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What is Match Play in Golf?

Match play is a popular competitive playing format for major professional team events like the Ryder Cup and also your local golf leagues.
Golf Matchplay Handshake

Match play is a playing format that pits one golfer in a direct head-to-head match with another golfer. It’s a popular format that is used in major tournaments like the Ryder Cup to your local golf leagues.

The goal in match play is to win as many holes as you can against your competitor. This is different from a regular scoring game which accumulates the number of shots you take over 9 or 18 holes. 

In match play, each hole is played as a separate competition, with players or teams competing to see who can complete the hole in the fewest strokes. The player or team with the lowest score on each hole is awarded the win/point for that one hole and if the scores are tied, the hole is halved, and each player or team is awarded half a point.

The match continues in this manner until the player or team has more points than the holes left in the match (3 & 2) see below.  This means that a team is up 3 points with only 2 holes left to play. The team that is up 3 points is declared the winner. The competitors usually shake hands after the match is decided on that hole. They can either walk off the course or keep playing for fun. In the event of a tie, the match may continue until one player or team wins a hole, or it may be decided by sudden death, where the first player or team to win a hole wins the match.

Handicap Plays a Factor in Match Play

A golf handicap can play a factor in match play as well. The game of golf always tries to make the game ‘fair’ among competitors. A golfer’s historical scores and courses played defines their handicap. The golfer with the higher handicap receives ‘strokes’ on certain holes, to help even the odds. So if Jane has a handicap of 9 while Anne has a handicap of 18, then Anne will receive 9 strokes throughout the round, which means on holes where Anne gets a stroke, she will win the hole if she scores the same score as Jane.

Match Play Can be 1 on 1 or 2 on 2

Match play can be played with a single competitor against another or 2 competitors against another 2 competitors. During 1 on 1 match-play competitions, it’s a simple comparison. For 2 on 2, whichever of the 4 golfers scores the lowest score wins the hold for their team.

It doesn’t matter by how many strokes you win per hole, so often times when one player has already won a hole (they finished the hold with 4 strokes when their competitor is on their 5th shot – with no handicap), their competitor will concede the hole and pick up their ball to prepare to play the next hole.

Match Play Strategy

Match play typically brings a more aggressive approach since players are trying to win the hole. Since it doesn’t matter by how many strokes you lose (if you lose by 1 stroke or 3 strokes, you can only lose the hole once), many players will go for it with aggressive shots – especially at the pro level where a par is typically not good enough to win the hole.

Or if a player hits a poor golf shot into the hazard, their opponent can hit a conservative shot knowing that they already have the advantage on the hole and playing it safe will keep the odds to their advantage.

Conceding

In match play, it doesn’t matter by how many strokes you win per hole, so when one player has already won a hole, their competitor will concede the hole and pick up their ball to prepare to play the next hole. Or a player can concede a hole if their opponent has an easy tap-in putt.

Match Play Scoring Terminology & Examples

Have you ever watched the Ryder Cup to see the score read “1 up” or “3 & 2”? Let me explain.

# up – example “1 up”

The score “# up”, such as “1 up” means that the player won the match by a single stroke, and the 18th hole was played. This means the golfers entered the 18th hole tied and someone won on that final hole, or one player was up by one hole and they tied the 18th. Likewise, if the score is “2 up”, this means one player had a 1-hole lead going into the final hole and also won the 18th hole.

# & # – example “2 & 1”

The score “# & #”, such as “2 & 1” means that one player had a 2 hole lead going into the final hole. Since their opponent cannot possibly win – since they are down by 2 holes with only 1 hole to play, they must concede and the match ends early. Similarly, if the score is “3 & 1”, it means someone was 2 up going into the 17th hole and ended up winning that hole. They still had to play the 17th hole since the opponent could have won the last 2 holes to tie it up.

The Most Lopsided Match Play Game Ever

The most lopsided match play game ever was from – you guessed it: Tiger Woods. At the 2006 Match Play Championship in La Costa, there were some competitive words exchanged before the match which helped fuel the best player in the world. Tiger Woods won every single hole on the front nine against Stephen Ames. They tied the 10th hole and Tiger won the match 9 & 8. 

Tournaments featuring match play

Men’s events using match play

Women’s events using match play

USGA championships

  • Amateur, Junior Amateur, Mid-Amateur, Senior Amateur, and team (four-ball) 

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V Tongwarin

V Tongwarin

Visanu Tongwarin or “Coach V” is a Class A PGA Teaching Professional at Legacy Ridge Golf Course and Walnut Creek Golf Preserve in Westminster, Colorado. V's brings his passion for teaching the game of golf to all levels of golfers from running children clinics to training state champions and seasoned professionals.