Match Play: Golf Scoring System For Direct Competition

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Match play is the traditional way for two players to compete directly against one another. It is also a very common scoring format for two teams of two golfers (four players total) to compete during a round of golf.

When using the match play format, each hole is treated as a miniature game within the larger game. The goal is to win as many individual holes as possible. The player/team that wins the most holes, wins the match. Unlike stroke play, the overall score is not relevant in the match play system. Only the balance of holes won, and holes lost.

Alternatives to the Match Play scoring format includes Stroke Play and Stableford.

match play golf scoring system

Basic Rules For Match Play Scoring

Match play can only be used in a binary competition. Meaning two individual players competing directly against one another, or two 2-person teams competing against each other.

Each player or team is trying to beat their opponent for each individual hole. 

When a player wins a hole (by making a lower score than the opponent) they are considered “1 Up.” The player that lost the hole is considered “1 Down.”

If the players make the same score on a hole, they move to the next hole with no change in the status of the match.

Players are allowed to concede the hole at any point. Players are also allowed to give their opponents putts, also known as gimmies. 

The actual number of stokes relative to par is not important. Only the number of strokes as compared to your opponent matter in match play. Therefore you will see players pick up their ball once they are no longer able to win the hole.

Match Play Scoring Terms

The scoring terminology for match play is slightly different and can be confusing for some people.

Players begin the match “All Square” or “Tied” since neither golfer has won a hole yet. (I’ll address the All-Square vs Tied controversy in another post.)

Once a player wins a hole, they are considered “1 Up.” The player that lost the hole is considered “1 Down.” If the first player wins another hole, they go 2 Up and so on. 

When one player is down the same number of holes as are remaining in the match, they are considered “dormie.” This means that can no longer win the match and need to win all remaining holes to force a draw. 

If a player is up more holes than are remaining in the match, they are declared the winner. The winning score is noted by the number of holes that the player was up and the number of holes remaining when the match ended.

For example, if you are up four holes with only three holes remaining, you have won the match 4&3. If the match goes to the final hole and you by one hole, you will refer to this as having won the match 1 Up.

If the match ends on the last hole without a winner, this is called a draw. Depending on the event, there may be a playoff. In larger team games like the Ryder Cup, each player is awarded ½ points for their team and the individual match simply ends in a draw.

match play golf scorecard

Advantages Of Match Play

Match play is the perfect way to compete directly with another player. Since each hole is a smaller game within the larger game, match play encourages more aggressive golf and opens the game to different types of strategic thinking.

You still play against the golf course like you do in stroke play, but with match play you are also playing against your opponent. If your opponent hits his ball in a hazard, you may decide to play a safer shot. Whereas, if your opponent hits a great shot close to the pin, you will need to take a risk to match their excellence.

Many traditionalists golfer believe that a true test between two golfers should be decided over 36-holes of match play. This is how prestigious events like the US Amateur Championships intimately decide their winners. Think March Madness brackets but with golfers!

Match play is also great because you are not as severely penalized for poorly played holes. If you make a quadruple bogey and your opponent makes a birdie, the result is only the loss of that one hole. You can do better on the next hole and make up for the mistake easily.

Challenges Of Match Play

Match play does have its draw backs. For one thing, you can only use the match play scoring system to compete directly within your playing group. 

Two individual players or two 2-person teams can play match play matches, but it is not possible to use this format for larger groups of players during the same round. 

Also, match play does not always allow players to complete the entire course. Players often pick up the ball when they have a lost a hole, and the match can end before all the holes are completed.

Of course, you can still finish the remaining holes if you want.

Using Handicaps In Match Play

Players with different skill levels can still compete with the match play format by using handicaps. This is very common and often makes for exciting matches.

When using handicaps for match play, the player with the higher course handicap will subtract the handicap of the better player from their own handicap. 

For example, Tom has a course handicap of 2 and his opponent, Matt, has an average course handicap of 12. In this case Matt will subtract 2 from 12 to to arrive at his match handicap of 10. (12-2=10)

From here, Matt will apply one stroke on each of the 10 most difficult holes based on the scorecard handicap rating. If both Matt and Tom make the same gross score on one of the 10 hardest holes, Matt will win the hole due to his lower net score.

Learn more about How Golf Handicaps Work.

Other Games That Pair Well With Match Play

Match play is a great game all on its own, but there are many games that fit well within the match play scoring system.

Nassau is the most common betting game in golf and is often played in a match play format. Nassau is really three separate bets: front nine, back nine, and overall. If you haven’t played it with your favorite playing partner, you should give it a try the next time out.

Best ball or Four-ball is also a perfect game for match play with two 2-person teams. Two-person scrambles can be played in a match play format. Alternate shot or foursomes is another great game for match play scoring with 2-person teams.

Conclusion

Personally, match play is my favorite way to compete on the golf course. There is no better test of golf…in my humble opinion.

With each hole being a game of its own, there is always something to strategize over. Plus, your mistakes aren’t nearly as damaging in match play as they can be when competing in stroke play events or games.

Next time you hit the links, consider trying this exciting and rewarding format.

David Shelly
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