Although most golf fans think of stroke play first when they think about the game, match play is probably the oldest form of the game. Even though most of the golf we watch on TV are stroke-play events, team competitions such as the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup have long used the match-play format – an entirely different approach to golf.
Winning a Hole
Matches are scored by winning a hole, not by cumulative strokes. Suppose players A and B play a three-hole match. Player A records 3, 4 and 5 for the holes, while Player B records 4, 5 and 3. In stroke play, both would tie with 12 strokes. But in match play, A would win the first hole (3 vs. 4) and go 1 up. Player A would also win the second hole (4 vs. 5) and go 2 up. Player B would win the final hole (5 vs. 3), but still lose the match. Player A would win the match, 1 up, because he was one hole ahead at the end of the match. Had A and B tied on a hole, that hole would be "halved" and not affect the scores at all.
Winning a Match
Although a match is typically 18 holes, this is hardly a given in match play. A match can end in fewer than 18 holes if one player is up by more holes than are left to be played. In that case, the score would be recorded as the number of holes won and the number of holes left. For example, if Player A was ahead by four holes after the 15th is played, the match would be over because there were only three holes left, and Player B could not catch up. In this example, Player A would win, 4 and 3.
Breaking a Tie
It's possible that an entire match could be halved. In most match-play competitions, extra holes will be played until somebody wins one hole and the match. For example, if players A and B were tied after 18 holes and it took three more holes for A to win, the result would be that Player A won in 21 holes.
A unique aspect of match play is the concession. One player can concede another's putt; the second player would record the number of strokes actually taken plus the conceded stroke. An entire hole can be conceded if one player feels he is too far behind to even halve the hole. And a match can be conceded if one player feels he is too far behind to come back.
Match-play penalties are different from stroke-play penalties. In stroke play, the typical penalty is two strokes. In match play, the general penalty is loss of the hole.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the mindset of match play. Unlike stroke play, all that matters is winning the hole. It doesn't matter if you win it with an eagle or a double bogey, the score is still the same. Because of that, match players tend to adjust their strategy on a particular hole depending on what their opponents are doing. It makes for a very exciting competition.