There are dozens and dozens of different formats that can be played as match play. Many of them can be found in our Tournament Formats and Betting Games glossary.
However, the best-known match play formats are those used in the Ryder Cup. Here is an introduction to those match play formats:
Singles Match Play
Singles match play pits Player A against Player B, hole after hole. If Player A scores a 4 on the first hole while Player B records a 5, Player A wins the hole.
In the Ryder Cup, ties are called "halves" and are not played off (each side scores a half-point for their team). In Ryder Cup-style competitions, this is common. However, in singles match play tournaments - something such as the U.S. Amateur Championship, as an example - a match that is all square (or tied) after 18 holes continues until there is a winner.
Fourball Match Play
In Fourball, each side consists of two players. Each player hits his or her own golf ball throughout the round. On each hole, the low ball of the two players serves as that side's score. For example, on the first hole for Team A, Player 1 scores a 4 and Player 2 scores a 5, so the team score is 4. If Team A gets a 4 while Team B scores 5, then Team A wins the hole.
Handicap allowances for various Four Ball competitions can be found in the USGA Handicap Manual, Section 9-4 (www.usga.com).
Foursomes Match Play
Because it is included in the Ryder Cup, Foursomes match play is one of the best-known forms of match play. It's not very common as a format used among friends during a casual round of golf, however.
Foursomes matches pit 2-person teams against each other, with each team playing one ball, the two teammates alternating hitting the shots (so this format is often referred to as alternate shot). Example: Player A and Player B are partners. On the first hole, A tees off; B plays the second shot; A plays the third shot; and so on until the ball is holed. After both teams have completed the hole, the side with the lower total strokes wins the hole.
Handicap allowances for Foursomes competitions can be found in the USGA Handicap Manual, Section 9-4 (www.usga.com).