Amid the chatter about the number of dollars up for grabs and the “side bets” in play during the much-anticipated match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on Nov. 23, it should not go unnoticed that the competitive format for this exhibition is match play. While Mickelson and Woods each compiled impressive match-play records during their formative years – both won the U.S. Amateur under the format – they have spent the vast majority of their iconic professional careers competing in stroke-play events. Match play includes a different set of procedures and overall interaction between opponents. Let’s take a closer look.
Rule 2 in the Rules of Golf, which specifically covers the match play format, tells us that “a match consists of one side playing against another over a stipulated round.” This is the first important distinction between match play and stroke play. In stroke play, a player competes against a group of players, with the goal of posting the lowest cumulative score among the full group. In the U.S. Open, for instance, that “full group” is the 156-player field, and the cumulative score is the player’s shot-by-shot total over 72 holes. In match play, a player competes directly against an opponent, and the player with the lower score on a hole wins that hole.
Rule 2 goes on to say that “a match is won when one side leads by a number of holes greater than the number remaining to be played.” If the match between Woods and Mickelson reaches a point where one player leads by more holes than the number of holes that remain, the match is complete and that player will be declared the winner.
The scoring system used for match play has a few intriguing implications in other parts of the game. Since players are only concerned with their opponent’s score in match play and not the scores among a larger group of players (or a “field”), as is the case in stroke play, players are allowed to “concede” strokes, holes, or even the match under Rule 2-4, which results in players not completing the play of a hole. This is very common in match play.
For example, if Mickelson is left with a short putt while competing in a stroke-play competition, he has to hole the putt. During his match with Woods, however, Woods may say “that’s good” or “pick that up” as a sign of a concession, at which point Mickelson is considered to have holed the putt. Furthermore, if Woods or Mickelson finishes a hole, and the other player has yet to hole out and is guaranteed to have a higher score on that hole than their opponent, they can pick up their ball and move on to the next hole. They have already “lost the hole,” and their total score on the hole does not matter.
In stroke play, the concept of requiring players to hole out on each hole is in place to “protect the field,” but this is not necessary in match play, as the competing opponents are able to govern many of these issues on their own.
Perhaps the most exciting difference in match play is the impact on strategy, since a player is only concerned with his or her opponent on a hole-by-hole basis. A player may approach a hole differently if he or she is only concerned about how their score compares to one other player, perhaps making course management decisions based on how an opponent is already performing on a hole.
There are also fewer consequences for a “big number” when playing in match play – if a player loses a hole with a score of 5, it is no different than losing it with a score of 7 or even higher! So, if you see Mickelson trying to hit even more of his trademark risk-reward shots than he usually does, it’s likely because he knows the worst that can happen is he loses a hole (and possibly, in this case, a side bet), and he won’t have to worry about a triple bogey coming back to haunt him when he’s signing his scorecard.
While there are many reasons to be excited about Tiger vs. Phil, the match-play format is certainly a major part of the intrigue. Keep an eye out for those situations that you wouldn’t normally come across when tuning into a stroke-play competition.
Joe Foley is the manager of Rules Outreach and Programming for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.