Match Play Golf Rules Explained

We explain the basic match play golf rules and some of the ways in which they differ from the rules for stroke play golf...

Viktor Hovland and Collin Morikawa shake hands
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Many of us will have played more stroke play than match play golf as we’ve sought to improve or maintain our handicaps.

But the match play golf rules come before the stroke play rules towards the start of the Rule book in Rule 3.2.

Match play is a different beast as we take on an opponent rather than the scorecard. The rules differ in a number of ways too, as you will find out in the video below and later on in this article...

Match play golf rules: the basics

In match play, there are a number of common formats ranging from individual to team. It could be singles match play, fourball betterball, foursomes, greensomes and even doubles scramble.

The lowest score on a hole wins that hole. If player A and B both make par but player B has a stroke on that hole, player B wins the hole. If there are no strokes, the hole is halved.

The match is over when one player or team leads by more holes than there are still to play.

A 4&3 victory is when one side is four holes up with only three holes to play, for example.

How do golf handicaps work in match play?

In a handicap match, it is the lowest net score that wins each hole. Shots are taken on the lowest-indexed holes according to the difference between players’ handicaps.

Under the World Handicapping System (WHS) the recommended allowance for individual match play is 100% of the difference between handicaps. In fourball betterball, it's 90% of the difference from the lowest-handicapped player.

So, in a singles match between two players off 12 and 20, the 12-handicapper gives the 20-handicapper eight strokes. These are taken on the holes with stroke indices 1-8. If the 20-handicapper bogeys one of those holes (net par) and the 12-handicapper pars it, the hole would be halved.

The general penalty for rules breaches in match play is loss of hole rather than two strokes in stroke play. But not all breaches attract the general penalty, so always check if you’re not sure.

Match play golf rules can differ quite significantly from stroke play rules in a number of ways. Here are six examples, five of which we also talk about in the video accompanying this story…

1. Concessions

In match play you can concede a hole or match to your opponent(s) at any time. Most typically it will be by conceding the next stroke, usually a ‘gimme’ putt. A concession, once offered, may be neither withdrawn nor declined.

2. Disregarding Rules breaches

Interestingly, you may, if you wish for whatever reason, disregard a Rules breach by your opponent. But if you both deliberately agree to ignore a breach or penalty that you know applies, you are both disqualified.

To clarify the distinction, you could choose to overlook your opponent dropping in a wrong place if you were feeling generous. But the two of you couldn’t agree to play preferred lies when the course is a bit wet if there were no Local Rule in force.

3. Playing out of turn

The commendable drive towards ‘ready golf’ doesn’t include match play, as the order of play at any point on a hole is deemed to be of greater tactical importance than in stroke play. This could see you playing your putt before your opponent plays their bunker shot for example, if you are further away on a large green.

That said, there is no penalty for playing out of turn in match play… but your opponent is quite at liberty to ask for the stroke to be cancelled and replayed should he or she so wish under Rule 6.4a.

This may, of course, depend on how good or bad that shot was!

4. Playing from outside the teeing area

In a similar way, if you play from outside the teeing area (or the wrong set of tee markers on the same hole or a different hole), there is no penalty in match play.

However, again, your opponent can cancel the stroke and ask you to replay from inside the teeing area under Rule 6.1b.

5. On the putting green

If you play a stroke from on the putting green and your ball strikes another ball at rest on the putting green, you will incur a two-shot penalty in stroke play. Under match play golf rules, there is no penalty (Exception to Rule 11.1a).

Your ball must be played as it lies, while the ball that was moved must be replaced on its original spot.

6. Practice before a round (Rule 5.2)

You may not practise on the competition course or test the surface of any putting green ahead of a stroke play round other than chipping and putting on or near your first teeing area.

Under match play golf rules, however, there are no restrictions. You are quite within your rights to play the entire course in the morning and then your match in the afternoon.

Jeremy Ellwood
Contributing Editor

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly. He is an expert on the Rules of Golf having qualified through an R&A course to become a golf referee. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played 1,000 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts. He reached the 1,000 mark on his 60th birthday in October 2023 on Vale do Lobo's Ocean course. Put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf

Jeremy is currently playing...

Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft

3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft

Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft

Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)

Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response