Definition of Match Play in Golf

Two golfers engaged in match play.

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"Match play" is one of the two main formats for competition in golf (the other being stroke play, also known as medal play). In the match play format, the round is played with the goal of winning more individual holes than your opponent, as opposed to (as in stroke play) ending the round with the fewest cumulative strokes vs. the field. For example, on the first hole in a match play match, Golfer A scores 4 and her opponent scores 5 — Golfer A wins the hole.

The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms defines "match play" as "the original form a competition in golf, in which the contest is between two sides and the score is by holes."

Definition In the Official Rules

This is the official definition of match play, written by the USGA and R&A, as it appears in The Rules of Golf:

A form of play where a player or side plays directly against an opponent or opposing side in a head-to-head match of one or more rounds:
a) A player or side wins a hole in the match by completing the hole in fewer strokes (including strokes made and penalty strokes), and
b) The match is won when a player or side leads the opponent or opposing side by more holes than remain to be played.
Match play can be played as a singles match (where one player plays directly against one opponent), a Three-Ball match or a Foursomes or Four-Ball match between sides of two partners.

More About Match Play

For a fuller explanation of match play, see our Match Play Primer, which goes into match play scoring, match play formats, plus rules and strategies, as well as more match play terms such as dormie.

A few brief points, however:

  • Scoring is kept by comparing the holes won by each player. If each has won the same number of holes, the match is said to be "all square". If you have won four holes and your opponent has won three, you are said to be "1-up" while your foe is "1-down."
  • Final score reflects the margin of victory and the hole at which the match ended. If the match goes the full 18 holes, the final score would be said or shown as 1-up or 2-up. If it ends before the 18th, the score would look like "3-and-2" (the winner was three holes up with only two holes to play, thus ending the match early).
  • Match play can be played by individuals or by teams. Through the early history of golf, most golf tournaments and matches were played as match play; today, stroke play is the more common competition format.