How To Play (And Win) At Match Play Golf

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Match play golf can be one of the most exciting formats of golf.

After all, who doesn’t enjoy watching golfers go head to head in the Ryder Cup or Solheim Cup. However, in order to enjoy match play golf yourself, it’s crucial you first understand the format. 

The general rules in a match play game are the same as stroke play, but the way you keep score is different. Instead of trying to shoot the lowest score, you are trying to score lower than your opponent on each hole to win the hole. 

It doesn’t matter if you outscore your opponent by 1 stroke, 2 strokes, or 10 strokes on a hole. It only counts as winning one hole! 

As you play, you don’t discuss how many over or under par you are, but instead refer to how many holes you’re ahead (or behind). For example, if you have won 3 holes and your opponent has won 1 hole, you would be “2 up”.

So why play match play instead of stroke play? 

Well, it can be a fun change of pace – it requires some different strategies and is a faster way to play golf. 

Crowds at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris on the 9th hole at Le Golf Nationale

You can play a singles match or a team match as a team of doubles partners. All team events (Ryder Cup, President’s Cup, Solheim Cup, Walker Cup, etc.) use match play and the PGA tour hosts a World Golf Championship each year using this format.

Differences between match play golf and stroke play golf

Despite the rules roughly being the same, there are a couple subtle rule differences in match play vs. stroke play. 

First, you must play in the correct order. In other words, the player that is furthest from the hole must play first. This can be difficult to grasp after the introduction of “Ready Golf”, but in math play, if you do play out of turn, your opponent can cancel the shot and request that you replay it! 

You will particularly notice this rule when you are putting because you cannot “finish out”.

Even if your ball is only an inch from the hole, you have to let your opponent putt before you can tap it in. 

You would have to have a pretty mean opponent if you have to mark your ball an inch from the hole as the second difference between match play and stroke play is that you don’t actually have to hole out on every hole

You can concede shots or even entire holes. If you’re having a mare on hole and you’re certain you’re going to lose the hole, you can tell your opponent his next shot is “good” and move on to the next tee.

How do handicaps work in match play golf?

Handicaps work slightly differently in match play compared to stroke play. 

In match play golf, the shots given are always determined from the lowest handicap golfer in the game. 

In a singles match play game, the lowest handicapper doesn’t receive any shots (effectively playing off scratch) and their handicap acts a baseline. The higher handicapper in the match receives the difference between the two players’ handicaps. 

For example Player A is a 6 handicapper playing against Player B that has a handicap of 12. The difference in their handicaps is 6, so Player B receives 6 shots in the match. 

Player B receives the shots on the hardest 6 holes on the course, as defined by the stroke index (1 – 6). The rest of the holes are played straight up without any shots. 

A doubles match play game applies the same concept, with a slight twist. Each player receives 90% of the difference between their handicap and lowest handicap in the group. The lowest handicapper again does not get any strokes.

So, if Player A (6 handicap) and Player B (12 handicap) were to play as partners against Player C (10 handicap) and Player D (22 handicap) they would receive the shots as below:

Player A – 0 shots (lowest handicap)

Player B – 5 shots (90% of 12 – 6 = 5.4)

Player C – 4 shots (90% of 10 – 6 = 3.6)

Player D – 14 shots (90% of 22 – 6 = 14.4)

Again they receive the shots on the holes as identified by the stroke index. 

How to play match play: Step-by-Step

Step 1: Figure out the handicaps and how many shots each player receives. Agree on the holes they will receive the strokes (should be hardest ones based on the hole-by-hole handicap index). If receiving shots, make a note of the holes you receive them on, it’s your responsibility to take them. 

Step 2: Determine who has honors on the first tee – you can flip a coin or guess odd / even numbers on your opponents golf ball.

Step 3: Tee off and play the course the same way you always do, just remember that you must play in the correct order (furthest away plays first). Don’t forget that putts and holes can be conceded – you can always tell your opponent their next shot is “good”.

Step 4: Keep track of where the higher handicapper receives their strokes and keep score based on who has won the most holes. The score in a match play will always be 1 up, 2 down, etc… if you are tied, that is referred to as “all square”.

Step 5: It is important that the correct player tees off first on each hole. This should be the golfer (or team) who won the previous hole – when a hole is tied, the golfer keeps the “honor”.

Step 6: The player / team wins the match once it is mathematically impossible for the other player / team to come back and tie. For example, if you are 4 up with only 3 holes to play, you have won. The final score of this match would be 4&3.

How to win at match play golf

As we mentioned in the introduction above, there are some strategies that can improve your chances of winning when playing match play.

The biggest piece of advice is to play the course and not the man

You should pay attention to how your opponent is playing the hole, but don’t let it impact your choices too much. Play the course and if you play well, you’ll typically win the match. 

Too many golfers get tied up in their opponents game, trying to hit it as far as them etc. and forget to concentrate on their own game. Generally if you stick to what you know and play to your handicap, you’ll win more games than you’ll lose.

The one exception is if your opponent does something great or terrible. For example, if they hit their tee shot out of bounds, you should play safer. Or if they hit their approach shot close, like “gimmie” range, you probably want to take dead aim as you have nothing to lose.

Second, you should play a bit more aggressively in match play versus stroke play. Why? Well, the penalty is less. 

In stroke play, you can have a bad hole and lose 3 to 5 shots on your opponent, but in match play it only costs you one hole. It doesn’t matter if you make a 10 and they make a 3 – you still only lose 1 hole.

Finally, mental strength is a key component in match play. 

You want to appear confident in your game and your shots. If you look nervous on short putts your opponent is less likely to concede them to you. Make a confident stroke and roll it in – the next time they might just give it to you. 

Also, you never want to be surprised by a good shot by your opponent. Be mentally prepared that they could hit every shot perfectly. If you assume they are going to hit a bad shot, but they pull off a great one, it can throw you off your game.

Play confidently and assume your opponent will play well. This is the key to finding success in match play golf.