Most golf tournaments are “stroke play.” In these events, all of the golfers play a certain number of holes, and the player who has the lowest combined total score is the winner.
In Match play, golfers are pitted directly against each other. A player is not concerned with the entire field—only with beating the opposing golfer (or side, in team play).
Scoring in match play is quite different from stroke play. Each hole in Match play is scored as a separate event. The player (or team) who finishes a hole in the fewest strokes is the winner of that hole. At the end of the match (however many holes they are playing), the player who has won the most holes is the winner.
The scoring system leads to some unusual terminology. The results of match events are not reported by strokes, or by the total number of holes won, but by how many MORE (or fewer) holes a player has won, along with the number of holes left in the match. So, if after 10 holes, Tiger Woods has won six holes and Phil Mickelson has won four, the announcers would report that Woods is 2-Up through 10. At the same time, Mickelson is 2-down. If both players have won the same number of holes, the match is “All Square Through 10.”
Because each hole is played as a separate event, it is possible for one player to get so far ahead in a match that the other has no chance to win. For example, if Woods and Mickelson finish the 16th hole, and Woods is 3-Up, there is no need to continue. The best Mickelson could do is to win the 17th and 18th, and he still would lose by one hole. So the match ends right there.
The score would be reported as Woods wins, 3 and 2. That means that Woods won because he was up by three holes, with only two holes to play.
If a player wins 1-up, that means that the match has gone to 18 holes. The last hole was played either because the match was all square after 17, or because a player was only 1 up, and the other player could have made the match All Square on the final hole.
If the match is All Square in individual stroke play, the two players generally play until the tie is broken. In many team events—such as the Ryder Cup—a tie would result in both sides getting a half a point. This is known as a “Halve”
Confusingly, the term Halve also is used when players tie on an individual hole. Tied holes, however, are not counted in scoring an individual match. You will never see a score like Woods 3 1/2 Mickelson 1 1/2.
This also explains why there will often be a result where the holes just don’t add up. Woods could win four holes, Mickelson win three and they could tie the other 11. If you just added up the number of holes won, it would look like they didn’t play a full match.
The term “Dormie” is used to describe a situation where one player is up by the exact number of holes left in the match. The best the opponent can do is to tie. So, if Woods and Mickelson were on the 16th tee, and Woods was 3-Up, the match is Dormie. The best Mickelson can do is to win the final three holes (16, 17 and 18)and make things All Square.
One seemingly strange score is when a player wins 5 and 3. On the surface, it looks as though the match should have ended with four holes to play, because one player was up by five. But what actually happened was that the match was Dormie with four to go. That is, Woods was 4-Up on the 15th tee (four holes to go). At this point, Mickelson can Halve the match by winning the final four holes. But Tiger wins the 15th, and the match is over. Woods wins by five, with three to go, or 5 and 3.
Another interesting aspect of Match Play is that the players do not have finish every hole. Consider the following situation: Mickelson hits a hole-in-one on a par three. Woods hits the green within inches of the cup, but the ball does not go in. At this point, there is no need for Woods to finish the hole, and he will concede to Mickelson. Even if Woods finishes with a birdie, he still has lost the hole. And there is no need to see if Woods can make the putt because unlike Stroke Play, the score does not carry over to the next hole.
Similarly, players often will “concede” a stroke. This usually happens on a short putt. Mickelson knows that Woods is going to make the tap-in, so he grants the “gimmie.” The real question for that hole is whether Mickelson can make 12 footer to win the hole, or if he two putts for a halve.
Players need to be sure that a ball is conceded before picking it up, though. In the last President’s Cup competition, Davis Love picked up a ball, thinking that Mike Weir had conceded. Weir had not, so normally a one stoke penalty would be assessed. However, because Love honestly thought he had heard Weir concede (Weir did say something that could have been reasonably misheard), there was no penalty.
There are also a couple of other major rules differences in Match Play. For example, in Stoke Play, if you play out of order, it’s just a breach of etiquette. But in Match Play, your opponent can force you to replay the shot.
The other major changes generally have to do with the penalty for breach of rules. In Stroke play, most of the penalties involve the addition of strokes. In Match Play, the rules violations generally involve the automatic loss of the hole.
Match play is very exciting golf. But one of the reasons that you don’t see it a lot on television is that it is unpredictable. Individual matches can end quite suddenly, because you don’t have to play all the holes to determine a winner. For that matter, you don’t even have to finish every hole. A network could schedule three hours for a match, only to have one player win the first ten holes. The match would be over, and the network still would have an hour of programming to fill.
Match play events also are usually played in brackets, like the NCAA basketball tournament. The winner continues on, and the loser goes home. This means that it is entirely possible for the matches on the weekend—when television viewership is highest—to be devoid of the stars. In match play, one bad round means that you are done. In Stroke play, you can have a bad round and still come back the next day, have a good round and make the cut.
Match play events are most famously played in international competitions, like the Ryder Cup, the President’s Cup, the Walker Cup and the Solheim Cup. It also is the featured format in the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship.