Dan McDonald | NCAA.com | July 26, 2019

How the NCAA men’s and women’s golf championships work

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The country’s top collegiate golfers will take center stage at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona from May 22 through June 3, 2020.

When they do, they’ll have to conquer the stunning Raptor Course over the course of several days and the teams will have to survive two different formats of golf to capture a team national championship.

Here’s how the championships work:

The 156-person field is comprised of 24 teams for the women's competition and 30 teams for the men's. Additionally, 12 women and six men not on those already qualified teams will make the field for the individual championship.

For both the women’s (May 22-27) and men’s (May 29-June 3) competitions, players will first compete in three 18-hole rounds of stroke play competition. Following the third round, the field for both the men and women will be cut to the top 15 teams and top nine individuals not on an advancing team. 

HISTORY: Men's team and individual champions | Women's team and individual champions

The fourth round of stroke play will take place, at which point the individual national champion will be crowned. Also following the fourth round, the field will be cut to the top eight teams to move on to the match-play bracket, which will be seeded in order of finish in stroke play.

A knockout match play competition will then take place to determine the team national champion. Surviving three rounds of match play brings into play a completely different strategy than the first rounds of stroke play where only individual scores matter.

Here’s a closer look at how match play competition works and how it differs from stroke play:

In stroke play, it’s just you against the course. In match play, you face off against the course, but also an opponent.

Instead of keeping score by adding up how many strokes you took during the round, you keep track of how many holes you won against your opponent. Win more holes than your opponent and you win the match to get a point. If your team gets more points, it wins the overall match and advances to the next round. 

During a match, you’ll see terms such as 2 up, 3 down, or all square. This is the current state of the match saying how many holes a player is up or down (or tied). 

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At the end of the match you’ll see scores written to reflect how much a player won or lost by — examples are 4&3, 2 up, or halved. 

The final score reflects how many holes a player won by. So 4&3 means a player was up 4 holes with 3 holes to play, thus ending the match since the opponent was mathematically eliminated. A score with just one number, 1 or 2 up, means that the match was won on the 18th hole. Matches can end in a tie — or be halved — and the one point up for grabs is split between the players.

Match Play Strategy

One of the important things to emphasize about match play is that only winning the hole matters. The score it takes to win or lose the hole does not. In stroke play, making a double or triple bogey can take several holes to recover from. In match play, a big number on a hole just means you’ve lost one hole and you can regain that point on the next hole.

Because of the nature of the format, players who get into trouble off the tee will sometimes take more risky shots to get back into the hole. A player might also restrain from an aggressive shot after seeing their partner hit a poor shot. 

Another strategy that is commonly employed during match play is the concession of putts. A player can concede a shot to their opponent, mostly when the ball is inside a foot or two of the cup. Players will sometimes concede some longer putts in the 3-4 foot range early in the match and then make them putt those same putts later on. This is meant to catch an opponent off guard and hopefully force a miscue.

While golf is always very much a game of etiquette, match play allows, through these strategies and others, the opportunity for players to use more gamesmanship than is typically acceptable in stroke play matches.