Match play: The same, but different |

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Match play: The same, but different

It's the same, but different."

Many of us have grinned at this line. We think, it's either the same… or, it's different. Right?

Yet, even though objective is the same, golf tournaments can make the game very different, depending on the format.

You see, the original form of play for the game of golf was match play. Players did not keep an aggregate score. It was a hole-by-hole match, in which the player who won more individual holes became the overall winner.

Golfers keep track of their strokes for a given hole and the player with the least amount of strokes on that hole 'wins' the hole. A tied score on a hole would result in a 'halve.'

The player who wins the first hole of the round was "1 UP." Another hole captured would result in the player being "2UP." Were that player to lose the next two holes, the match would again be "square" with neither player up or down. This match will continue until one of the players is up by more holes than remain to be played. Standing on the 17th tee, with two holes to go, a player who is "3UP" has won the match.

It wasn't until much later that stroke play (recording the total number of strokes) tournaments began. Even into the 20th century, match play was generally the form of play. Yet, in the late 1950s, stroke play gained popularity and became the common form of play.

Hmmm…wonder why? The short answer is television. Sponsors don't want a match to be completed on the 15th hole, especially if it involves an elite player. There goes an hour of better ratings.

But, what about the players? How would do we view these formats and how do they affect our play? This is important, because each form of play will directly influence decisions made on the course.

Let's look at one scenario. It's our first round. We are on the 17th hole, a par-5 with a large lake protecting a relatively small green. The ball lies in a position just close enough to the green that we could reach it with one swing, if we make a great swing. The other golfer in our group has used just as many strokes on this hole as we have and is in a similar position.

In stroke play, this is a fairly easy risk vs. reward decision. We shouldn't risk our total score with a shot that leaves little room for mistakes.

In match play, the decision becomes entirely different. First, we want to know the order of play. Our thought process will be greatly affected by the choice of the other player. If they take the risk and fail, we can play safe. If they take the risk and succeed, we will likely take the risk, too.

One must also consider how the match stands? If we're up in the match, why take a risk? But, if we're down, it will probably take a risk to get back in it.

This week, we get one of the few opportunities to watch the top players compete in a Match Play event, the Accenture Match Play Championships in Dove Mountain, Arizona.

It is a tremendous change of pace for them and, because of the format, we will likely see some of the lesser known players come out on top.

Catch it today on Golf Channel and on NBC over the weekend.

The game of golf – stroke play and match play. It's the same, but different.

John Renslow is general manager and director of golf at Alta Sierra Country Club. Please contact John with your questions or comments at