The Old Golf Scoring Terms 'Under 4s' and 'Over 4s'

If you spend any time reading old golf books or magazines, or researching golf history, as we do, you are bound to run across the old golf scoring terms "under 4s" (under fours) and "over 4s" (over fours). They always appear in conjunction with another number, such as "3 under 4s" or "5 over 4s." What does that golf scoring formulation mean?

The basics are this: It is a way of giving a golfer's score in relation to a par of 4. It's most easily understood by thinking about 18 holes. What do 18 par-4 holes add up to? 72. If a golfer finishes the round at "4 under 4s," then, that golfer is 4 strokes under 72 — she shot 68. If a golfer finishes a round at "10 over 4s," that golfer is 10 strokes over 72 — she shot 82.

The under 4s/over 4s way of expressing a golf score was pretty common in the early 20th century, but probably more common in the U.K. than in the U.S. However, we're going to quote two old American magazine articles to explain under 4s/over 4s a little bit more.

In a 1920 issue of Golfers Magazine, American sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote that Bobby Jones began a round with consecutive 5s, but "then played the next thirteen holes in 4 under 4s." So in this case, the writer is letting the reader know that Jones shot 48 over a 13-hole stretch of the round. How do we know that? The writer states he's talking about 13 holes; he states Jones shot "4 under 4s" for those 13 holes. Thirteen holes times the standard score of 4 equals 52. Now we know Jones was 4 strokes under a score of 52, which leads us to 48.

In a different edition of the same magazine the same year, a roundup of tournaments included a junior event in which a golfer "gave a great exhibition of golf in the afternoon for 11 holes, being one over 4s at this point." Eleven holes times a standard score of 4 equals 44 strokes; that junior golfer was 1 stroke over 44, so he shot 45.

Today we would just give the actual stroke total for such a stretch, or, more likely, give the golfer's score in relation to par. "Golfer X played the next 11 holes in 3-under par," for example.

So why did they used to use the under 4s/over 4s method? First, remember that the concept of par, in its current meaning, didn't enter golf until the early years of the 1900s. A score of 4 was something like our modern concept of par for golfers before that — a score that a great golfer might make on a hole.

Next, consider that even after the modern concept of par began being widely used in the second decade of the 1900s, scoring in relation to par only became prominent throughout golf when television broadcasts in the 1950s started using scores in relation to par to help viewers keep track of who was leading whom in the standings.

We've found the under 4s/over 4s formulation still being used by some writers as late as the 1970s.

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