent hole, or is immediately replaced.
The object of the game is to be the Rabbit after the 9th and/or 18th holes, when the pre-determined bets are paid out.
8. Nines or 5-3-1
This is unusual in being a game devised specifically for three players.
Nine points are played for on each hole and five of those are awarded to the outright winner. If there is a clear second place player, he gets three points and the final player gets one.
If there is a tie for first place, the points are split four–four-one; in the event of a tie for second, the split is five-two-two. For a three way tie, each player receives three points.
The total points gained by each player are tallied up at the end of the round to decide the winner of the pre-determined payout.
9. The Dot Game (aka Garbage, Junk or Trash)
This is not so much a game in its own right, but a way of describing a number of minor or side bets which can be added to any conventional golfing contest or to the games described above.
The almost infinite variety of situations offered by a round of golf is faithfully reflected in the diversity of such side wagers which are possible.
These may be simple and obvious, such as points or dollars won for birdie, eagle, albatross, longest drive or closest to the pin (on par 3 holes). Points can also be lost for bogey, double bogey, out of bounds etc
But many more bets have been devised, and perhaps made more appealing by the creative and intriguing names by which they are known.
Here are just a few examples –
- Green hit in regulation – “Greeny”
- Par save from sand – “Sandy”
- Par save after hitting tree(s) – “Barky”
- Par save from water – “Fishy”
- Holing out from off the green – “Chippy”
As another variation these bets can be made mandatory or optional – that’s to say the player finding himself in a trouble spot may call the bet, winning or losing a point depending upon whether he saves par or not.
10. Badges or Animals
Regular meet-up groups can also add greatly to their fun, as well as building up a wealth of back stories to perplex newcomers, by awarding badges or prizes of their own devising, at a dollar cost, for various “achievements”.
So the last player to three putt might be awarded the “:Snake” badge; the last to visit the sand gets the “Camel”, with the chance to mutate into a Crab by managing to hit directly into another trap. The last to hit into water gets the “Fish”, while the last to hit a tree gets the “Squirrel”.
An almost infinite variety of forfeits have also been devised to penalize other errors such as hitting out of bounds, hitting houses and even air shots.
As surprising as it may seem, even this list describes just a few of the many golf gambling games which have been devised and played during the game’s long history.
But in case you get the impression that all golfers are inveterate gamblers, addicted to risking large sums on essentially random events, remember that many of these games are in reality no more than imaginative scoring systems.
The best of them allow weaker players to enjoy an element of competition and level the playing field in ways which the conventional handicapping system does not always achieve.
And of course, there is no need for any of these games to be played for high stakes. Wagers can be golf balls, drinks, mildly embarrassing forfeits or there may be no bets at all if the players prefer.
All that really matters is that all participants are comfortable with both the game and the stakes they are playing for.