The most popular format of golf in the US, maybe the world, is Stroke Play. The majority of Professional Golf Tournaments are played using the Stroke Play format, which means most people have been exposed to Stroke Play golf in one way or another, even if it was mini golf.

What is Stroke Play?

In this format, your score is the total number of strokes you made, across all the holes played, usually 9 or 18 holes, but could be multiple rounds of golf, like the professionals who play 4 rounds of 18 holes, 72 holes total. The winner is the player with the lowest number of strokes, played throughout the total number of holes. 

Scoring Variations?

Most formats use Gross scores, with Net scores available to level the playing field. 

Gross Score - Your gross score is your actual total number of strokes. If you shot 90 strokes, your gross score is 90.

Net Score - Your net score, is your score after it has been adjusted for handicap on the course you are playing. Course Handicap is calculated based on your Handicap and the Slope rating of the course you are playing, in this case, we will assume your handicap and course handicap are both 18 on a Par 72 course. If you shot 90, your gross score would be 90, but your net score would be 90 - 18 = 72.
A Net score allows players of different levels to complete with the playing field more balanced. 

Flight Based Score - A Flight based score, uses handicaps to group players into flights or groups. Players compete against players in the same flight. For example, Under 9, 10 - 18, 19+ - 3 flights in which the players inside those handicap ranges compete. Big tournaments sometimes will have many flights, with smaller ranges, and compete only with Gross Scores. Tournaments with bigger handicap ranges usually compete with gross and net scores. 

ESC Score - This is the Equittable Stroke Control Score. This score is used for handicap purposes, to eliminate the artificial or accidental inflation of a score due to a single hole. Your gross score is the actual score you made, where your ESC score you only count the score up to the set maximum. The maximum score is based on your course handicap. For more information on ESC score, please read here

Maximum Score - In 2019, the USGA created a new rule called Maximum Score Golf Format, which sets the maximum number of shots a player can score on a hole, in an effort to speed up play, and keep a golfer interested in the match, where a blow up hole could eliminate them from a match or tournament. The maximum score ( set by commitee ) is usually related to par, 2 over, 3 over a hole, or double par. When a player picks up, they are set to have scored the maximum score for the hole. 

With this being a new addition to the rules, it will be interesting to see if this scoring method will be used in tournaments.
USGA Rule Explanation http://www.usga.org/content/usga/home-page/rules-hub/rules-modernization/major-changes/maximum-score--form-of-stroke-play.html

Hole by Hole Scoring

Although gross and net total scores is perfectly fine for calculating results for the entire round, some games use hole by hole scores, including best ball, skins and other variations. 

Hole by hole gross scores are the same, but your net scores a based on your course handicap, your handicap is spread over the holes to be played. If your course handicap is 18, you will get 1 stroke handicap ( also known as a pop ) on each hole you play. A gross bogey, with a single handicap, will result in a net par. A gross par is a net birdie, etc. 

If your course handicap is a 20, you will get 1 handicap stroke on 16 holes, and you will get 2 handicap strokes of 2 holes. To calculate which holes get what handicap strokes, you look at the difficulty of the holes on the course. On the scorecard, you will see the holes are labels with a handicap score, 1 - 18. If hole 4 is handicap 1, and hole 17 is handicap 2, you will get 2 handicap strokes on those 2 holes ( the two hardest holes ) and 1 handicap strokes on all other holes. 

A gross bogey on hole 1, with 1 stroke handicap, would mean you score a net par.
A gross boget on hole 4, with 2 strokes handicap, would mean you score a net birdie. 

Why choose Stroke Play?

Stroke play is a common format, the most common format, and is the simplest format for that reason. You can easily play singles, doubles, and teams, by simply summing the total of all team members, or possibly picking the best score, or a combination of scores. 

This format can be slower, with players having a bad hole taking longer to complete the hole, but use of ESC or Maximum score can help with this, where players can pick up their ball. Another way to make Stroke Play faster or best, might be a combination for formats, where Best Ball, you score the best SCORE gross or net or both on a hole. 

Stroke play allows each player to play their ball the entire time, and these scores are able to be posted for handicap reasons, so this means a player who scores a good score in a tournament will have their score posted, eliminating possible handicap deception since scrambles and other formats are not handicap postable scores. 

Special Note
Not all professional golf tournaments are stroke play, there are some special events, which use the stableford method, or match play. Interestingly enough, in Europe, a more common format is actually stableford, which is used for handicap purposes. We will cover the stableford method another day.