If you’re like most golfers, you love gambling as much as the great game of golf itself. Gambling and golf go together like peanut butter and jelly; a match made in heaven.
It’s also one of the very few sports which is enjoyable to play by yourself when you need to disconnect from the world and with friends or with complete strangers. When playing in groups, you can make it a fun social outing more focused on having a good time or you can get competitive play for cash.
For the more competitively minded player, the sport has a unique handicapping system that allows men, women, and juniors of all ages and abilities to compete on level terms at stroke or match play if you want. Even if you have a hard time breaking 100, with golf’s handicapping system, you have a chance to compete with players of all skill levels.
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.
And when it comes to gambling during the round, you can do it in so many different ways. Golfers are nothing, if not creative, and over the long history of the game, have found a way to make this great game even more enjoyable by upping the stakes. Making a slippery three-footer on the final hole is tough but when money is involved, it’s even more challenging.
To help you increase the fun (and pressure), I wanted to create a list of golf betting games to find the right one for your group.
1. The Nassau
Origins of the Nassau
The $2 or $5 Nassau is probably one of the most fun and easiest way to golf when betting with friends.
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 is 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 for bragging rights.
How to Play 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 over stroke play. Individual players or teams contest each hole, applying their handicap strokes in the normal way, the winner of each hole scoring a point.
- Payouts will change based on pressing (below).
You can up the stakes with the traditional Nassau game by the inclusion of the optional variation known as “pressing”. This allows a player or team that is two 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. Essentially, the bet doubles.
For example, if a team was two holes (points) behind after 5 holes on the front nine of a $2 Nassau, they would have the option to bet another $2 on the outcome of the remaining four holes. If the press is accepted, and they win the new bet, they will wipe out the potential loss arising from the front 9 matches. But of course, if they lose the new bet, they will double their overall loss.
Remember 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 9th hole or 18th hole 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’ 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
- Have each member in the groups contribute a certain amount before anyone hits their tee shot
- Decide if its net or gross scoring. Have someone keep score for each player (without cheating) and make sure everyone putts everything out.
- Compare scores at the end of the round and determine the skin payout. If there is only one skin, the player gets it all. If there are two, you can divide equally or based on your scoring system.
One of the beauties of skins is its great flexibility as long as you have someone to keep track of it all. 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 for how much each hole is worth. This may be the same for each hole or, to liven things up, even more, values can gradually increase 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 is match play and the player or team with the lowest score for a hole will win the points or dollars allocated to that hole. The more participants there are, the more likely it is that nobody will win a hole outright. But the pot also gets bigger so if you win one hole you can win a lot of money!
If One Ties, Everyone Ties
When this happens, the usual practice is to apply the “one tie, all tie rule”, so that if both 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 hole, 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 carryover is that it allows players who are otherwise having a poor or indifferent round to cash in if their one “shot of the day” that 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 carryover skin to “validate” the win by also winning the following 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 risk and losing more than just golf balls. It is a game for teams of two players which has a unique and ingenious scoring system.
How to Play Vegas
- Determine who is on the two teams
- Determine payout amounts per point
- Use the scoring system below
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 big margins to open up. So in our example, although both teams had an aggregate score of 8, the second team would win 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 on 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
- Flip a tee to see who is the wolf for the first hole.
- Determine payout amounts.
- Stick to the rules below for the other 3 players.
This is a game for four individuals who take turns to be the Wolf for a hole. This order of play is determined on the first tee box and remains throughout the round, but the Wolf is always the last to hit their tee ball.
When all four players have hit their first shot, the Wolf for that hole must decide whether to continue with another player to be his teammate or to choose to “go Lone Wolf”. The incentive to do this is that by winning the hole a Lone Wolf (1 vs. 3) 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 gets 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. 6-6-6 (Sixes)
Another game is 6-6-6 (aka “Six-Six-Six”, “Hollywood” or “Round Robin”) which is a favorite for golfers worldwide. This only works with four players but it is a lot of fun as it keeps you invested in every hole, especially those middle six where some golfers can tune out.
How to Play 6-6-6
- 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. On the first hole, flip a tee to see who is your partner for the first six holes.
- For the first six, you and your partner are against the other two guys.
- After six holes, you switch to the next. And the final six holes you switch to the last guy in the group.
- Sixes is a format generally played in a matchplay, better ball, format. You can also play gross or net depending on each player’s handicap.
Bets can be placed on the outcome of each match and on the aggregate of the three. Each player Is aiming to be on the winning side in at least two of the three matches. If you lose all three matches, it can usually get expensive!
6. Bingo, Bango, Bongo!
This is an imaginative game that 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. This helps players with a weaker tee to the 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 days, but it can 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 two players or four players. The rules for this game are simple which is nice because some of the most popular ones require a lot of math and post-round calculations.
How to Play Rabbit
- 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. 9-Point Game
As you can tell, most of these betting methods are geared toward two or four players. But the 9-point game is unusual as it’s specifically devised specifically for three players. Another awesome point with this game is that it’s easy, there aren’t carryovers and it doesn’t require much thinking to tally up the results.
How to Play 9-Point Game
- Nine points are played for on each hole and five of them 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.
This three-player game is also known as nines or the 5-3-1 method as well.
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 all the other games. The dot game is a way to keep track of all the action Iike a bookie in Vegas.
These may be simple and obvious, such as points or dollars won for birdie, eagle, longest drive, sand saves, 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 of some dots:
- 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”
- Closest to the flag
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. Quota System
Another fun way to keep your betting interesting is the quota system. It’s a great system for any size group, as long as each player has a legitimate handicap.
This system features a set amount of money you can win before heading to the first box. It’s also a lot of fun as you can mix up the points for each score depending on the groups as well.
How to Bet with the Quota System
- Each player takes their handicap and subtracts that number from 36. This number becomes the point quota they have to make during a round. Here’s how it works, typical scoring for a mid-handicap set of players would be 1 point for a bogey, 2 points for a par, 4 points for a birdie and 8 points for an eagle. You can adjust them as you wish.
- The player who tallies up the most points above their quota wins a predetermined pot. Make sure to decide this amount before teeing off!
- If no one finishes above their given quota, you can do a tiebreaker (such as extra holes) or choose to carry it over to the next round if it’s a regular pairing.
I love this game because it rewards consistent play with pars and really rewards if you make birdies or even an eagle. Plus, the rules are simple!
More Golf Betting Games
With so many interesting ways to play golf, why stop at just 10?
Are you looking for a betting game that emphasizes putting more than the total score? Then look no further than the game called “snake.”
With this game, the word “gimmies” doesn’t exist. That’s right, no dragging three-footers anymore. So if you’re ready to putt for money, here’s how to get started.
How to Play Snake
- Specify a specific amount of money that each player will contribute to the pot if someone three-putts (must be on the green to count as a three jack).
- Anytime a player three-putts, the pre-determined amount is added to the pot. This money keeps accruing during the round.
- The last person to three-putt has to pay each of the other players the amount in the pot. Yikes!
- (Optional): While this can be a harsh penalty, you can also switch the format so that the person with the most three-putts pays instead.
To make it interesting, you can also create a progression system so three putts later in the round cost more money. For example, let’s say the first three-putt only costs a dollar but doubles each time. If you keep doubling, this can add up!
As you do have to putt everything out to make this game work, I suggest doing when it’s not a busy and already slow weekend time. Also, make sure the pot amounts and rules are clear before teeing off so everyone is on the same page.
But if you’re confident in your putting and tired of seeing guys in your foursome drag seemingly every short putt, this is a great way to keep them honest. Lastly, the cool part about “Snake” is that you can pair it with other games as this game only factors in on the greens.
If you’re playing as a twosome or a foursome (sorry three players) this game is a ton of fun. It’s a 1:1 or 2:2 format where you set a pot for each hole (ex. $5 per hole). Here’s how to play.
How to Play Hammer
- At any point to begin the match, one player or team can “hammer” the other. The opposing team has a choice, fold (which means lose and end the hole). Or, the pot for the hole doubles.
- For example, let’s say that one team hits the first tee shot behind a tree while team two stripes one down the fairway. In this case, team two would hammer the bet to $10. Team one must choose.
- If they do accept the challenge and keep the hole going, they can even hammer again. Doubling the already doubled bet. Back-and-forth it goes during the round.
As you can tell, this game can get spendy and you can lose a lot of money if you’re not careful (or you can win a lot as well). If you’re the type of group that is going to be “hammering” a lot, I suggest starting with a smaller pot to make it more interesting.
13. Badges or Animals
If you have a regular foursome, it can make gambling and golfing even more fun. You can award badges or prizes of their own devising, at a dollar cost, for various “achievements”.
For example, the last player to three-putt might be awarded the “Snake” badge” – the last golfer 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 the 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 with every game mentioned, make sure the rules and payouts are clear for any newcomers as well. There isn’t much worse than having to pay a tab and not even sure how it happened!
14. Bounce Back
Another favorite but simple game is known as “Bounce Back.” This game is all about rewarding people who are tenacious during tough rounds where they might already lose big.
How to Play Bounce Back
- Depending on your group’s skill level, you can do this with bogeys and above or double bogeys and above. Essentially, you get rewarded for coming back strong after a bad hole.
- For example, let’s say you make a double bogey on the 3rd hole but make a par on the 4th hole. You would then get a pre-determined amount.
- Any player that makes back to back bogeys (or doubles, depending on which you select), you lose the same amount as well.
- You can also reward more for a birdie than a par as well.
This is more of a side betting game that pairs along with some of the others on this list.
15. Let It Ride
If you’re more a gambler than a golfer, “Let it Ride” is one of the best golf betting games out there. This betting system is ideal for hardcore gamblers who are ready to win big (or lose big). Here’s how it works.
How to Play “Let It Ride”
- Get your calculators out because this is a points game. Step one is determining your point system. A typical point distribution would be something like 5 for a bogey, 15 for a par, 30 for a birdie and 60 for an eagle (lower handicap groups can start with par as the first point-eligible score). You can also reward zero for bogeys if you choose.
- After earning points on a hole, each player has the option of banking the amount or “letting it ride.” Think about when you’re hitting the tables in blackjack. If you win the hand, you can take your earnings and put them in your pocket (aka the bank) or add it to your existing bet and let it ride. The point totals double for every hole that they aren’t banked. For example, a par would be worth 30 and a birdie would be worth 60 and so on.
- But, 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. If you bank them, they can’t be taken away and are credited after 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.
Overall, this is a great game for golfers who have a lot of ups and downs and also those who just love gambling on the links. When you break it down, it gets pretty fun too.
Think about it like this; if you make back-to-back birdies without banking, you will have earned the equivalent of making 18 bogeys earned at 5 points each.
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. Click here to read about more different types of golf games.
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 allows 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. You can bet a sleeve of 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. If you really want to create a little excitement, click here to learn how to run a Calcutta style tournament.