Is Golf a Team Sport? It Always Has Been!

Two college golf teams watching a match

I have played golf for over 40 years now and most of my most enjoyable experiences have been playing as part of a golf team.

Now that may now sound odd given a very common perception around the game that golf is not only an individual sport but one of the most solitary games you can play but the reality is golf is much more of a team game than people at first think.

Golf is both an individual and team sport. In its most traditional form golf is played as an individual sport over 18 or 72 holes but golf is commonly played as a team sport by both amateurs and professionals. The Ryder Cup is golf’s most famous team event and team matches have always been popular with amateur golfers.

Many argue that even when golf is played as a team event however it is really still played as a group of individuals rather than as a true team sport but golf is very much a team game especially in the professional ranks where the ‘teams’ supporting individual pros continue to get larger and larger.

Ryder Cup trophy
The Ryder Cup is the most famous team event in golf

Is a Golf Team Really a Team or Just a Group?

Golf is often thought of as an individual sport without any aspect of ‘team play’ whatsoever.

After all there is only one person who hits a golf ball and nobody else can swing a golf club for you.

But in reality golf is frequently played as a team game and more often than not regular amateur players will play some sort of team event virtually every week they tee the ball up.

That is not to say however that golf is not most often played as an individual sport because it is.

‘Medal strokeplay’ which involves a single golfer playing 18 holes and counting up all the shots they hit along the way is the most traditional form of the game and it is the format of the game you will be watching 99% of the time whenever you turn on the TV and watch a PGA Tour or professional event.

However there are a huge number of formats both in the amateur and professional game where individual golfers join up in a team environment and play against another team.

In amateur golf such team events will typically take place as a matchplay or scramble format and you will find such matches happening throughout the golfing world on a daily basis.

For professionals the most high profile team event is the Ryder Cup where the 12 best players in the USA take on the 12 best players in Europe but there are also many many other high profile team events in the elite game.

“I don’t think there is any greater privilege than to be part of one of these teams …European or American … they have always been the greatest experiences of my career. I’ve never really cried or got emotional over what I’ve done as an individual, I could not give a s*!t. This team and what it is feels like to be part of ….. it’s phenomenal and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

4-time major winner and former no.1 golfer, Rory McIlroy

The ladies equivalent of the Ryder Cup is the Solheim Cup while the Presidents Cup matches USA’s 12 best players this time against the 12 best players from the rest of the world outside Europe.

In the elite amateur game there is then the Walker Cup where the 12 best amateurs in Great Britain and Ireland again take on the USA while for the best amateur women golfers the comparable event is called the Curtis Cup.

When it comes to high school and college golf also you will find that golf is played as a team sport more often than not so it is very evident when you look at the game of golf it is frequently played as a team game as opposed to an individual sport both in the amateur and professional game.

Only one player can always hit one golf shot but golf is most certainly a great team game as well as being an individual sport and when it comes to team events like the Ryder Cup the result can be one that means more to some players than their individual achievements!

Golf is Always a Team Game for Pro Golfers

If you watch any pro golf on television one thing will be obvious very quickly.

While there are clearly ‘individual’ pro golfers hitting all of the shots and making all of the putts every one of them is followed closely throughout their round by their caddie.

A golfer’s caddie is rarely more than a few feet from their player and you will typically find also before the pro is about to hit their shot that they are in deep communication about all sorts of aspects of the shot they are about to play.

Because a caddie is not there just to carry a pro golfer’s bag around but to also give them advice about how far their shot is, how many yards a bunker or water is from them, the direction of the wind, the elevation, the temperature, the grain of the grass on the putting green and so on and so on.

So in essence at the professional level of the game golf is already a ‘team’ sport and that team consists of the player and their caddie.

3-time major champion Jordan Speith is one player for example who consistently talks about aspects of his game in interviews using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ for the very reason that he believes it is a team effort.

Many golfing traditionalists will of course scoff at the notion that golf is a team game in any way for the very reason that the results of the big tournaments in golf – called the four Majors – always, and always will, be determined by the outcome of the shots hit but an ‘individual’.

But if that were the case, and caddie’s contributions are not important to the ‘team’, the way they are paid suggests otherwise.

As a general rule caddies receive a weekly salary plus a percentage of their pros earnings depending on their performance. If the pro wins the tournament they will receive a 10% bonus, 7% for a top-10 finish and 5% if their player made the cut after 36 holes.

Now if there was no element of ‘team’ when pro golfers play in golf tournaments why would they reward their caddies in such a way to help them to have a better tournament?

If it was all about the individual and the individual alone and the players were clear the caddies had absolutely no impact on how they perform their weekly wage would surely be enough.

Now that is not to say that the pro is not the more important element of that player/caddie team. Of course they are but just like other great team sports they are recompensed accordingly and know that they perform better when they have good teammates to rely on.

And when it comes to the modern professional golfer also that ‘team’ consists of an increasing number of individuals.

On the PGA Tour you will find many of the top players employing a swing coach, sports psychologist, physiotherapist, statistician and agent as part of their ‘team’ often at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Now once again all these team members are working in support of the main individual who is the pro but the next time you watch golf on the TV just remember there are a few people behind the scenes who the pros is relying on to help them focus on hitting the best possible shots they can.

Jordan Speith and his caddie Micheal Greller are a well known for their ‘team’ conversations before hitting golf shots

Golf is a Team Sport in High School, College and Everywhere

When it comes to considering golf as a team game attention almost inevitably turns to the big professional team events which are huge occasions on the sporting calendar.

For men it is the Ryder Cup, played every 2 years, which dominates the world sporting headlines for a week while for the women’s professional game it is the Solheim Cup which is becoming an ever increasingly important fixture on the sporting calendar.

But what about golf as a team game for the rest of us regular amateur golfers?

Golf is played as a team sport in high schools, colleges and through the PGA’s Junior League for all kids 16 and under. The National High School Association is dedicated to the overall growth and development of high school golfers across the United States and recognizes the accomplishments of golf teams in high schools.

Although golf is at its core an individual game a huge emphasis is placed on golf as a team sport from the moment boys and girls pick up the game and several bodies aim to keep that going all the way through a young golfer’s development through to adulthood.

The Professional Golfer Association (PGA) Junior League aims to be golf’s answer to Little League Baseball and to make golf accessible to children under the age of 16 all across the USA. It therefore focuses on creating team golf experiences for tens of thousands of kids each year.

When it comes to high school golf continues as a team sport and plays a huge part in the lives of nearly 225,000 high school boys and girls. The National High School Golf Association (NHSGA) focuses heavily on golf as a team sport by ranking teams both in the girls and boys ranks across the US.

For young golfers looking to take things seriously after high school the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) provides further opportunity and again it is highly noticeable in this arena that the most competitive high school golfers continue to play a lot of golf as a team sport rather than as a purely individual one.

“Inherently, I think golf actually is a team sport, but it’s never thought of that way …. Club Golf is the perfect opportunity to play competitive, team golf in college without having the same time commitment as varsity golf. We strive to provide a team-based opportunity for 92% of high school golfers to continue their golfing journey,”

Kris Hart, Nextgengolf CEO

For young golfers looking to continue to play team golf after high school on a slightly more relaxed basis than varsity golf – only around 8% of high school golfers go on to play varsity golf in college – there is still the opportunity to play club golf in college as a team game and now organisations such as NextGenGolf dedicate themselves to provide team-based golf opportunities for as many high school golfers as they can.

And when it comes to the regular amateur golf game the idea of ‘team golf’ can hardly be thought of revolutionary. Best-ball and scramble team matches have long been popular amongst everyday golfers whether that be in teams of 2, 3, 4 or even up to fully-fledged 12 member Ryder Cup team copy trips.

[Note – If you are interested in playing team golf with your buddies we have written another post about 5 fun golf trip games you can play in teams of golfers with a wide range of handicaps. Check it out here.]

An individual golf match at a golf team event
Team groups of 2 playing against each other in a 4-ball format is a common team golf game

How Does a Golf Team Work?

When you watch or play golf it is not always automatically clear how the game can work as a team sport.

Only one person can ever hit a golf shot so to think how a golf team works is not always obvious.

As a general rule golf teams work by playing a matchplay or scramble format. In matchplay team groups of 2 to 12 golfers play against each other and each match counts as 1 point to the team score. Scramble format team events consist of teams of 2, 3 or 4 with players choosing the best team individual shot every stroke.

To run through all the possible scenarios of how a golf team event could work is almost impossible but here are a few examples of how a golf team match can happen:

  • In the Ryder Cup, teams of 12 players from USA and Europe play 28 matches over 3 days with one point going to the winner of each match. On days 1 and 2 four teams of two play against each other in foursomes ‘alternate’ shot and fourball matches with ‘singles’ matches completing the event on day 3.
  • At college events school teams in groups of eight players compete in tournaments where only the top 5 scores of the 8 person team count towards the team total. The lowest combined total wins the tournament.
  • At NextGenGolf CityTour events teams of four to six people compete in one of two team formats: best ball and scramble.
  • At golf courses throughout the world regular golfers often play in ‘scramble’ events where teams of typically 3 or 4 golfers take turns hitting shots, choose the best individual shot and then repeat the process until a round is complete. The team with the lowest team score then wins.

There are of course many many other types of team golf events which can be played and if you play golf long enough you will come to realise that the options for different types of team game formats are almost limitless.

Some argue however that because of golf’s traditional strokeplay format and because only one person can ever hit a golf shot that when it is played a team sport it is somehow different from regular team sports.

Golf is however no different from other team sports. Only one person can hit a golf shot as part of a golf team but in exactly the same way as only one player can throw or carry an American football, only one person can score a soccer goal or basket, and only person can pitch, hit or catch a baseball at any one time.

Golf, when it is played as a team game, is in reality no different to other team sports and if I am honest playing golf in a team has brought me more overall enjoyment than when playing it as an individual throughout my whole 40 years of playing the game!

Final Thought

Golf is slowly waking up to its popularity as a team sport rather than always an individual one.

When played as an individual game it is still a wonderful way to meet people and socialise across a round of 18 holes but the game is slowly starting to realise its potential appeal to the next generation of golfers as a team sport.

There is growing evidence especially that team golf can be a great way to attract kids to start playing the game and the PGA of America’s Junior League Golf programme has regularly grown in size since its initial launch in 2011.

Golf is not often thought of as a team sport by many people outside the game however when played as a team sport it is a fantastic game and offers a great way to enjoy it even more.

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Graeme Hay

Graeme Hay is the owner of GolfingFocus.com. Graeme started playing golf when he was only 4 years old and has loved the game ever since. A single figure golfer all of his adult life and a member of Royal Troon Golf Club he lives in London and still enjoys playing whenever he can with friends and family.

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