One of the things I love about playing in Great Britain and Ireland is that they don't exactly cotton to stroke play in casual rounds. If you think about it, that really makes sense. Bad weather and difficult links courses lend themselves to humiliation when adding up scores. Making a 10 on a hole with two lost balls is demoralizing, but if you're playing another type of format, it's just one hole. In stroke play, it feels like you're entire round is ruined.
I also don't share the sentiment that golf is about you vs. the course and the elements. Last I checked, the course can't swing a club, keep score or share a Guinness with you in the clubhouse after the round.
To me, golf is like most ball sports: It's a game against the other players who are facing the same challenges, so I always like to involve the players in my group in some sort of competition (adjusted for handicaps if necessary).
Otherwise, it's just swatting golf balls on a big parcel of land, which looks suspiciously like practice to me. I've been accused of not getting it (the whole one-with-nature deal, I guess), but after 5,000-plus rounds of golf in my lifetime, I need a little more than grass, trees and waiting on tee boxes to get my juices flowing.
Honestly, the Brits do it right -- match play, alternate shot, Stablefords, etc. -- to keep things moving. While our rounds in golf carts take more than four and a half hours on average, these guys are typically walking the course in three and a half or less, and one reason is that they're not so worried about adding up their totals.
So if you've had enough of stroke play, here are 10 suggestions. And if you want to keep your stroke play score, fine, but once it gets out of hand, please pick up; I might be behind you.
Golf games: Nassau (with or w/o auto two-downs)
The Nassau is one of the most common side bets on a golf course. You can play individual or team Nassaus, which are basically three bets -- front, back and overall match play. In team Nassaus -- often cart vs. cart in a foursome -- it's the two better balls from each team. A variation has each team adding their scores together on each hole with the lowest total winning the hole. Many players, however, play automatic two-downs, which means there's a press (e.g. a new $5 bet ) each time a side gets two holes down. A $5 Nassau, which is worth $15 overall, can easily triple if one side dominates in automatic two downs.
Golf games: Nines (5-3-1)
Nines is an ideal game for threesomes. Basically each hole is worth nine points (points are assigned a monetary value), with points being divided according to order of finish on each hole. If one player makes birdie, for example, another makes par and the third makes bogey, it's 5-3-1 respectively. If all three players make par, however, each player gets three points. If one player makes birdie and the other two pars, then the player with the birdie is awarded five points with the other two getting two points each. (It always adds up to nine.) Conceivably, a great performance by one player or poor one for another could prove lucrative or costly, but this game usually has a way of evening out at the end.
Golf games: One-putt poker (or 3-putt poker)
This is a good game for a large group of players. Assigning a value to each three-putt, players ante up beforehand (a couple of bucks is customary) and agree to pay the pot a set amount (usually a dollar) for each three-putt. Every time a player one-putts, he or she gets a playing card. At the end, players are dealt the number of cards equal to their one-putts. The winning poker hand (the player with the most one-putts has the best odds) wins the pot.
Golf games: Skins
It doesn't get any simpler than skins, right? Record the best score on a hole, and you win the amount of money designated for each hole. But there are other ways you can play this. Those who play carry-overs let the holes roll over if there are ties for the best scores. That leaves an opportunity for the vulture, who could have 10 bad holes in a row, but pick the right moment to record a crucial birdie. Handicaps (giving strokes to players with lesser abilities) can also play a big role. Another variation is to have each player contribute a set amount before the round (this works well with larger groups of players in multiple foursomes) into a pot. For example, if you have four foursomes (16 players) there might only be two or three skins (one player winning a hole outright over the other players) throughout the day, creating big payouts for one or two players. As a rule, the larger the group, the fewer the skins. I've even been in regular skins games with large groups, where the pot carried over to the next week (no skins won). That can make a skin eventually worth hundreds of dollars, even if players are just contributing $10 or $20.
Golf games: Bingo-bango-bongo
This is a great game for a group of players with different skill levels. Bingo is the first player to reach the green, no matter how many shots it takes; bango is the closest to the pin after everyone has reached the green; bongo is the first one in the hole. Each accomplishment is worth one point, with three points per hole. Higher handicappers with good short games often do well, while lower handicap players who hit straighter and longer drives often have the easiest approach shots. It usually evens out in the end but can be exciting nonetheless.
Golf games: Snake
Another putting game, the object here is to not wind up with the snake at the end. How it works is each time a player three-putts, that person winds up with the snake. With each three-putt, the value also increases (can be incremental or progressive), which is paid out by the player who winds up with the snake at the end of the round. The great part of this game is the pressure mounts toward the end not to three-putt, but if there are other bets going -- e.g., you might need a birdie at the end -- you have to weigh the amount of aggression you have on your first putts against what's on the line. There are no gimmes, by the way, which can slow down play.
Golf games: Round Robin (COD)
Used in foursomes, this is a match-play game where you change partners (carts, opposites, drivers) each six holes for three separate bets. You can play any team format -- better ball, alternate shot or even scramble, if you wish. I've even played this where we've mixed the format every two holes.
Golf games: Wolf
There are lots of variations to this, but basic wolf (works with three or more players) has each player taking turns being the wolf on a hole. Some play with the wolf teeing off first, others last, but the wolf gets to pick a partner after he or she sees the tee shot of each player. Most require the wolf to make a decision on a partner right after that player's tee shot, gambling on whether or not the remaining player(s) will hit a good tee shot. This gets particularly interesting on par 3s. If the wolf decides to not pick any partner -- and take on the other players in the group by his or her own self -- the bet is doubled. If the wolf decides beforehand to go lone wolf before seeing any of the other players' shots, it's called lone wolf, and the bet is quadrupled. This often happens near the end of a round when a player is desperate to get even.
Golf games: Stableford
I love this because it maxes out the score you can make on any hole, so nobody needs to grind over a putt for quadruple bogey. Recreational scoring is typically the following: 1-point for bogey, 2 points for par, 4 points for birdies and 8 points for an eagle. You can also subtract points for double bogeys but to enjoy this game, it's really not necessary. At the end of the day, bad holes don't cost you that much, and pace of play certainly speeds up. It's a great way to score tournaments as well.
Golf games: Las Vegas
This works well for a foursome split into two teams against each other. But instead of better ball or combined scores, the team takes the two scores and combines the digits to make the lowest possible number. In other words, one player makes a 4 and the other a 5, the score for that hole is 45. If the other team makes two 5s, that score is 55 and the first team just won 10 points. It's easy to get way down or way up in this format, and it's also advantageous to spread birdies and eagles apart between players on the same team.