Match Play Golf Rules Made Simple: How To Win In Match Play

There are two basic ways to keep score in golf – stroke play and match play. Stroke play is what you watch the PGA tour play 95%+ of the time.

The rules of stroke play are simple, but match play golf rules can be tricky.

In stroke play, you count your “strokes/swings” for each hole and the total of all holes (18, 36, 72) is your score. The player with the lowest score wins.

Match play golf rules are different. It is one player versus another player. A battle of wills! It doesn’t matter how many strokes you take, as long you beat your opponent.

One bad hole doesn’t ruin your round in match play. You can quickly recover.

Below we will cover match play golf rules, how it differs from stroke play and the strategies you should use to win at match play.

Let’s get started.

Match play golf rules cover image - three male golfers watch female golfer prepare to take her swing.

How Does Match Play Work In Golf?

In match play, you are against one other person. All you have to do is beat that one player to win. It is possible to play teams as well (2 players versus 2 players).

The scoring match play golf rules are simple. Each hole is a unique battle. You are simply trying to win that hole.

It doesn’t matter how many strokes, it only matters if you beat your opponent. If you make an 8, but your opponent makes a 9, you win the hole.

In match play golf rules, you don’t track your total score for the round. Instead, you track how many holes you are ahead or behind.

This is why one bad hole doesn’t hurt you in match play. You can lose a hole by 6 strokes, but you are only 1 down in match play.

Win the next hole and your match is back to even.

Match play golf rules are used by professionals in the Ryder Cup, President’s Cup, and in a couple of other professional events during the year.

You can use your golf handicap to play nett match play. The higher handicap receives strokes on the harder holes.

For example, if a scratch golfer is playing a 6-handicap the 6-handicap gets a stroke on the 6 hardest holes.

Match Play Golf Rules: 4 Ways They Differ From Stroke Play

For the most part, the core rules of golf are the same in match play as stroke play. For example, the penalty for a shot that goes out of bounds is still stroke and distance.

That being said, there are four key ways match play golf rules are different.

#1: Concessions

The most significant difference in match play golf rules is the concept of concessions.

In stroke play, every shot must be played. Your ball must hit the bottom of the cup and every hole must be completed.

Three male golfers practice their swing on the driving range.

In match play golf rules you can give your opponent a shot. Typically, a putt. You can tell them to “pick it up” or “it’s good” and they don’t have to make it.

In golf terminology, these are often referred to as “gimmes”.

When you should concede a putt to your opponent is an interesting strategy that we cover below.

#2: Match Play Scoring

You are trying to win holes and your total strokes don’t matter. The terminology for match play golf rules related to scoring are quite different.

In stroke play, you will hear golfers say things like “I shot 82” or “I was 10-over par”. You will never hear this in match play.

It’s all about who has won more holes. If you ask “how is the match going” the answer will be something like “I am 2-down” or “I am 3-up”.

For example, if after 9 holes player 1 has won 3 holes, player 2 has won 2 holes, and 4 holes have been tied, the score of the match is “player 1 is 1-up”.

Three male golfers of varying ages observe something in the distance on the golf course.

In match play golf rules, the match is over when one player is up by more holes than the # of holes left in the match.

If player 1 is 3-up after 16 holes, the match is over. With only 2 holes left, player 2 can’t win the match.

Match play golf rules would score this match as “player 1 wins 3 & 2“.

#3: Order Of Play

In stroke play, the normal golf etiquette is to let the person farthest from the hole play next.

While this is typical, it is not a rule. The USGA now recommends golfers play “ready golf” to help improve the pace of play.

But match play golf rules are different. The player farthest from the hole MUST play first.

If a player hits out of turn, match play golf rules allow their opponent to make them replay the shot.

A male golfer takes a swing out of a bunker sand trap.

#4: You May Not Finish Your Round

That’s right – if you are playing an 18 hole match, you probably won’t need to play all 18 holes. The majority of matches end before the 18th hole.

The match is over as soon as one player can’t win. Although rare, it is possible in match play golf rules for a match to end on the 10th hole.

If player 1 wins the first 10 holes, the match would end with them winning 10 & 8. Tiger Woods almost did this in the 2006 Dell Match Play Championship.

Tiger beat Stephen Ames 9 & 8! If you hear a golfer say “they got Stephen Ames’ed” it is fair to assume they were crushed.

More common final scores using match play golf rules are 3 & 2, 2 & 1, or 1-up.

4 Ways To Win At Match Play

We have talked about how match play differs from stroke – now it is time to discuss strategies for success.

Male golfer wearing shorts prepares to take his swing, legs in shot only.

#1: Never Be Shocked

Match play is more of a mental game than stroke play. Johnny Miller said, “Match play really exposes your character and how much of a will to win you have in your heart”.

Momentum swings can happen quickly and you have to be ready for your opponent to make their next shot.

You never want to be surprised by something they do. Don’t let a great shot by your opponent bother you.

It may look like you are going to win a hole, but they chip in from the bunker. You can’t let a great shot by your opponent cause you to hit a poor one.

Stay strong. Stay tough. Find the will to win!

#2: Timing of Concessions

Match play golf rules allow you to give your opponent putts/shots, but when you do it is an important strategy.

Male golfer on his back swing, sun beaming behind him sending rays of sun to the camera.

There are some obvious “gimmes”. If they have a 2-inch putt, you might as well give it to them. They aren’t going to miss it.

What length putt might they miss? 2 feet? 3 feet?

There is etiquette involved as well. You don’t want to force your opponent to make 6-inch putts all day.

There are three factors you need to consider before conceding a putt.

A: The Player

What do you know about your opponent? Have you played with them before?

If you know they sometimes get nervous over short putts, you may want to test them. There is nothing in the match play golf rules that says you can’t have them make a 2 footer.

B: The Putt

Is the short putt you are considering conceding a straight putt? Which way does it break? Is it uphill or downhill?

The hardest short putt for a right-handed golfer is a downhill putt that breaks from left to right. The type of putt should impact your decision.

Two young golfers play golf with palm trees in the background.

Related Article: The 6 Best Golf Putting Aids In 2022

C: The Match

Where are you in the match? Are you ahead or behind?

Most golfers will concede putts early in the match, but force their opponent to make them later in the round.

If you are behind in the match, you might want to test your opponent’s putting. You should almost always force them to make the putt to win the match.

#3: Clutch Putting

The best match play golfers are almost always great putters. Clutch putting can help you win holes or tie holes you should have lost.

Rolling in putts can frustrate your opponent and give you a mental advantage.

Three male golfers stand chatting and smiling with their golf bags next to them.

Ben Sayer’s quote is perfect. “A good player who is a great putter is a match for any golfer. A great hitter who cannot putt is a match for no one.”

Use your short game to cover up mistakes and you will likely leave the course with a match play victory.

#4: Apply Pressure On Your Opponent

When playing match play golf rules you should look for every opportunity to make your opponent feel pressure.

Do you have honors on the tee box? Hit the fairway. Are you hitting the first approach shot? Hit the green.

The more you can make your opponent uncomfortable the better chance you have of them making a mistake.

You don’t have to be perfect. You simply have to win the hole. If your opponent is going to make a double bogey, it doesn’t matter if you make birdie, par, or bogey.

Play smart and turn up the heat on your opponent.

Mother, father and son wheel their golf bags along the golf course, with the fathers hand on the son's back.

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Ray has been playing golf for 35+ years, including being part of his High School and College golf teams. While he still enjoys playing in amateur tournaments, Ray now focuses on growing the game of golf through teaching and coaching. He has two sons that both play golf competitively and loves spending time watching them compete. Ray continues to play in local amateur golf events and currently has a +2 handicap.

4 thoughts on “Match Play Golf Rules Made Simple: How To Win In Match Play”

  1. In a better ball match play situation. If one of your opponents hits it out of bounds and doesn’t have another ball with him (left his bag 100 yards away, convenient for the next tee) and his partner also doesn’t have another ball. They ask you for a ball, are you allowed to give them one?

  2. In match play if an opponent picks up their ball and takes the max on the hole, automatically lose the hole? Even if their opponent scores the max as well and has to give the other one stroke?

    • Yes, if one player fails to complete the hole, the other player would win the hole regardless of their final score. As soon as a player “picks up” they have conceded that hole!


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