Golf competitions may be conducted under either stroke play format, where the player with the least number of strokes prevails, or match play format, where the players play head-to-head on a hole-byhole basis. While a competitor in match play can protect himself by enforcing the rules against his opponent, the stroke play rules are intended to “protect the field” against rules violations. Accordingly, the rules for stroke play and match play sometimes diverge. Here are some notable examples.
Concessions. A putt may never be conceded in stroke play. In match play, a player may concede a hole at any time, or may concede an opponent’s putt. A concession may not be revoked or declined.
Order of play. While the rules specify that the player who has honors on the tee, or is farthest from the hole during play, must play first, there is no penalty for playing out of turn. However, in match play the opponent has the option of “recalling the stroke,” and requiring the player who played out of turn to replay the shot. Partners in four-ball competition (a form of match play) may change the order of play, which might provide a strategic advantage.
Playing from outside teeing area. In stroke play, a player who plays a ball from outside the teeing area incurs a 2-stroke penalty. There is no penalty in match play, but the opponent may recall the stroke.
Movement of ball by opponent. There is no penalty if a competitor in stoke play moves a player’s ball (it must be replaced). In match play, a competitor who moves a player’s ball incurs a penalty of one stroke unless the movement occurred during a search for the ball, in which case there is no penalty.
Ball strikes opponent’s ball on putting green. In stroke play, if a player putts from the putting green and his ball strikes an opponent’s ball on the green, he incurs a 2-stroke penalty. There is no penalty in match play (the rule presumes that the opponent could have marked his ball).
Practicing on course on day of competition. A player in a stroke play competition is disqualified if he practices on the course of the competition on any day of the competition, because he might gain an unfair advantage. There is no penalty in match play, since each competitor would have an equal opportunity to practice.
Finally, note that many rules impose a general 2-stroke penalty for a breach in stroke play, while in match play the corresponding penalty is loss of hole.
Jack Ross completed an intensive PGA/USGA rules workshop and has officiated at state amateur competitions. He is a co-author of “Mastering Golf’s Toughest Shots,” which explains how the rules can be used to the player’s advantage in problem situations.