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A hole is classified by its par; the number of strokes a skilled golfer should require to complete play of the hole. For example, a skilled golfer expects to reach the green on a par-four hole in two strokes (This would be considered a Green in Regulation or GIR): one from the tee (the "drive") and another, second, stroke to the green (the "approach"); and then roll the ball into the hole in two putts for par. A golf hole is either a par-three, -four or -five, rarely -six, very rarely -seven.

The key factor for classifying the par of a hole is the distance from the tee to the green. A typical par-three hole is less than 250 yards (225 metres) in length, with a par-four hole ranging between 251 and 475 yards (225-434 metres), and a par-five hole being longer than 475 yards (435 metres). Although uncommon par-six and even par-seven holes do exist, and can stretch well over 650 yards. The gradient of the course (uphill or downhill) can also affect the par rating. If the tee-to-green distance on a hole is predominantly downhill, it will play shorter than its physical length and may be given a lower par rating and the opposite is true for uphill holes. Par ratings are also affected by factors such as the placement of hazards or the shape of the green which can sometimes affect the play of a hole such that it requires an extra stroke to avoid playing into hazards.

Eighteen hole courses may have four par-three, ten par-four, and four par-five holes, though other combinations exist and are not less worthy than courses of par 72. Many major championships are contested on courses playing to a par of 70, 71, or 72. In some countries, courses are classified, in addition to the course's par, with a course classification describing the play difficulty of a course and may be used to calculate a golfer's playing handicap for that given course (cf. golf handicap).

Match play

In match play, two players (or two teams) play each hole as a separate contest against each other. The party with the lower score wins that hole, or if the scores of both players or teams are equal the hole is "halved" (tied). The game is won by the party that wins more holes than the other. In the case that one team or player has taken a lead that cannot be overcome in the number of holes remaining to be played, the match is deemed to be won by the party in the lead, and the remainder of the holes are not played. For example, if one party already has a lead of six holes, and only five holes remain to be played on the course, the match is over. At any given point, if the lead is equal to the number of holes remaining, the match is said to be "dormie", and is continued until the leader increases the lead by one hole or ties any of the remaining holes, thereby winning the match, or until the match ends in a tie with the lead player's opponent winning all remaining holes. When the game is tied after the predetermined number of holes have been played, it may be continued until one side takes a one-hole lead.

Stroke play

In stroke play, the score achieved for each and every hole of the round or tournament is added to produce the total score, and the player with the lowest score wins. (Stroke play is the game most commonly played by professional golfers.) If there is a tie after the regulation number of holes in a professional tournament, a playoff takes place between all tied players. Playoffs are either sudden death or employ a pre-determined number of holes, anywhere from three to a full eighteen. In sudden death, a player who scores lower on a hole than all of his opponents wins the match. If at least two players remain tied after such a playoff using a pre-determined number of holes, then play continues in sudden death format, where the first player to win a hole wins the tournament.