Explaining the Meaning of Medal Play in Golf

Do you know what stroke play is? Then you also know what "medal play" is. Because stroke play and medal play mean the exact same thing — they are synonyms for determing the outcome of a golf competition based on the total number of strokes used over a round or series of rounds.

"Medal play" is defined in The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms (affiliate link) as "golf competition in which the contest is among many competitors simultaneously and the score is by the total of strokes for the round or rounds."

Match play was the more common form of golf in golf's earliest days. Two competitors, or two sides, played each other on a hole-by-hole basis, with the golfer or side that won the most holes being the winner of the match. Medal play allows many golfers to all play against one another at the same time by counting strokes used over 18 holes, 36 holes, 72 holes, or whatever the duration of the competition may be.

The term "medal play" dates to at least 1807, when the Edinburgh (Scotland) Burgess Golfing Society commissioned a gold medal as the prize for which its members would annually compete. They were, literally, playing for a medal (hence "medal play"), and the Society specified that "the player holing two rounds at the fewest number of strokes is to be the winner."

"Medal play" was the term used (rather than stroke play) in the 1800s in the U.K., where golf was overwhelmingly concentrated then. The 1899 Rules of Golf, as approved by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, under a section titled Local Rules for St. Andrews Links, includes multiple references to "medal play," rather than stroke play.

The R&A's first use of "stroke play" in The Rules of Golf came in 1913.

Over time, however, "stroke play" became the more-used term. The R&A and USGA eventually came to use only "stroke play" in the rules.

"Medal play" is most commonly applied today to the stroke-play qualifying rounds that precede many match play tournaments. The fact that the term dates to when golf clubs awarded medals to the winners is also the origin of the term "medalist" for the winners of those stroke-play qualifiers that precede match play brackets.

Today, the governing bodies define "stroke play" (and therefore, even though they no longer use the term, "medal play") as:

"A form of play where a player or side competes against all other players or sides in the competition. ... A player's or side's score for a round is the total number of strokes (including strokes made and any penalty strokes) to hole out on each hole, and (t)he winner is the player or side who completes all rounds in the fewest total strokes."

More definitions:

Davies, Peter. The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms*, 1993, Robson Books.
Historical Rules of Golf. "Rules of Golf 1802, 1807," http://www.ruleshistory.com/rules1802.html
Historical Rules of Golf. "Rules of Golf 1899," http://www.ruleshistory.com/rules1899.html
Historical Rules of Golf. "Rules of Golf 1912," http://www.ruleshistory.com/rules1912.html
Rules of Golf. "Definitions," Stroke Play, United States Golf Association, https://www.usga.org/rules/rules-and-clarifications/rules-of-golf/definitions.html
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