The WGC Accenture Match Play Championship is this week, and with it the usual annual confusion of American golf fans over what terms like Halve, All Square, Dormie, 1-Up and scores like 3 and 2 or 5 and 4 mean.
American golf fans are used to what is known as “stroke play.” In stroke play, golfers play a set number of holes—and the number of holes is known from the beginning—and the player with the lowest combined total score wins.
Not so in Match Play. In that format, the golfers are pitted against each other in a mano-a-mano format. In match play, players are concerned—not with the field—but with beating the player they are playing with.
The most confusing part of Match Play is in the scoring. Each hole in a Match is a separate event, and is taken in isolation. The player who finishes the hole in the fewest strokes wins the hole. The player who wins the most holes out of eighteen wins the match.
The hole-by-hole format means that it’s possible (and probable) that one player will get far enough ahead that the other has no chance of winning. For example, if Tiger and Phil finish the 16th hole, and Woods has won three more than Phil, there is no need to continue. At best, Phil could win more holes, and still would be one hole down to Woods. So the match is called at 16. The final result would be Woods 3 and 2. That means that Woods won because he was up by three holes, with two holes left.
The scoring system in match play has some peculiar terminology. Match play results are reported by how many more (or fewer) holes a player has won, along with the number of holes left. Suppose that, after ten holes, Tiger has won six holes, and Phil has won four. The score is reported as Tiger being two up through 10. At the same time, Phil is two-down through 10. If both players have won the same number of holes, the score would be reported as “All Square Through 10.”
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.
The term “Halve” is used when players tie on an individual hole. However, because tied holes are not counted in scoring an individual match, you’ll 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. Tiger could win four holes, Phil 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.
A “Dormie” is when one player is up by the exact number of holes left in the match. At this point, 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 Phil can do is to win the final three holes (16, 17 and 18) and make things All Square.
One seemingly strange score occurs 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, Tiger was 4-Up on the 15th tee (four holes to go). At this point, Phil 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: Phil hits a hole-in-one on a par three. Tiger 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. For example, if Mickelson knows that Woods is going to make the tap-in, he might grant “gimmie.” The real question for that hole is whether Phil can make 12 footer to win the hole, or if he two putts for a halve.
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.
For my money, match play is the most exciting form of golf. But you don’t see a lot of it on television because it’s 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.
Television also hates match play because each match is a one-and-done. 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.