The vast majority of professional golf is played in the stroke play format, which is a shame, because, for our money, match play offers greater excitement much of the time.
The pre-eminence of stroke play means that many punters are less familiar with golf match play betting.
In this article we will explain what match play is, what markets it offers, look at match play betting strategy and also look at team-format match play events, chiefly the unparalleled Ryder Cup.
What is Match Play Betting?
Match play betting covers the various markets available in match play events. In one sense many of the options are the same, with the outright tournament winner market still one of the most popular. Each way betting tends to be different as you will often only get two places, or at the most four. In other words, an each way bet is likely to cover a player who makes the final, or sometimes the semi final, of a match play event.
In stroke play golf, each way bets cover the top four as an absolute minimum, with five fairly standard and eight or more not uncommon, especially in big events. To really understand more about match play betting, it makes sense to explain what match play golf is, so we will now do that before returning to how match play betting works.
Match Play v Stroke Play Golf
Stroke play events see golfers compete, usually over four rounds, though just three in LIV events. Whoever completes the 72 holes in the lowest overall total wins the tournament. In stroke play, every shot, on every hole, in every round, counts and directly contributes to overall success or failure.
In match play golf, each hole is effectively its own mini-tournament and rather than each player competing against everyone else in the tournament at the same time, they play against each other. In some events this can be in pairs, with two golfers playing against another two, whilst other team events mix individual and pairs play.
We will look at team events in more detail shortly. However, in more normal tournaments, be they singles or pairs, a knockout format is used, akin to tennis, snooker or a cup football. In fact football provides a good parallel as match play events may include a round-robin phase, prior to the knockout tournament, just as the Group Stage of the Champions League comes before the Round of 16.
Returning to the fundamentals of match play, let us imagine a mythical tournament featuring Tiger Woods, Sam Snead, Harry Vardon and Arnold Palmer. Woods and Snead meet in one semi final and Vardon and Palmer in the other. The former duo tee off on the first and Woods makes a three to Snead’s four. Tiger wins the hole and is thus one up. Had he managed a two, and Snead a shocking seven, Woods would still be just one up.
They play each hole, and whoever makes the lowest score wins that hole, or it is “halved” if they both manage the same score. So if they both score a par four on the second, the hole is halved and Woods remains one up. The match ends when one player has an unsurmountable lead. This can be after 10 holes if they win all 10, and this would be described as a win by 10 & 8, meaning 10 holes up with just eight left to play. Alternatively, a match can end “1 up” after all 18 holes have been completed, or even require a play-off if they are tied at that stage.
In a match play tournament the winner of each semi would then meet in the final. A final may be played over 36 holes (as may other matches, though 18 is more common), with the winner of that match claiming the tournament outright.
What Markets Can I Bet on in Match Play Golf?
Now we have explained what match play is, we can more clearly outline the markets that are typically available. Before we do that, however, let us look at match betting in stroke play. Confusingly you may see this market listed as match betting, head to head, or perhaps 2- or 3-ball betting. This is unrelated to match play golf and is instead a market in stroke play that pits one player against another, or against another two in the case of 3-ball.
With that distinction made, what can you bet on when it comes to match play events? Well, as said, the most popular market is the outright event winner. In team events this will usually be a pick between one side or another, with the option of a tie at long odds. In this scenario the odds for either side will not generally be too far off evens, though you may see prices such as 1/2 and 2/1, with the draw at 14/1, if a one-sided contest is on the cards.
In a tournament, that may feature anything between 16 and 64 players (usually), prices will naturally be longer and more akin to those you find for the outright betting in stroke play. If anything, match play is a little less predictable, because one poor round can see the favourite eliminated. Equally a brilliant morning of golf from their opponent can have the same result and so it is rare to see huge favourites in this format of the game.
Another market that is very popular in match play is one that is not available in stroke play and that is backing a player to win their match. Again we can draw a football analogy here, with this just the same as backing a team to win an individual clash that is part of a wider tournament. You should note that in some matches a tie will be possible, such as games within a team event, or possibly a round-robin stage. In others, a tiebreaker, typically sudden-death play-off holes, is used, so only two outcomes are possible.
Further Betting Options
Golf betting is very simple for the most part and backing a player or team to win an event, or a player or pair to win a particular match, accounts for a large portion of the money wagered on the sport. However, there are a range of additional markets that you will see in match play golf. Because we will look more specifically at team events shortly, we will focus on those available in individual tournaments. Sadly, these days, that really only means the WGC Match Play in terms of really big tournaments. Even so, there are some great betting options available, including:
- Player to win their group – offered in any tournament with a group/round-robin stage
- Player to win all group games – see above
- Player to reach final/semi-final – different sites will offer different markets
- Top for region – you can bet on which player will be the top US, European, Spanish player and so on. Note that dead heat rules may apply if more than one player reaches the same stage of the event
The Ryder Cup and Other Team Events
The WGC Match Play tournament is one of the most prestigious events beyond the majors. Prior to that, for 50 years from 1964, the Volvo World Match Play at Wentworth was perhaps even more important. That tournament has been won by Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Seve, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, those super-seven boasting 24 wins between them. However, especially in the modern era, there is no doubt that for most fans, match play golf is most closely associated with the Ryder Cup.
The Ryder Cup was first played in 1927 and is played every two years. The format and structure of the event have changed over the years but for some time now it has seen 12 golfers from Europe battle against a dozen from the USA. There is no money on the line, just immense pride and passion and the Ryder Cup is a golfing contest like no other (well, apart from the similar ones we will list below).
Played over three days in autumn, the first two days see four pairs matches each morning and another four in the afternoon for the first two days. The contest concludes with 12 singles games on the final day. All of these are match play contests and if games are level after 18 holes, each team is awarded half a point. With 28 points up for grabs, 14.5 are needed to win the Ryder Cup outright, whilst 14 will see it shared but the defending side holds onto the trophy.
The Ryder Cup is not the only such event and, in fact, it is not the original either. The Walker Cup pre-dates it, having first been played in 1922 and is, essentially the amateur’s Ryder Cup. Or should that be that the Ryder Cup is the Walker Cup for pros? Either way, there is also the Solheim Cup, founded in 1990 and contested between a team of European women and their US counterparts. The Curtis Cup is an amateur version of that, whilst the President’s Cup sees a US side face an International one (basically the rest of the world bar Europe).
Anyway, no matter which of these team match play golf events you are betting on, you have a wealth of betting opportunities. These include:
- Outright – a bet on which team will win or will it be a tie. There have been just two ties in the long history of the competition though
- To lift the trophy – a very simple binary choice which favours the current champions who will lift the trophy in the event of a tie
- Winning margin/handicap betting – you might be confident that one particular side is going to win so to increase your odds you can make a more specific prediction about how many points they will win by. This is similar to a handicap bet where one side may be given an advantage, for example you might bet on Europe +2.5 points
- Correct score – a difficult but potentially rewarding bet on what the precise score will be. In 2021 the US delivered a thumping win by 19 points to nine, the biggest margin in modern Ryder Cup history
- Individual matches – a bet on a player or duo to win their match, or back the tie/halved match. Halves in matches are far more common, with the tension building as the holes run out and the team in front often succumbing to the pressure as they bid to get over the line
- Top European/US – a bet on which player will score the most points for their team. This bet is also available as the overall top scorer and either way dead heat rules will apply
- Top rookie – a rookie is a player with no previous Ryder Cup experience and you can bet on which of the newbies will be the top scorer, either for their side or overall
- Top wildcard – some players qualify for the team based on the prize money won in a set qualification period but each team captain has wild card picks too to supplement these automatic selections. Once again, you can bet on top US, European, or overall
- Perfect 5 – if a player competes in every possible game they can obtain five points. You can bet on a specific player to achieve this feat, or whether anyone will
- To make the team – before the teams are even announced you can bet on a player to make their respective team
Match Play Betting Strategy
There is no real strategy when it comes to betting on match play gold that does not apply to golf betting in general and, even more broadly, punting as a whole. Research, analysis and understanding are key but at the same time you should accept that golf is unpredictable and the bookies have the odds on their side. In other words, beating the bookmakers in the long term is very hard and so you shouldn’t really view gambling as anything other than a fun hobby.
That said, one of the key differences between match play golf and stroke play, is the fact that big mistakes matter less in the former. Shoot an eight on the par-four first hole in stroke play and you might almost be out of the entire tournament. However, do the same in match play and the worst that can happen is you lose the hole. As such, when it comes to match play events, you might have to sway your analysis more towards players who can make lots of birdies, even if they have the occasional nightmare.
In addition, match play golf is far more of a mental test. In stroke play, you are really playing the course. Things might get tense and tight down the home stretch but ultimately a player is free to just play their own game. In contrast, match play is very much a head-to-head sport where mind games, competitive edge and even gamesmanship can play a bigger part.
For both of these reasons, and perhaps just a general liking for the format, some players are far more accomplished at match play than others. You should absolutely take this into account when it comes to placing your bets. A player who is out of form and struggling in general may just rediscover their competitive juices when the WGC or Ryder Cup comes around.