Match Play | Golf Formats Explained

Match Play | Golf Formats Explained

Golf is most commonly played in a stroke play format, but other golf formats can mix things up and create a more competitive environment.

One such example is "Match Play," which we'll explain in this guide.

What is Match Play in Golf?

"Match Play" is a form of golf where a player competes against an opponent to gain points on each individual hole. 

A point is awarded to the player with the lowest score on each hole. If both golfers have the same number of strokes on a hole, the hole is halved, and neither player is awarded a point. 

In match play, a golfer wins when they are beating their opponent by more points than there are holes remaining or by finishing the round with more points than their opponent.

Match Play Examples

To make sure there's no confusion, let's take a look at a couple of examples of match play.

For the sake of brevity, the golfers in these examples will be playing just a 3-hole match rather than a more traditional 18 or 9 holes.

Example 1

  • Hole 1 - Golfer A completes the first hole in 5 strokes, while Golfer B only needs 4 strokes to complete the hole. Golfer B wins a point because his score was lower.
  • Hole 2 - Golfer A needs 4 strokes to complete the second hole, and Golfer B completes the hole in 2 strokes. Again, Golfer B wins a point for having the lowest score on the hole. 
  • After two holes, Golfer B is up 2 points on Golfer A. Because there is only one hole left in their three-hole match, Golfer A can't come back to win or tie by the end of the round (Golfer A winning the last hole would still leave him 1 point behind). Golfer B wins by 1 point and the last hole doesn't need to be played.

Example 2

  • Hole 1 - Golfer A shoots a 3, and Golfer B shoots a 4. Golfer A wins a point.
  • Hole 2 - Golfer A and Golfer B both shoot a 5. The hole is halved, meaning neither golfer gets the point.
  • Hole 3 - Golfer A scores a 5, and Golfer B gets a 4. Golfer B wins a point.
  • At the end of the three-hole match, both golfers are tied with 1 point, as they've each won one of the three holes. Depending on the event rules or what the players agreed to, the match can finish in a tie, go to a playoff, or be decided by a predetermined tie-breaking factor.

Head to Head Rather Than Against a Field

The most common golf tournaments are stroke play events. A large field of golfers all compete against each other to see who can complete the round(s) with the fewest number of strokes (golf shots).

Match play events are often played in an elimination tournament style, where each round a golfer only needs to win more holes than their opponent to win the round and advance.

Match Play Strategy

Your total score doesn't matter in match play. In fact, you don't even need to finish every hole to beat your opponent. All that matters is that you win more individual holes than your opponent.

Match play creates unique situations where players have to be more or less aggressive than they'd typically play under stroke play rules.

Here are some examples of unique situations that can occur in match play:

  • If your opponent hits their tee shot into a penalty area on a par-4 hole, there's a good chance you can win the hole with a par. You might consider choosing less than driver off the tee to increase your chances of staying in play and force your opponent to get up and down from their drop.
  • Similar to our first example, if your opponent hits their tee shot on a par-3 hole into a water hazard, you may decide to take a less aggressive line (going for the center of the green rather than at the pin, for example).
  • If your opponent sticks their tee shot on a par-3 to a few feet and you're off of the green for your second shot, you should aggressively try to make your chip shot because you'll likely need a birdie to halve the hole.

Concessions

Because you're just playing against one opponent in match play, rather than the entire field, you can concede strokes, holes, or even the whole match to your opponent.

An example of a concession would be giving your opponent the hole if they have a short putt for a 3 and you're next to play with a further putt for a 5.

Match Play With Handicaps

Golfers of different skill levels can compete in match play by awarding strokes to the worse of the two players. The amount of strokes to give is usually determined by finding the difference between the two players' handicaps.

For example, a 5-handicap golfer would give a 15-handicap golfer 10 strokes.

The USGA ranks each hole on a course by difficulty from 1 to 18 (on an 18 hole course), with 1 being the most difficult. In the example above, the 15-handicap golfer would receive a stroke on the 10 most challenging holes.

Scorecard Hole Difficulty Ratings
Scorecard With Hole Difficulty Ratings

If a golfer were receiving 21 strokes on an 18 hole course, they'd first get one stroke on every hole, then an additional stroke on the 3 most difficult holes.

When working out a deal to play a golf buddy in match play, it's common for some negotiating if one player is giving strokes to the other. If there's a significant gap between each players' handicaps, the better player may not want to give the worse golfer the full stroke differential between their handicaps. Sometimes better players may also not want to give strokes on par-3 holes to their opponent. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide what seems fair.

Match Play Is an Excellent Casual Competitive Format

Whether handicaps come into play or not, match play is usually a better way to compete casually with friends than stroke play.

Match play keeps things more competitive than stroke play in the event of "blow up" holes.

Let's say you shoot a quadruple-bogey while your opponent gets a birdie. In stroke play, there's a good chance you can't come back from your blow-up after losing 5 strokes to your opponent on one hole, but in match play, you've simply lost one hole to them.

Match play is also an excellent way to compete when you're playing in a threesome. Just compete against both of your playing partners individually.

There are also team adaptions of match play, like "best ball", which is most commonly played with teams of two golfers facing each other.

If you're looking for a way to get the competitive juices flowing with your golfing friends, we highly recommend match play or a similar format over stroke play.