The brilliance of match play and its golf courses

Fellow golfers, throw down your scorecards!

Unshackle yourselves from the tyranny of stroke play, especially if you're playing one of a handful of golf courses that calls for a round in the tradition in which the game's first players competed!

I'm talking, of course, about match play.

Par is blissfully irrelevant. If your partner makes a 4 and you make a 5, you're 1-down. If your partner makes a 4 and you make a 12, you're 1-down. This sort of clear-cut segmentation of the round into 18 one-hole contests makes match play the highest form of the game. No worrying about players in other groups. It's just you, your opponent(s) and the course.

Don't get me wrong - stroke play is good, but match play is sacred. What intrigues me most about watching big-time tennis tournaments is the ebb and flow of a match between great competitors. Seeing one player come from two sets down to eke out a stunning victory in five sets is often the culmination of a dramatic battle of wills.

So it is in golf. The majors are great, but there is no golf event - no sporting event for that matter - that excites me more than the Ryder Cup. Because each match is its own entity, and there's no "field" out there somewhere on the rest of the course, the entire dramatic action is contained in much closer quarters. On Sunday of a stroke play major championship, 70 or so players move about one big stage. In Sunday's final match of this week's World Golf Championships - Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, it's the stage that moves with the players from one hole to the next, and there will only be two main characters.

Well, three, if you count the golf course. And this week's tournament host, Austin Country Club , is a superb match-play course. The Pete Dye design's eclectic mix of holes - many of them on shorter side, with some atypical features - translates nicely for golf's mano a mano form. It exhibits the following characteristics, which mark courses as particularly well-suited to match play:

Traits of great match play golf courses

Death or glory — Because losing a hole with a par is the same as losing with a triple bogey, match play encourages golfers to take bolder risks than they might if they were being conscious of shooting a particular score. Austin Country Club has a two-hole stretch - the downhill, reachable par-5 12th and the drivable par-4 13th - where eagles and double-bogeys will be much more plentiful than if this week's were a stroke-play event. Both greens are guarded by water, and players are going to challenge the hazard in hopes of putting pressure on their opponents or answering a great shot. Many will hit spectacular shots, and many will fail just as spectacularly.

Water hazards, deep bunkers and other nasty impediments become more interesting in match play because the worst they can do is cost a player a single hole. In stroke play, the significantly greater difference between a 5 and an 8 on a hole deters players from engaging with these more severe features. In match play, that sort of daredevil play is not just possible, but often encouraged.

Half-pars galore — Back to the 12th and 13th at Austin Country Club. A good way to refer to them is as "half-par holes," where the odds of making a birdie and a par are more comparable than at, say, a Tour-standard 440-yard par four, where most of the field hits a drive and a short iron on the green, two-putts and moves on. And as I mentioned above, Austin's 12th and 13th have the added danger of water, which will produce a lot of bogeys and worse. Plus, their relatively short (for the pros) length means eagle is also a possibility. Risk-reward holes like these are welcome in any golfing context, but they really shine in match play. Whereas many holes have two or maybe three main realistic outcomes, these holes have five or more. More possible scores means less chance of a hole being halved, which is great for both match play competitors and spectators.

The 12th at Austin Country Club is a great risk-reward hole - perfect for match play. (David Cannon/Getty Images)


Austin Country Club finishes up in half-par fashion, too. The 17th is a short par 3 where there will be a lot of birdies as well as some bogeys, and 18 is a fairly short par four where longer hitters have reached the green in years past, but the narrow corridor makes for more bogeys than one would normally find on a sub-400-yard hole. A player who arrives 2-up to the 17th tee cannot merely play conservatively and expect to run out the clock on an opponent; there are two real chances for fireworks.

Fun with course setup — Members of professional golf host venues tend to fret over whether the pros will shoot super-low scores at their courses. With match play, there's no outward indication of how well (or poorly) the field is playing a given hole, so it frees up tournament organizers to use tee and hole locations that will invite more birdies than normal. The thrilling 2016 Ryder Cup singles match between Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson saw the players torch host venue Hazeltine National Golf Club for a combined 19 birdies. As the skipper for the home team, American Captain Davis Love III had the prerogative to dictate the course setup, and as a result, Hazeltine's rough was clipped short, the greens were rolled and cut to blazing speed and hole locations tended to be more forgiving than what is usually seen at PGA Tour - and especially major championship - venues. The result was one of the best single Ryder Cup matches of all time .

Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia had a match for the ages at the 2016 Ryder Cup. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)


Six of my favorite match play golf courses

Keeping in mind that best-of-the-best golf courses are wonderful tests of both match and stroke play (just imagine how much fun it would be to watch match play at Augusta!), here are a few courses that strike me as being particularly well-suited to match play.

Tobacco Road Golf Club - Sanford, N.C.

There's lots of sand on the par-3 17th at Tobacco Road.

There's lots of danger at Tobacco Road. (Mike Bailey/Golf Advisor)


Tobacco Road might be the archetypal match play golf course. Mike Strantz's masterpiece in the sandhills just north of Pinehurst stretches the boundaries of what golf holes can be like, with plenty of massive undulations, hellacious sandy pits and some heroic risk-reward opportunities. While many of the greens feature gathering slopes that can create kick-in birdies, if you hit a bad shot into the wrong spot, you may not be inclined to finish the hole. For this reason, it is one heck of a fun place to play a match with your friends.

Copake Country Club - Copake Lake, N.Y.

The sixth is one of three drivable par fours at Copake Country Club. (Tim Gavrich/Golf Advisor)


This Golden Age Devereux Emmet design, restored a few years ago by Scott Witter and Mark Fine, is one of the most quirky-fun courses you can play, and an Empire State hidden gem. At less than 6,300 yards from the tips, it's not likely to host any big-time stroke play competitions, but it is a blast for match play, with three very drivable par fours. In fact, the run of holes from the fourth to the ninth - 480-yard par five, 228-yard par three, 285-yard par four, 294-yard par four, 152-yard par three, 529-yard par five - is one of the most exciting six-hole stretches I've seen. And the last two holes - a tough par three and another reachable par five - form a terrific match play finish.

Ballyhack Golf Club - Roanoke, Va.

The black arrow in this photo shows the "short porch" in Ballyhack's 15th fairway. (Tim Gavrich/Golf Advisor)


Lester George is not a worldwide household name in golf, but Virginians know him as the architect of two of the state's best courses: 2011 U.S. Senior Am host Kinloch , outside Richmond, and Ballyhack, a hillside thrill-ride outside Roanoke. Ballyhack shares some similarities with Tobacco Road, but with a bit more muscle and a few fewer blind shots. But it has some bold greens and scary bunkers that can wreck a scorecard but liven up any match. My favorite hole is number 15, a par five where if you play to a "short porch" peninsula of fairway above a ravine off the tee, you're rewarded with the opportunity for a heroic second shot over a ravine to the green, cutting 60 yards off the length of the hole. It's awesome, especially if you're one-down in your match and looking to mount a comeback. One of Ballyhack's owners, Vinny Giles, is one of the most decorated amateur golfers of the last half-century, with a US. Amateur title, a British Amateur win and numerous other match play titles on his resume, including three appearances on a victorious American Walker Cup side.

Newport Country Club - Newport, R.I.

Newport Country Club, pictured here in 1957, hosted the first U.S. Amateur in 1895. It's been a great match play venue for more than a century. (Bettmann/Getty Images)


My most memorable match play tournament round happened here in a U.S. Challenge Cup junior event about a decade after Tiger Woods beat Buddy Marucci to win the 1995 U.S. Amateur. Tiger and Buddy had better weather; on the day I played, it was 36 degrees and raining sideways. On the seaside par-3 fourth hole, while waves were crashing up over Ocean Avenue - which runs down the left side of the hole - and nearly onto the green, I hit perhaps the best shot of my life: a controlled, wind-carving 3-wood from about 210 yards to four feet. My birdie putt didn't even scare the hole. I halved with my opponent, who would ultimately win the match on the 18th hole. The ecstasy and agony of match play, all in 15 minutes. I can virtually guarantee that next time I play Newport, 1) the weather will be better, and 2) I'll be wanting a match with whomever I'm playing with.

Mid Ocean Club - Tucker's Town, Bermuda

Mid Ocean is a great place for a round of golf - especially a match. (Tim Gavrich/Golf Advisor)


The C.B. Macdonald-designed course at the northeastern end of Bermuda is sublime in all ways, and especially as a match play venue. Half-par holes are strewn throughout the course, with deep bunkers catching their fair share of errant shots. The short par-3 seventh hole is an excellent example of Mid Ocean's charms: the internal contouring of the green can funnel smart shots close to the cup, but a miss short (pond), left (pond) or long (bunkers) will bring big trouble into play.

The Old Course - St. Andrews, Scotland

The Old Course's 17 - the famed Road Hole - is a tremendous match play hole. (David Cannon/Getty Images)


Fittingly, the main course at the Home of Golf is a superb test of golf's original competitive format. The birdie opportunities, combined with the punishment exacted by the Road Hole, make it one of the most interesting and confounding places for a game. St. Andrews-hoted Open Championships are never dull affairs, but it would be a real treat to see some match play there, wouldn't it? It turns out .atch play fans will get their wish when The Old Course hosts the Walker Cup in 2023.

Closing thoughts on match play and its courses

Pay attention to architects — As an architecture nerd, I would always encourage players to know who designed the courses they play, but it's especially important if match play is on the menu. I would cite Pete Dye, Mike Strantz and Tom Doak as three architects whose courses lend themselves particularly well to match play. Dye courses tend to have nasty pot bunkers where players can take an X in a hurry, and this is much less of a downer in match play than in stroke play. The sculpting and shaping of Strantz's courses, as well as some dramatic danger zones, are great for this style of play. And Doak (as well as fellow modern minimalists like Gil Hanse and Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) tends to focus more on the sort of half-par holes that are the soul of great match play courses.

Throw away convention — I haven't played it, but I've heard Ballyneal , a Doak-designed private course in the chop hills of eastern Colorado, has no tee markers. That's because match play is the prevailing style of play, and players will choose tees based on who has won the previous hole. If you're playing a match with your buddies, which means you're not planning on turning a score for your official handicap, why not try this at your home course? If the shortest par four is not quite drivable from the normal tees you play, why not tee it forward and bring eagle into play for yourself? For that matter, you could really go nuts by enabling the previous hole's winner to, say, force the group to play the hole in a scramble, in alternate shot or with one club. Match play frees open-minded golfers from all kinds of restrictions. Why not get a little funky?

C-D-O - A straight 18-hole four-ball match is plenty of fun, but if you like to switch things up, this system of dividing the round into 6-hole matches is great, too. If you haven't heard the "C-D-O" abbreviation, here's what it means (assuming your group is in carts):

— Holes 1-6: Driver of Cart A and Passenger of Cart A vs. Driver of Cart B and Passenger of Cart B
— Holes 7-12: Driver A and Driver B vs. Passenger A and Passenger B
— Holes 13-18: Driver A and Passenger B vs. Passenger A and Driver B

What are your favorite match play courses? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for Golf Advisor and the Managing Editor of the Golf Vacation Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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The brilliance of match play and its golf courses
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