Match play: the same but different |

Match play: the same but different

It’s the same but different.

Many of us have chuckled at this line. It’s either the same … or, it’s different, right? But could there be some middle ground here?

The original form of play for the game of golf was match play. Players did not keep score. It was a hole-by-hole match measured in small victories. The player who won more individual holes became the overall winner.

Golfers would compare their strokes (swings) for a given hole, and the player with the fewest of strokes “won” 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 “2-up.” Were that player to lose the next two holes, the match would again be “square.”

This match will continue until one of the players is “up” by more holes than remain to be played. For example, after completing 16 holes, with two holes to go, a player who is “3-up” has just won the match. It wasn’t until much later that stroke play (recording the total number of strokes) and aggregate score tournaments began. Even into the 20th century, match play was generally the form of play. Yet in the late 1950s, stroke play became the common form of play.

Hmmm … wonder why? The short answer is TV. Sponsors, paying for television commercials, don’t want a match to be completed on the 15th hole, especially if it involves an elite player. The last three holes would be vacant, and there goes an hour of good ratings.

But what about the players? How do we view these formats, and how could this change the way we play? Answer — each form of play will directly influence decisions we make 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 match has used just as many strokes on this hole 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 error.

In match play, the decision is entirely different. We want to know who plays first. This does not affect our decision in stroke play. Yet in match play, our thought process will be greatly influenced by the choice of the other player. If he takes the risk and fails, we can play safe. If he takes the risk and succeeds, we will likely take the risk, too.

How we stand in the match? 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 Championship in Dove Mountain, Ariz. It is a tremendous change of pace for them, and due to the format, we will see several winners that we might not expect. Catch it today on the 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

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