A Guide to Match Play Golf

In match play golf, each hole is like its own small competition, equal to every other hole, making the magnitude of victory irrelevant. Matches are scored by winning a hole, not by cumulative strokes. If a player wins the first hole by three strokes, then loses the second and third holes by one stroke each, they are behind in the match, despite their stroke lead. This scoring rewards risky play. For example, a shot over a water hazard in stroke play is risking a two-stroke penalty for the chance to shoot one stroke lower, while in match play, you are risking losing a hole for a chance to win a hole, making for a more balanced risk-reward scenario.

Match Play Golf Rules

Scores for strokes in a hole during match play are scored the same as in a round of stroke play, meaning a ball lost in a hazard costs a player the same number of strokes on their score for the hole in both formats. Once it is determined who has the lower score for the hole, match play’s scoring comes into play, with the winning player being awarded the hole, or the players tying and the hole being declared “halved.” While players are essentially accumulating points, with one point for winning a hole and 1/2 each for a tie, scoring is not looked at as a total of, for example, 3 to 1. Instead, the player with three would be called “two up,” while the other player is “two down.”

Winning a Match
Although a match is typically 18 holes, this is hardly a given in match play. A match can end in fewer than 18 holes if one player is up by more holes than are left to be played. In that case, the score would be recorded as the number of holes won and the number of holes left. For example, if Player A was ahead by four holes after the 15th is played, the match would be over because there were only three holes left, and Player B could not catch up. In this example, Player A would win, 4 and 3.

Breaking a Tie
It’s possible that an entire match could be halved. In most match play competitions, extra holes will be played until somebody wins one hole and the match. For example, if players A and B were tied after 18 holes and it took three more holes for A to win, the result would be that Player A won in 21 holes.

A unique aspect of match play is the concession. One player can concede another’s putt; the second player would record the number of strokes actually taken plus the conceded stroke. An entire hole can be conceded if one player feels they are too far behind to even halve the hole. And a match can be conceded if one player feels they are too far behind to come back.

Match-play penalties are different from stroke-play penalties. In stroke play, the typical penalty is two strokes. In match play, the general penalty is loss of the hole.

Three-ball match-play scoring is used when there are three players involved. Each player competes against the others in two separate matches. Match-play scoring can also be used with teams instead of individual players. In best-ball match play, the lowest score by any player on the team is recorded as the team’s score for that hole. The most common team best-ball format is four-ball, which consists of two teams of two players.

Cup Play
Match play is frequently used in competitive cups, such as the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. In these competitions, matches are played head-to-head only on Sunday. On Friday and Saturday, players square off in groups of four, with two players from each team in each group, playing a variety of matches such as foursomes and four-ball. Each match is worth one point in the overall competition, with a 1/2 point awarded to each team if matches are tied after 18 holes.

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