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Golf Games Explained

How to play a 'Nassau': A basic guide to one of golf's common match play games


Will Fullerton

Golf Games Explained is exactly what it sounds like. You want to mix it up and try something new for once? Well, someone has to do the thankless work of playing different golf formats and telling you if it's worth it. You can thank me later.

It is and always will be the most standard match-play games in golf. And yet, when somebody says, "let's play a Nassau," on the first tee, there is inevitably someone who either say A) What's that? or B) How do you play that again?

In reality, it's quite simple, even with all the added variations which will get to a little toward the end of this article. For now, here's how to play a "Nassau." Now, you can be the guy who introduces it, quickly explains the rules and, ultimately, be the one who has to keep track of all the action and side action. Believe it or not, it's fun to be that guy, or gal, sometimes.

Number of players required: Two OR four players is best for a Nassau, since it's a match-play game. It can be 1v1 or 2v2. Theoretically, you could do 1v2 if you only have three players, but with handicaps involved, that could make things a bit uneven. Plus, there are more creative games to play when that unreliable friend of yours doesn't show up to the foursome, like Skins or Wolf.

Best for: Traditionalists. Gamblers. Folks who like to double down on a bet. High- and low-handicappers. People who like to keep it simple.

How to play: Unlike a full, 18-hole match, a Nassau is three separate matches, or three separate bets, if you will. The front nine is its own match, the back nine is its own match, and the "overall," all 18 holes, is its own match, too. On the first tee, you decide on a dollar amount for all three of those bets. Some folks like to keep it simple and say each match is worth $5, meaning the most you could lose is $15. Others who like to go bigger might make it $10-10-10. You can also make the overall worth a little more if you like—$5 on the front, $5 on the back, $10 for the overall. It's all up to the group.

So, let's say you're 2 down after seven holes. If you fail to win the eighth hole, or you halve it, you lose the front nine. You are now down $5. You continue keeping the overall match score from there, though. So say you lost, you are 3 down overall, you halve the ninth. On 10 you start a new match for the back nine, but you are 3 down on the "overall."

This makes the back nine mean more and keeps everybody in the game. Let's say you go on to win the back, 3 up, you'd cancel out the front nine bet and you'd wind up halving the match on 18. In that case, it's a complete wash and neither team wins. But if you only won the back 2 up, you'd cancel out the front but you've lost the overall. In the $5-5-10 scenario we outlined above, you'd owe the winning team $10. If you lost all three ways, front, back and overall, you pay the winning team $20 each if it's 2v2, and you hang your head in shame.

One other standard element of a Nassau is the press bet, which can be implemented any time you go 2 down. This opens up another bet for the same amount as the original bet. So if you go 2 down through two holes, you can press and open up a new match on the front nine, which you will keep track of on the side starting on the third tee. It is essentially a double or nothing bet. You can also press the overall if you'd like at that point, again opening up an entirely new bet.

Obviously, handicaps are implemented for a Nassau game, allowing players of all abilities to compete.

Variations: For highly-skilled players, you could play a Nassau in the stroke-play format, which would also allow for only three players to compete. Front nine total score, back-nine total score, overall total score.

Technically, the "press" was also a variation, but it's become so common that it goes without saying that the team who goes 2 down at any point is going to press. You can also add in all sorts of side bets, otherwise known as "junk." Birdies, greens in regulation (and a par) on par 3s, sandies (up-and-down out of a bunker for par) are the most common forms of junk. Creative folks will also mix in junk like hitting your ball off a tree and still making par ("barkies"). These can all be worth $1 or a higher amount of your choosing. Simply keep track of them throughout the round, tally them all up at the end, and you can add or subtract them from the winning team's total, depending on which side won the most junk.

Have a fun golf game you play and would like explained to the masses? Hit me up on Twitter/X @Cpowers14 and we'd be happy to share.