Mar 03, 2024
POSTED BY: Nicholas Venditti

What Is Match Play in Golf?

Not all golf tournaments are the same. While most take the form of stroke play, in which all competitors total their number of strokes throughout the entire round, with the lowest coming out on top, others use a format known as match play. It's true that most tournaments use the first, but some of the most prestigious, including the Ryder Cup, have long used match play rules.

Match Play Rules: The Basics

The format in which match play works is entirely different to stroke play. Yes, they both involve the same essential components that make up golf - the aim of getting the ball in the hole as quickly as possible - but how the game is structured and how you win involve two very different methods.

How to Play Match Play

In stroke play golf, a group of people compete to use the least number of strokes to get around a course. In the match format, you compete against a single competitor on a hole-by-hole basis, with one point earned if you use fewer strokes than your opponent. Whoever has the most points at the end of the round is the winner. 

This encourages more aggressive and strategic golf. Why? If you lose a hole by 10 shots, it doesn't count against your overall score - you'll only lose a single point. On the other hand, stroke play is more about consistency and not falling too far back with a single catastrophic hole.

How to Win at Match Play

Winning a match play round or tournament depends on how the contest is structured. Match golf is often played as a team, with the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup, where the United States faces off against a European team, as the perfect example. 

Over three days, players from both sides compete in a series of match play contests with a point awarded for the win and a half point if both players finish level. At the end of the competition, the total points from all match-play games are calculated, with the team with the most points declared the winner.

Match play is sometimes, but not often, played as a knock-out round-robin competition, for example, the WGC Match Play, won by Sam Burns in 2023. This means that players compete in brackets one-on-one and must keep winning their individual competitions before reaching the final, where the last two players standing meet.

Concession and Penalties in Match Play

Another significant difference between stroke and match golf is how marshalls deal with concessions and penalties. 


In match golf, you can concede a hole, a stroke, or even the entire match if you wish. Conceding an entire match is incredibly rare, but it could happen if the tournament uses a team format and there's no hope of your team winning. Holes concessions are also rare, but they do happen. For example, if your opponent has holed an eagle and you're still thrashing about in the weeds on a double-bogey, it's easier to concede the hole and start afresh.

Stroke concessions are relatively common and might occur when your opponent has a short putt. In this case, they're highly unlikely to miss their shot, so for the sake of speed, simply give them the shot and move on.

Remember, you're not counting the overall number of shots you take in a round but rather looking at each hole as a single contest. One of the main drawbacks of the match system is that it usually takes much longer if you want to include the same number of people, so any way to speed up the game is generally favorable.


There are also slight differences in etiquette and penalties between the two formats. With match golf, there's a strong emphasis on completing the round no matter what: the longer you take, the better it is for the rest of the field. Marshalls are, therefore, more stringent on penalties that can quickly add up and decimate your round, while in match play, the worst you'll get is the loss of a single hole. 

Playing out of turn in both formats is generally seen as poor etiquette, but in stroke play, it's typically given a pass by the marshalls. However, it's considered more of an infringement in stroke play, and they may even ask you to play a shot again.

Handicapping in Match Play

Handicapping levels the playing field and allows weaker players to compete with stronger opponents. Before you begin, you'll need to check the technicality rating for each hole at the clubhouse. 

In match play, each golfer declares their handicap at the start of the round, with the highest given an extra shot on as many holes as that calculated difference number. If your handicap is 5 and your opponent is 10, they'll receive one extra shot for any hole rated between 1 and 5.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Keep Score in Match Play?

Keeping the score in this format is straightforward. Simply tally the number of shots you take for a single hole and then compare it with your opponent. Whoever took fewer shots gets one point; if you have the same number, both receive half a point.

Do Holes Carry Over in Match Play?

Generally, holes aren't carried over in match play. However, this might be the case if a hole is tied, along with the overall score, and things need finishing with a sudden death hole. 

Final Thoughts

Sadly, match play golf has lost much of its appeal in the last four or five decades. While there used to be numerous high-level tournaments using this format, today, there are almost none. Much of this is down to the time needed to play this style of golf, which is often at odds with tight TV schedules. Despite this, the Ryder and Solheim Cups remain hugely popular and draw massive crowds - though much is undoubtedly down to some good-natured rivalry. 

While the big names generally keep to stroke play during the major tournaments, match play golf is still a great way to have fun in a group setting or simply with one other person. It's a different form of golf, so why not mix things up from time to time? 

Whatever style of golf you're playing, make sure you're in style by stopping by Stitch Golf for all your golf gear and clothing needs. We've been helping amateurs and professionals since 2012, and we know how important it is to look your best and use the best quality equipment around.