How To Play Nassau (The Golf Game)
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The Nassau is one of the most popular golf tournament formats and golf bets. It’s essentially three tournaments (or bets) in one: the front nine, back nine and 18-hole scores all count as separate tournaments or bets.
A Nassau is sometimes called Best Nines, or 2-2-2 when referring to a $2 Nassau.
In a Nassau tournament, the player (or team) winning the front nine wins a prize, the player (or team) winning the back nine gets a prize, and the player (or team) winning the overall 18-hole round wins a prize.
The type of scoring in use is up to the tournament organizers and just about anything is possible: Stroke play or match play? Scramble, alternate shot, best ball? Single players, two-person teams? Full handicaps, partial handicaps, no handicaps? There are no “official” rules for most of the formats and betting games golfers play, outside of the handful covered in the Rules of Golf.
But the key thing is that a Nassau tournament is three tournaments in one: front nine, back nine, overall.
The Nassau Bet
Nassaus are more common as wagers among friends. As a bet, the most common form is the $2 Nassau. The front nine is worth $2, the back nine is worth $2 and the 18-hole match is worth $2. A player or team sweeping all three wins $6.
Again, the Nassau can run with just about any type of scoring format or competition format (although match play is most common for the betting game), and the use of handicaps is something those participating in the bet need to clear up before play begins.
While the $2 Nassau sounds innocent enough, winnings can pile up if a higher initial bet is made (5-5-5 means each bet within the Nassau is worth $5, for example), or if a lot of “pressing” takes place.
A player or team that is trailing in a Nassau can “press the bet” - opening a new bet to run concurrently with the original wager. A Nassau match that involves a lot of pressing and re-pressing can wind up costing someone a lot of money. See our FAQ - What is pressing the bet in a Nassau? - for more about presses.
So Nassau wagers can become quite complicated and lucrative (or costly, to the loser) if golfers want them to.
In his book titled Golf Games You Gotta Play (buy it on Amazon), the legendary Chi Chi Rodriguez and his co-author go into the permutations of the Nassau bet (see our excerpt from the book, titled How to Bet the Nassau):
“Despite what appears to be a small sum of money wagered in a $2 Nassau on the first tee, the original $6, when pressed and repressed and double pressed, can quickly become a big hit. The $2 pressed once makes $4 and, pressed again, adds a third $2 bet to the front 9 for $6. Press the entire side, and it becomes a $12 wager before a player’s even gotten to the 10th tee. If the back side goes as poorly, that’s another $12, for a total of $24; and if you get bold and press the entire match on 18 and lose, that’s pretty much a $50 shot ($48) right there. Again, it’s a good idea to set a limit on total loses before the match starts.”
Set a limit on total losses, set a limit on the number of presses allowed, or simply agree that you’ll stick with $2 for each of the three bets and no more.
Why Is It Called ‘Nassau’?
Many golfers believe the name “Nassau,” for either the tournament format or the betting game, is related to The Bahamas. Nassau is the capital city of The Bahamas.
It’s not. The name “Nassau” derives from Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, New York, on Long Island. That’s where, in 1900, the Nassau system was invented by Nassau Country Club captain John B. Coles Tappan.
In 2014, the Golf Channel interviewed Nassau CC’s club historian Doug Fletcher about the origins of the Nassau format. Fletcher explained how the format came about, and how it originally worked:
“In 1900, Nassau Member J.B. Coles Tappan invented the ‘Nassau System’ of scoring where one point is awarded for the first nine holes, one for the second nine and one for the winner of the 18 hole match. Nassau was home to the leading industrialists of the day who were often embarrassed by lopsided losses that were reported in the local newspapers. Under the Nassau system, the worst loss was 3-0. This system prevented bruised egos and kept the matches competitive.”
So the Nassau format began as a way for rich people to avoid the embarrassment of a lopsided loss.