Explaining the 'Shotgun Start' in Golf (How It Works, Origins)

"Shotgun start" is the term for a method of beginning a golf tournament with all the groups of golfers teeing off at the same time, from different holes around the course. Each hole on the golf course is occupied by a group of four golfers — one group on the first tee, one on the second tee, one on the third tee, and so on — and at the signal or at the designated time, all those golfers begin playing simultaneously.

Where does the term come from? See the section below on the term's origin. But the short answer is that one way of signalling that it's time to tee off is through the sounding of something loud, such as an air horn, or, yes, a shotgun blast.

Shotgun starts are very popular for club tournaments, association tournaments, corporate and charity tournaments, and the like, for a number of reasons. For the tournament organizers, a shotgun start means that the tournament play ends much quicker, since every golfer in the field starts playing immediately; and that all golfers finish at roughly the same same, getting them into the post-tournament meal or awards ceremony or grillroom mixer at the same time. For the hosting golf course, a shotgun start decreases the amount of time the course is occupied by the tournament golfers, allowing the pro shop to begin getting other paying customers onto the golf course sooner.

An article about managing club tournaments that appeared in the USGA Green Section Journal in 2018 asked the question, "Does the organizer want the entire field to finish at the same time?" The authors provide the answer:

"If so, there is no question that a shotgun start is needed. Simultaneously starting groups on all tee times in a shotgun format can be fun and allows all groups to finish at the same time and have the chance to rehash the day over a few beverages."
Pro tournament and high-level amateur tournaments very rarely use shotgun starts. They almost always use staggered tee times from the first tee (or first and 10th tees), with Group A teeing off, followed 10 minutes or so later by Group B, followed 10 minutes or so later by Group C, and so on. In 2022, the nascent LIV Golf series became the first tour to plan and use shotgun starts as the default way of beginning a high-level professional tournament.

How many golfers can play a tournament using a shotgun start? There are two ways to do it:

  • If the tournament places groups of four on each hole on the golf course, then 72 golfers can tee off simultaneously.
  • If the tournament places one group of four on each par-3 hole, and two groups of four on each par-4 hole and par-5 hole, then, using a standard par-72 course (on which there are four par-3 holes), 132 golfers can play.
In the second case, on the par-4 and par-5 holes, the second group on the tee would wait for the first group to reach the green (or at least get out of range) before teeing off. Tournament organizers should provide that guidance to the second groups on the par-4 and par-5 holes.

If each group tees off from a different hole, then, obviously, every group also finishes on a different hole. Let's say your group is starting from the No. 6 tee. You play the sixth hole, then the seventh, the eighth, and so on. When you reach No. 18, you then head over to No. 1 and keep going. Your round ends after you play the fifth hole, which is your 18th hole of the round. A group that tees off No. 1 ends on No. 18, as normal. If you tee off No. 2, you end on No. 1; if you tee off No. 10, you end on No. 9; and so on.

Whatever hole you finish on, once you've finished a shotgun start tournament your group heads back to the clubhouse. This makes the use of riding carts close to a necessity for shotgun-start tournaments. Groups can finish at points on the golf course far away from the clubhouse.

Pace of play is clearly very important for the golfers in a shotgun start tournament. You must keep up with group in front of you, and avoid having any gaps open up between your group and the group ahead. A slow group will literally slow down every other golfer on the course in a shotgun start. Don't be that group!

Note that the use of the term "shotgun start" does not tell you anything about the scoring method or competition format for a golf tournament, only the tee-time method being used.

When, and Where, Did the Term 'Shotgun Start' Originate?

According to research conducted by Golf Digest in 2004, the origin of the shotgun start — both the actual practice and the term for that practice — dates to May of 1956. In that month, of that year, at Walla Walla Country Club, head pro Jim Russell came up with the idea of starting groups of four simultaneously from each tee around the golf course.

And yes, he signalled the beginning of the golf tournament by actually firing a shotgun. And the "shotgun start" was born.

The earliest newspaper uses we can find of the term date the late 1950s. (The New York Times, however, didn't use the term, in its golf sense, until 1977.)

An article in Golfdom, a trade magazine for the golf course superintendents industry, from September 1961, gives a sense that there was still some newness to the term even then. "The shotgun start, which has club tourney players starting from every tee, worked especially well for John Buchanan, pro at General Deport GC, Columbus, O., and 60 of his women members recently," the piece explained. "... He says it is the perfect system for avoiding complaints about starting times, eliminating tedious work of a starter, and brings all the field in to enjoy grill room festivities together." The article also explained the the pro started one foursome on each of the 9-hole course's par-3 holes, two foursomes on each of the par-4 and par-5 holes.

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