What Is a Stroke?

Golfer Charles Howell III plays a stroke
Golf Charles Howell III plays a stroke - he's about to make contact with the golf ball. David Cannon/Getty Images

In golf, a "stroke" is any swing of a golf club that is completed by a golfer who is trying to strike the golf ball. Strokes are the means by which golfers advance the ball around the golf course, and each stroke is counted as part of keeping score.

A swing of a club that is voluntarily stopped prior to making contact with the ball, or a swing that is completed but with the golfer intentionally missing the ball, is not a stroke.

A swing that is completed with the intention of hitting the ball counts as a stroke even if the ball is missed.

Definition of 'Stroke' In the Rule Book

What is the official definition of a golf stroke - the definition that appears in the Rules of Golf? The USGA and R&A, golf's governing bodies, define "stroke" this way in the rulebook:

"A 'stroke' is the forward movement of the club made with the intention of striking at and moving the ball, but if a player checks his downswing voluntarily before the clubhead reaches the ball he has not made a stroke."

Strokes Are the Unit of Scoring In Golf

As golfers play strokes to advance around the golf course, those strokes are counted. And counting those strokes serves as the score or contributes to the scoring, depending on what type of golf format is being played:

  • Stroke play: The winner in stroke play is the golfer who uses the fewest number of strokes for the full round of golf (typically 18 holes).
  • Match play: The winner of a hole in match play is the golfer who used the fewest strokes on that hole; the winner of the match is the golfer who wins the most holes.
  • Stableford: In Stableford, the number of strokes a golfer uses on each hole is converted into points earned, and the winner is the golfer with most points at the end of the round.

When Is a Swing Not a Stroke?

As noted, if a golfer completes her swing but intentionally misses the golf ball, that does not count as a stroke. Why might one do that? Perhaps a last-second distraction arises. Also, if a golfer stops his swing before contacting the ball it's not a stroke.

However, it is possible to miss the golf ball and still have to count that miss as a stroke. For more on this, see:

Also check out these related entries in our Rules FAQ:

Other Uses of 'Stroke' In Golf

The word "stroke" is used as part of multiple other terms by golfers. The two most prominent are:

  • Penalty stroke: This is an additional stroke (or strokes) added to a golfer's score as the result of the golfer violating the Rules of Golf. (See Common Penalties Under the Rules of Golf for examples.)
  • Handicap stroke: This is a subtraction of a stroke (or strokes) from a golfer's score under certain circumstances covered by the USGA Handicap System or other golf handicapping system. (See Golf Handicap FAQ for more.)

"Stroke" also appears as part of some other terms, including equitable stroke control, obstacle stroke value and bisque stroke.