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Match Play Rules Of Golf

What It’s About: Defines match play, covers concessions, and tells what to do in the case of doubts or disputes about the Rules

In its origins in Scotland centuries ago, golf was a match-play game, so it follows that the first specific Rule addresses that form of play, where players compete directly against each other. That confrontational nature makes match play more like other sports. In how many other games does a player compete against those he cannot even see, as is the case in a large stroke-play competition?

The Rules in match play, where each hole is a separate contest, tend to be less complex than in stroke play, because a penalty rarely needs to be more severe than loss of hole. In stroke play, a player guilty of a transgression still has to finish the hole with a score, a requirement that can introduce certain stipulations (e.g., having to correct the mistake of playing a wrong ball).

Another key difference from stroke play is the notion of a conceded stroke, hole, or match, covered by Rule 2-4. Unlike stroke play, where a player needs to hole out on every hole, a player in a match need not hole out should his opponent concede his next stroke or the hole. The concept of concessions works in match play because the only player who has an interest in what the player’s score is for that hole is present. In stroke play, there could be more than 100 other players who care what a player’s score on the hole is, and they are not all on hand to decide whether the player’s stroke should be conceded.

Rule 2-5 covers how to handle Rules claims and any doubts or disputes that arise between opponents. Interestingly, its head-to-head nature means that match play can sometimes be a friendlier game. A player may overlook a breach of the Rules by his opponent in match play, provided there is no agreement between the two of them to do so. Stroke play is a different story, as the player is obligated to look out for the interests of the field and not keep silent about any Rules infractions he observes. Also, due to the fact that match play is a hole-by-hole contest, a player’s inadvertent breach of the Rules goes unpenalized if a claim is not made by his opponent before either player plays from the next tee. A later claim would be considered only if the player making the claim had been unaware of the facts of the situation and had been given wrong information by his opponent. In stroke play, a player remains subject to penalty for a breach of a Rule even after he plays from the next tee.

One luxury not extended to a player in match play is the option of playing a second ball if he is unsure how to proceed under the Rules, as is allowed in stroke play. The reason is that the status of the match can influence how a player plays. True, when a claim is made the players will not know the outcome of the hole until they receive a ruling, just as if a player had played two balls. A key difference, though, is that in match play the player in question is likely either to have had a score for the hole or a penalty of loss of hole. His opponent would not have to play against two scores for that hole.

Rule 2 even provides a definition of the most misused term in match play, “dormie,” which refers to the leader who is as many holes up as there are holes left to be played. The term is widely accepted as having come from the French verb dormir, to sleep. In other words, the player leading can almost fall asleep and still win the match as all he needs to do is halve one of the remaining holes. Even though the word appears to have negative connotations, remember that being dormie is most desirable.


A common situation in match play is the confusion that can follow when a player who has had his putt conceded goes ahead and putts…and misses. Does the miss count? Decision 2-4/7 clarifies that the answer is an emphatic “No.” Rule 2-4 states that a concession may not be declined or withdrawn, so once a stroke has been conceded, that’s it, and it doesn’t matter what the player does afterward. The answer is the same whether it was a casual attempt at the putt or the player actually tried to decline the concession and made a serious stroke. The only time putting out after a concession is prohibited is in a four-ball match where such an action assists the player’s partner (Decision 2-4/6). In such a case, the partner is disqualified from the hole. The lesson here is to stay alert in a four-ball match so as to concede the stroke of an opponent who is essentially out of the hole to ensure that his play does not help his partner (e.g., by showing him the line for putting).



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