Explaining the Medalist in Golf

What, or who, is the "medalist" in golf? "Medalist" is a golf term that applies to the winner of a stroke-play tournament or to the low-scorer in stroke-play qualifying rounds prior to the start of a match-play tournament.

(Note that "medallist," with a double-l, is an alternative spelling, but "medalist," single-l, is the preferred spelling.)

Medalist as Tournament Winner

The first usage — winner of a stroke-play tournament — is mostly archaic at the professional level today. You never hear anyone refer to the "the medalist at the Masters" or say, "And the U.S. Open medalist this year is ..." No, those are the U.S. Open winners or Masters champions.

But that definition was the original usage by golfers for medalist. And it derived from the prize that awaited the tournament winner, which was often some form of medal. So "medal play" became an alternate name for stroke play, and "medalist" became another way to refer to the tournament champion.

One place you will still see the term "medalist" used for a tournament winner is in charity events, association playdays and the like, when an alternative scoring format is being used in conjunction with stroke play. For example, let's say the Oso Ladies Association is holding a Best Holes tournament. The winner of the Best Holes tournament is the golfer whose score is lowest according to that format of play. But all the golfers are still playing a full, 18 holes of stroke play — so the association might also announce a medalist, that golfer who had the lowest score under "normal" stroke play.

Medalist as Low Qualifier

It is more common today to see "medalist" used in relation to stroke-play qualifying rounds played prior to a golf tournament, especially when the tournament uses a match-play format.

Let's say the U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur tournament is coming up. The tournament itself is played at match play. But before it can get into the match play bracket, the number of golfers in the field has be whittled down to 64. So the USGA first holds two rounds of stroke play. The top 64 golfers in those stroke-play rounds are the ones who get to advance into the match-play bracket.

And the golfer who gets the lowest score in those stroke-play qualifying rounds? She's called the medalist.

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