The Meaning of 'Medal Play' in Golf

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"Medal play" in general use is simply another term for "stroke play." In a more specific use, medal play refers to the stroke-play qualifying rounds that precede some match play tournaments.

The General Meaning of 'Medal Play'

Generally, medal play is a synonym for stroke play. And stroke play is, well, "regular golf." That is, medal play is the most common way of playing golf, the type of golf that even most people who don't play golf are familiar with: The golfer plops her ball onto a tee and hits a drive. She walks to the ball and hits it again, and continues until rolling the ball into the hole on the green. How many strokes did that take? That's your score on the hole.

Play each hole like that — counting each stroke played and adding any penalty strokes incurred — and at the end the round, add up those strokes. That's your score for the round. If you are competing in stroke play, then compare your score to the scores of all other golfers in the competition to see where you stand.

That's stroke play in a nutshell. Which means that's medal play in a nutshell. The two mean the same thing: a round of golf in which the score is kept by counting strokes and totaling them.

A More Specific Usage of 'Medal Play' Refers to Match-Play Qualifying Rounds

There is another usage of "medal play" that is more specific, and this usage refers to the stroke-play qualifying rounds that are played prior to the start of a match play tournament.

In match play, one golfer plays against one other golfer. On each hole, they compare their scores. If you score four and your opponent five, you win that hole. The winner at the end of the match is the golfer who wins the most holes. In a match play tournament, if you win your first-round match you advance into the second round; win again, you move on to the third, and so on.

Many match play tournaments — and especially in high-level amateur events (such as a U.S. Amateur or U.S. Women's Amateur) — are preceded by one or more rounds of stroke play. These rounds serve as qualifiers: A field of 128 golfers, for example, might play two rounds of stroke play, with only the top 64 then advancing into the match-play bracket.

Such stroke-play qualifying rounds prior to the beginning of match play are called "medal play." Finishing with the best score in those qualifying rounds doesn't mean you won the tournament, just that you performed best in the qualifier. Or, you might say, you "won the qualifier." Is that worth something? A trophy? A medal, perhaps?

That's where the term "medal play" comes from: The low-scorer in such a stroke-play qualifier is called the medalist because medals were (and sometimes still are, such as in high-level amateur events) awarded to the low scorer or Top 3 low scorers.

Here are a couple of usage examples:

  • "The format for this tournament is medal play."
  • "The tournament starts with two rounds of medal play, then four rounds of match play."

The earliest use of "medal play" cited in The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms dates from 1816, although the term was probably in use well before then.