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Experts Explain: Match Play Vs. Stroke Play

Posted: 4/16/2012

What are the differences between match play and stroke play?

One thing which makes golf a unique game is that it is played in two very different forms. Match play, which involves two golfers or two pairs of golfers competing directly against each other, was the first form of the game that developed. Later, the desire to have large groups of players compete at one time brought about the development of stroke play. Stroke play was called medal play in the early days because the winner of the competition was frequently awarded a medal.  Even today, the winner of the U.S. Open, and every other USGA championship, receives a gold medal and the runner-up, a silver medal.

The differing nature of these two forms of play is the reason there are a number of differences between them in the Rules. While the principal differences are explained in Rule 2 (Match Play) and Rule 3 (Stroke Play), almost every Rule has some difference between the two forms of play.  When a Rule has a difference in how the two forms of play are handled, you will find that match play is always discussed first. This is because it was the original form of golf.

Who Wins

The most obvious way in which the two forms of play differ is how the winner is determined.

Match play is a hole-by-hole contest; think of it as 18 one-hole contests. The winner is the player who wins the most holes. When a player is more holes up than there are holes remaining to play, he wins. This means that matches can end before the 18th hole or they can go beyond 18 until a winner is decided. Match play even allows for ties.  This happens in team competitions such as the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup. In those cases, a halved match results in each team being awarded a half point.

Since match play is played by holes, the general penalty for an infraction of the Rules is the loss of the hole where the infraction takes place. If a player does something such as playing from a wrong place or hitting a wrong ball, he loses that hole and play moves to the next hole. It is important to remember that not all infractions in match play result in a loss of the hole. There are a number of one-stroke penalties also and players should make sure they don’t assume that any infraction will result in losing the hole. Because the play is by holes, a player can give up on a hole at any time by conceding it to the opponent. He can also concede the opponent’s next stroke rather than making him hole out.

In stroke play, the player’s total score for the round or rounds determines the winner.  In order to have a score for the round, the player must hole out with his ball in play on every hole. The general penalty of two strokes for an infraction of the rules gives a penalty which results in an adjustment to the player’s score for the hole. Even so, some violations are significant enough that, in addition to the two strokes, the player must correct the error or be disqualified.  These violations were covered in a previous Experts Explain column.

When Something Goes Wrong, Who Cares

Because match play is a head-to-head contest, all players with an interest in the outcome are playing together and are able protect their rights. If a doubtful or disputed point arises between opponents, one of them can choose to make a claim.  Because match play is a sequence of one-hole contests, if a player sees his opponent violate a Rule and fails to make his claim about it until after the start of the next hole, the opportunity to make a claim is forfeited. Additionally, a player may choose to ignore any violation by an opponent if he feels it is insignificant.

With every player in a stroke-play contest potentially having an interest in the play of every other player, the Rules expect that all penalties will be enforced.  While, in most cases, the reporting of a penalty or its resolution does not need to be initiated during the play of the hole where it occurs, as it does in match play, it still must be done before the scorecard is returned. A player who incurs a penalty and doesn’t include it in his score before returning his score card will be disqualified.

Order of Play

While Rule 10 (Order of Play) states that in both forms of play, the ball farthest from the hole must be played first, the Rule is stricter in match play.

If a player in stroke play plays out of turn, there is no penalty unless he and another player agreed to do so to assist one of them.

In match play, it is important that the order of play be preserved so that players can know how they stand when it is their turn to play. While there is no penalty for playing out of turn in match play, the opponent can immediately recall any stroke which is played out of turn and require it to be played at the proper time. If the player plays out of turn and hits it right down the middle, his opponent might have more reason to choose to recall the stroke than, if the ball played out of turn went into the woods.

Starting Play of the Hole

Rule 11 (Teeing Ground) requires that a player in stroke play start from within the teeing ground. Failing to do so results in a two-stroke penalty and the player must correct the error by starting the hole from within the teeing ground or be disqualified.

In match play, just as with playing out of turn, a player may ignore the fact that his opponent started a hole from outside the teeing ground if he feels that it is insignificant or may immediately recall the stroke.

Ball Moved

In stroke play, every player is an outside agency with regards to every other player. This means they are no different than a spectator, or a referee, as far as the Rules are concerned.  So, if one player moves another player’s ball, it is simply replaced with no penalty.

Except when they are searching for a player’s ball in match play, a player may not purposely or accidentally move his opponent’s ball.  The penalty for this is one stroke.  Your opponent’s ball is sacred in match play.

Ball at Rest Moved by Another Ball

If a player in a stroke play competition hits a putt and it strikes another ball on the putting green, there is a two-stroke penalty, but in a match, there is no penalty if a putt strikes an opponent’s ball. The reason for this is simply that the opponent is the only person who can be harmed if this happens and had the opportunity to prevent this from happening by being alert enough to lift his ball. In stroke play since every player potentially has interest in preventing a ball on the green from assisting another player, the penalty is there to discourage the player who is putting from trying to take advantage of the opportunity.

These are just a few of the many differences between the rules for match play and stroke play.  You should always remember that there are differences and to look in the Rules of Golf when any question occurs.

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