One of the beauties of golf is that there are so many ways that we can play the game. Here at AMERICAN GOLF, we are going to endeavour to bring them all to life, so that anyone new to golf can get a grasp of what is involved. In this blog, our focus is on Matchplay golf.

History of Matchplay:

Matchplay has always been an integral feature in golf. The preeminent team competitions, the Ryder Cup and Walker Cup on the men’s side and the Solheim Cup and the Curtis Cup on the women’s side (professional and amateur) have always been based on the matchplay format.

Of the four majors on the men’s circuit, the US PGA Championship first started as a matchplay tournament in 1916 to mark the foundation of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA). They met with department store owner Rodman Wanamaker, who provided a gold medal and a trophy and the tournament was started, remaining as a matchplay event until 1958.

Matchplay Format:

The beauty of matchplay is that we are playing our opponent rather than the course. If we have a disastrous hole, the damage is the loss of one hole rather than wrecking our entire round. We can play well (to our handicap and against the course) and lose. We can also play badly and win. That’s because our opponent has a big bearing on the final outcome.

Momentum plays a huge part in a match play situation. Previous holes are irrelevant as we cannot do anything about them, but we can do something about the next shot and the next hole. We can quickly get on a roll of winning holes if we start playing well and holing putts. But we can also get on a roll of losing holes, too. Obviously, it is the same for our opponent. If they start playing brilliantly, the match is out of our hands. If they have a terrible run, we can win holes without doing anything special.

The matchplay format can suit different types of players to the ones who are successful in strokeplay, as it favours more attacking golf. Think of Ian Poulter and his performances for Europe in the Ryder Cup. He has performed far above the level he has shown in strokeplay golf in matchplay, both in the Ryder Cup and individual matchplay events.  

Matchplay Scoring:

In strokeplay, we score by adding up every shot we take on each one of the nine or 18 holes that we play. From that cumulative or gross, score, we take away our handicap difference, to produce our nett score.

In matchplay, the score is made up of 18 individual holes. Each hole is a separate event. For example, if on the first hole we score a four and our opponent has a five, we win the hole. That puts us 1 up. The advent is to have won more holes than we have left to play. So if Rory McIlroy beats Scottie Scheffler 3&2, that means Rory is three holes ahead with only two left to play. He has won three more holes than Scheffler over the 16 holes that they have played. He cannot be caught, so he is the winner and there is no need to play the final two holes.

When we reach a position in which we are three holes ahead with only three holes left to play for example, ie the position in which the number of holes ahead equals the number of holes left to be played, we are said to be ‘dormie three’. That means that we cannot lose (unless it has been agreed to play extra holes if level after 18). It is believed that the expression ‘dormie’ originated from the French word ‘dormir’, which means to sleep, the theory being that we can relax a little knowing that we cannot lose. In the Ryder Cup or Solheim Cup, when a player or a pair reach a ‘dormie’ lead, we will hear commentators talk about them being guaranteed half a point. That’s because even if they lose all the remaining holes, the match would be halved, or drawn. 

Rule differences from strokeplay golf:

Ready Golf:

In recent years, golf’s rule makers have introduced a ‘ready golf’ rule, whereby if a person is ready to play their shot, they can, even if one of their playing partners is further away from the hole. That rule applies in strokeplay, but it does NOT apply in match play.

That is because playing in turn is very important in match play. What we do has a direct effect on what our opponent does. So if we are further away from the hole, it is our turn to play. If we hit an approach shot close to the hole, the pressure switches to our opponent. Alternatively, if we hit a bad shot, our opponent can alter their tactics to factor in what is required to win the hole.

On the green:

The player furthest from the hole is the first person to putt.

If that player knocks the ball very close to the hole, say within two feet or less, then we can concede or give the putt. That means the player does not need to hole it, we accept it. This is called a ‘gimme’. It usually happens that there are more ‘gimme’ putts early on in a match before pressure increases towards the end of the back nine and we become less generous!

Once the hole is finished, we can practise our putting or retake a putt. If we miss a costly putt from five feet, we can try again to correct where we went wrong. It has no bearing on the outcome of the hole, but it can give us a tip for future holes.

On the tee:

In strokeplay, we must tee up either on the line of the tee boxes or within two club lengths behind it. If we fail to do this, we are given a two-stroke penalty. If we fail to do this in matchplay, there is no penalty.      


Straightforward matchplay can be played as either a singles or fourball match. Fourballs, is also known as better ball. It is two against two with everyone playing their own ball. At the end of each hole, the better score of each team counts. In the Ryder Cup, a European pair may score a birdie and the American pair only get two pars. That means the Europeans win the hole. It is a better score of the two balls, not the aggregate score of the two balls.

In fourball golf, a team can adopt tactics whereby one player can be steady to keep the team in the hole – playing for pars while the other player is more aggressive and tries to make birdies. Also on the green, teams can putt in a different order. If one player is the furthest away from the hole, they can ask their partner to putt if they are close to the hole. If that player holes the putt for a four and the player furthest away has only had two shots to reach the green, they can then be more aggressive with the putt to try to hole it for a three.


In strokeplay golf, our handicap is taken off our final cumulative gross score to find our nett score. In matchplay, our handicap is used in comparison with our opponent. Under the new World Handicap System, the recommended allowance for individual matchplay is 100% of the handicap difference (a change from 75% under the old system). If we have a handicap of 11 and our opponent plays off 17, we have to give our opponent six shots, one shot at each of the holes ranked 1-6 on the Stroke Index of the course. Alternatively, if our opponent plays off eight, we would receive three shots on the holes ranked 1-3. On holes with a shot, the gross score of the lowest player is counted against the nett score of the opponent.

In fourballs, the differences are worked out from the player with the lowest handicap out of the four at a 90% allowance. For example, if the lowest player is off five and another player is off 15, they would receive 90% of the 10 shots difference, which is nine shots at the holes ranked 1-9. In the case of the difference not being a round number, it is always rounded to the nearest whole number. On holes with a shot, the gross score of the lowest player is counted against the nett score of those with a shot.

It is also common courtesy when standing on the tee on the relevant hole for a player to announce that they have a shot so everyone can factor that in to how they play that particular hole.

For more on the different rules of golf read more of our golf blog and check out how to play Texas Scramble, Stableford, Foursomes, Greensomes and Mulligan Golf.

About the Author

Adam Lanigan - Golf Writer

Adam is a freelance news and sports journalist who has written for the BBC, The Sunday Post, The I, The Times, The Telegraph and more. He has been writing about golf for nearly two decades and has covered 13 Open Championships and two Ryder Cups. Not only does Adam cover golf, but he has played golf for as long as he can remember. He was a member at Northenden Golf Club for around 25 years until his children arrived and his last official handicap was 11, although on any given day his form fluctuates anywhere between eight and 18.