An ace in golf is a score of “1” on any given hole. In other words, “ace” is another term for a hole-in-one — the golfer knocks the ball into the hole on his or her first swing.
What Is an Ace in Golf? (Definition)
Aces are most commonly made on par-3s holes, because those are the shortest holes on a golf course and the holes on which all golfers have their best opportunities to hit the green with their first stroke.
But aces do sometimes (rarely) occur on short par-4 holes being played by long hitters. And there have even been a handful of aces recorded on par-5 holes.
The chances of a golfer making an ace increase the better his or her skill level; after all, the first requirement in scoring an ace is to get the ball onto the green. But any golfer of any skill level is capable of making an ace — we all hit lucky shots from time to time (but most of us, alas, never do make an ace).
How Rare Are Aces?
Most recreational golfers never make an ace, most professional golfers make multiple aces. This is for the obvious reasons: Pros are much, much better than the rest of us, so are much more likely to a) hit the green and b) do so in closer proximity to the hole. But also because pros play a lot more golf than the rest of us, and so have more opportunities.
For an average golfer playing an average par-3 hole, the odds of making an ace are calculated at 12,500 to 1. See What are the Odds of Making a Hole-in-One? for much more on the odds of the shot and how those odds change depending on the skill of the golfer.
Aces are not the rarest achievement in golf, however. Double eagles (aka, albatrosses) are much rarer. See What are the Odds of Making an Albatross? for more, including comparisons of the rarity of aces to double eagles.
The Etymology of ‘Ace’
How did “ace” become a golf word? The word’s origins lay in its use in games: The ace in a deck of cards represents “1” and is the highest-ranking card; the side of a die with one dot on it is an ace; a domino with one dot is an ace.
From there, the word spread out to represent the best or highest-ranked in a given field (ace fighter pilot, ace pitcher, etc.).
So it’s easy to see how the word came to be applied to a hole-in-one: It had meanings related both to the numeral “1” and to being the best.
When ace became a golf synonym for hole-in-one is hard to pin down, but it appears to have come into use in that fashion in the early 1920s.
‘Ace’ Can Also Be Used as a Verb
The definition of ace and that of hole-in-one are identical when the terms are used as nouns: Both terms mean a score of one on a golf hole. But ace does have one advantage over hole-in-one. Unlike “hole-in-one,” “ace” can also be used as a verb. For example, “I aced the 12th hole” (one cannot say, however, “I hole-in-oned the 12th hole”).
Buying Drinks After an Ace
Many golfers observe the tradition that one who makes as ace has to buy drinks after the round for his playing companions and anyone else who witnessed the ace. (Some clubs even say the acer owes drinks to everyone at the club!)
Doesn’t it seem like the one who made is the ace is the one who should be getting the free drink(s)? Hey, nobody ever claimed golf traditions make sense.