The United States Golf Association (USGA) offers several alternatives to traditional stroke play scoring. One of the most popular variations is match play scoring, which is used in major events such as the Ryder Cup and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. This format can make televised competitions more compelling because it focuses on the interaction between two golfers, instead of splitting air time among a large field of players.
Under match play rules, one point is awarded to the winner of each hole in the round. This differs from traditional stroke play scoring in which players' cumulative shot totals at the end of a round, or rounds, determine the winner. If a hole is tied in match play scoring, no points are awarded to either player and the hole is considered "halved."
Match play scoring can be used with groups of two, three or four players. The three-ball format applies if there are three golfers competing in a match. In this case, each golfer's score is compared against the other two as if there were two separate matches being played. Four-ball, or best-ball, scoring is used when two teams of two players are competing against each other. The best score by either player on a team is posted as the team's official score for that hole.
Match play scoring reduces the advantage a good golfer has over a less-skilled opponent. No matter how badly the weaker golfer is outplayed on a particular hole, he can only be down by one point under match play rules. Under stroke play rules, a double or triple bogey on one hole would set the same player back by two or three strokes, respectively.
A match is over when one golfer has a lead that is larger than the number of holes left in the round. For example, a golfer can win a match by taking a three-point lead with only two holes remaining. If the match is tied after the entire round, the players can decide to add additional playoff holes until one player wins. A player can choose to concede an individual hole or the entire match if he believes he cannot come back and win. Once the concession is offered, it may not be revoked and the other player cannot decline it.
The USGA's handicap system can be applied to permit golfers of varying skill levels to compete against each other in a fair match. The difference between the two players' handicaps determines the number of holes that must be adjusted. Each officially-sanctioned golf course has a list of difficulty ratings for each hole.