What is Match Play in Golf

What is Match Play in Golf: The Beginner’s Guide

If you’re like a lot of new golfers I’m sure you’ve asked, what is match play in golf?

It’s a great question because it’s very different from a stroke play scoring system. In stroke play format every shot counts and the player with the lowest score wins the match.

But in match play golf, a player or team can only lose or win on every hole – regardless of the final score. In competitive golf this is fun as players get to compete head-to-head competition and quite a mental game test.

Match Play 101

Here’s how the USGA (United States Golf Association) defines match play. 

“Match play is a form of play where a player (or players) plays directly against an opponent (or opponents) in a head-to-head match. You win a hole by completing it in the fewest number of strokes, and you win a match when you are winning by more holes than remain to be played.”

You can play match play in a 1 vs. 1 format or as a team format (like the Ryder Cup) which is typically a best ball or foursomes scoring

Key Takeaways 

  • Match is a very different golf format from stroke play which is the most commonly used scoring system in golf.
  • In a match play event you only compete vs. one person or team – not the entire field making it much more of a hole by hole basis.
  • With match play there are different rules – especially with scoring. With every hole you can win, half, or lose only by one, regardless of how many strokes you win or lose by. 
  • Match play does work with handicaps but is most common in the Ryder Cup, President’s Cup, Solheim Cup, and Walker Cup events. 

Keep reading to learn more about this iconic golf format and see why you should add it to your golf days.

History

While most golfers know about stroke play, match play is how golf tournaments were originally played. Now, this format is more common in team events such as the USGA junior amateur, Ryder Cup, USGA mid-am, Solheim Cup, President’s Cup, and more.

Sadly, it’s not common on the PGA Tour anymore as they had the WGC event that was one of the most fun to watch. Now we have to wait for big events – like the Ryder Cup – to see players battle it out in match play competition.

Golf Match Play

Rules 

Here are some of the biggest things you need to know about this format. 

Scoring 

In this format you can only win or lose by one on every hole – regardless of score. For example, if player A makes a three on the first hole and player B makes a 6, player A is only “1 up” after one. If both players tie the hole is halved. 

If a player is up more than the holes left to play, the match is over. For example, if player A is three up with only two holes to play, the match is over after the 16th hole. Player A wins 3&2 (three up with two to play). 

A match is dormie once a player is down by the same amount of holes left to play. If a player is 3 down with three to play, this is known as dormie and the match will end soon unless they win a hole. 

If a match is halved at the end of 18 holes, more holes are played in a sudden death playoff.

Concessions 

Unlike stroke play concessions are a big part of match play. As the USGA noted, “In match play only, you may decide to concede a stroke to your opponent. The ball is considered holed and your opponent may pick it up. You may also concede a hole, or the entire match. A concession cannot be declined or withdrawn (see Rule 3.2b(1)).”

This means you can give players putts and/or concede the hole without actually finishing it.

For example, if player A has a short putt left player B can concede them the putt. This means that player A has effectively made the putt without having to do so.

Hole concessions are also part of match play. If player B has already hit one out of bounds and is likely to make a big number while player A is on the green in regulation, they can concede the hole and move on. 

Players can also putt and practice after a concession is over without penalty. 

On Course Practice 

Another key difference between match play vs. stroke play is that players can practice on the course. Here’s how the USGA noted this rule change. 

“Unless the Committee says otherwise, you may practice before your round or practice putting or chipping between play of two holes on or near the putting green of the hole you just played, the next teeing area or any practice putting green (see Rule 5.2a and Rule 5.5b).”

Teeing Order 

While playing ready golf is allowed (and now encouraged) in stroke play competition, this isn’t the case with match play. The player who won the previous hole always tees off first. This is an integral part of match play as golfers can change their strategy after watching their opponent hit first. 

Scoring 

Lastly, a scorecard is not required in match play competitions like stroke play. While you can and should notate the round on a scorecard, you do not need to turn one in with two signatures after the round. 

Instead, make sure the scoring officials note who won and by how much. 

Types of Golf Games

FAQs About Match Play

Do you have more questions about match play? If so, keep reading to learn more about this different format. 

What is the difference between match play and stroke play?

There are a lot of differences between match play vs stroke play competition but the main thing is scoring. In stroke play every stroke is recorded and added up after 18 holes. In match play your score isn’t as important because you can only win or lose by one on each hole – despite your total score.

For example, if player A makes a four on a hole and player B makes a six on the same hole, player A is 1 up in match play. But in stroke play player A would be up two strokes. 

There are also changes that we discuss in detail above. 

How do I keep score in match play?

Match play is much easier to keep score for than a stroke play round. On each hole simply notate if you won, lost, or halved the hole. 

For example, if you won the first hole, simply write “1 up” in the scorecard box. If you lose the next hole, write “All Square” on the next hole as the match is tied. 

What does 3 & 2 mean in match play golf?

When a match is 3&2 this means a player or team is three up with only two holes to play. The match effectively ends after the 16th hole and players do not compete on 17 or 18. 

How do you win at match play? 

To win in match play you need to be at least 1 up after the 18th hole (or the match goes into extra holes). But it’s common for matches to end early such as 2&1 – this means a player is two up with one to play. Or, 3&2 – which means a player is three up with only two holes to play.

Since you can only win or lose by one in match play – which is very different from stroke play – matches don’t necessarily last all 18 holes. 

How many strokes do I give in match play? 

It depends on your handicap and the person you’re playing against. For example, if you’re a 6 and they’re a 12 handicap, you’ll need to give six shots during the round. These six shots will occur on the six hardest holes (which are ranked and notated on the scorecard).

On those six holes you’ll need to give one stroke and play well to get a half or even win the hole as you’re giving up a shot. 

Is there a stroke limit in match play? 

There is no stroke limit but a player can choose to concede the hole and move on to the next hole. Or, if your competitor is already finished and beats you (let’s say they made a four and you’re hitting five, the hole is over). 

Can you play two balls in match play?

If there is a rules’ scenario you aren’t allowed to play two balls through the hole like you can in stroke play. The issue must be resolved with your opponent or with the help of a rules official. 

My Experience

Match play is such a great spin on a traditional round of golf. While stroke play is fun, match play seems to change the game and lead to some amazing golf shots. 

When I play with a fellow golf buddy with a similar average score I prefer to play match over stroke play. And I play in several match play tournaments each year which are some of my favorite events. There is a significant difference in this format and requires a lot more mental toughness.

Even if it feels like there is an inherent advantage, match play competition seems to even the playing field. There’s something really fun about playing vs. one person right in front of you vs. the entire field. You know that all you need to do is beat one person vs. trying to beat the course and tons of players. 

Final Thoughts 

Remember, the overall score on a particular hole doesn’t matter like it does in stroke play. Match play requires a different mindset and game plan than a normal stroke play competition. You must remain focused especially when your opponent hits an amazing shot (which seems to happen more in this format).

In this format you’re not playing the entire field in a tournament, your focus should be on the opponent (or team). Make sure to read this guide on how to master match play to dominate your opponent

If you haven’t used this scoring system before I highly recommend it. It’s a ton of fun and a great way to mix things up on the golf course. Plus, you can incorporate handicaps into match play formats too. 

The next time you watch a big event like the Ryder Cup or President’s Cup – make sure to watch for some strategies too.

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