Playing better is always the key to winning—but a little strategy can't hurt
I really enjoy match play, but part of me hesitates to give advice about it, because overthinking can backfire. Whether I'm playing in a competition like this month's Ryder Cup or a low-key eighteen with a friend, my general approach is pretty simple: First hit the ball in the fairway, then try to hole every shot. The quicker you can get the ball in the cup the better, because absolutely anything can happen in match play—and usually does.
As an example, let's say you decide to play it safe after your opponent misses a green. Fine, but then he chips in for birdie and suddenly you're left with a thirty-foot putt over a hump to halve the hole. Even if he just chips it close for a tap-in par, you've still got a very testy two-putt to salvage a draw. Far better to think win, win, win on every shot. This mentality also makes match play more fun. Trying to put the ball in the hole every time you step up beats the heck out of competitive stroke play, where you have to pay more attention to where your misses end up.
I've won my share of match play events over the years (presumably that's why I was picked to captain the 2008 European Ryder Cup team) and have learned a number of things that might be helpful, even in everyday matches. I'll share them with you, but remember not to get too cute or stray from my core principles, stated above.
One of the toughest lessons to learn is to avoid slacking off when you've got the lead. There's a tendency to get protective, especially when you're a few holes up, but discipline yourself to keep thinking of each hole as a new match, and try hard to go up by one more. You can't afford to think, "Well, that's okay, I've got a cushion," because in match play momentum can turn on a dime. Three up may sound nice, but if you lose the next hole, then you're only two up and negative thoughts have a way of cropping up ("Things are going the wrong way!"), and one up is nothing in match play. If you get in trouble on a hole, fight like hell to get back in it. Even if it seems hopeless, at least try to force your opponent to make a putt for the win—he might just miss. In short, never let up and never give up.
Another rule: Don't take unnecessary risks. A lot of people seem to think of match play as an opportunity to go for every shot they could conceivably pull off, figuring that's the best way to win holes in a tight match and that the price of failure is merely the loss of one hole. Yes, risks are sometimes warranted in match play, but usually only when you are behind late in the game and there's nothing to lose. In fact, you'll win the most holes by relentlessly keeping the pressure on your opponent and letting him make the mistakes, not by catching lightning in a bottle with the occasional brilliant shot. You're always better off staying in the hole than being in your pocket. That's why I feel you should only attempt shots you are certain, or almost certain, that you can pull off. If you're not comfortable with a shot, put that club back in the bag and try something else.
These principles established, let's walk through a match and look at some other strategies.
Before the Match Begins Make sure you are warmed up and ready to compete. In stroke play there may be some latitude to ease into a round until you get your rhythm, but in match play you need to be ready to win holes coming out of the gate. A win on hole number one could be the difference in the match. In particular, practice those two- and three-foot "gimme" putts that you may not be used to having to hole in casual play, and spend extra time working on your short game. Nothing is more likely to rile your opponent psychologically than your ability to repeatedly get up and down, pulling out halves or wins like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat.
Also, pay attention to the conditions and be ready to respond. In the 1992 World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, England, I defeated Jeff Sluman in the finals in large part because I won three of the first four holes. How?It was cold and damp and I knew, partly from local knowledge and partly from noticing how short the ball was flying on the range before the round, that the conditions required two extra clubs for approach shots. Jeff, I believe, was adding only one club and consistently fell short for those first few holes.
When You Fall Behind Early Above all, be patient. Continue to play each one-hole match at a time. The worst thing that you can do is try to make things happen by taking silly gambles and then falling even further behind. You're far better off getting a few halves, catching your breath a bit and gaining some confidence, and letting the other guy carry the pressure for a while. When you do finally manage to win a hole, your opponent will likely start to sweat. One more win and you're probably right back in the match.
When you're down, don't show it. If your head is bowed and your shoulders are slumping, you're only fueling your opponent—he knows he's got you on the ropes. My simple rule is: Don't show him anything, even if it requires a good bit of acting. He'll be wondering, "Hmmm, is it affecting him or not?" If he's asking questions about you, that's good, because that's less thought he's giving to his own game.
The Middle Part of the Match Push hard to win every hole no matter what, of course. But it's helpful to have an overall strategy before the match begins. Often there are individual holes or series of holes you may want to attack, and others where you need to accept that par (or even bogey) is a good outcome and may be enough to win. Before the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama in Spain, for example, we Euros recognized that the front nine was where our best opportunity to win holes lay—because of the back nine's difficulty, fewer holes would be exchanged there. This knowledge helped us go out strong and then play smarter later in match. There may be similar ways to pick your spots, too.
When You Are Matched Against Certain Types of Players If your opponent drives it a mile off the tee, it gives you one advantage—you get to hit your approach shots first. If you can park your six-iron near the hole, he'll feel unwanted pressure to match you, even if he's using a nine-iron. In fact, hitting your approach shot first can be such an advantage that on rare occassions you may deliberately want to hit shorter than an opponent. Say you've noticed him having trouble with mid-iron shots. On a crucial hole, use three-wood instead of driver off the tee so you can hit your approach shot first and apply extra pressure. His memory of botching recent approach shots could really twitch him up.
One of the most frustrating opponents to play against is someone like Seve Ballesteros; I went up against him several times in World Match Play championships. He was highly erratic off the tee but a wizard around the greens. You've got to expect someone like that to get up and down from anywhere. Don't let those miracle saves get to you, because sooner or later the pressure will magnify his weaknesses and he's going to whack it into the woods one too many times. So be patient and wait for that to happen rather than abandoning your game plan.
The End Game One of the old sayings in match play is "two up with five to play never wins." Obviously that's not always true, but the psychology behind it is useful to understand. When you're two ahead and lose a hole late in a match, it's easy to tense up and focus on how the match could be slipping away. Meanwhile the other guy is feeling the momentum shift and has everything to gain by being aggressive. If he wins another, he's in the catbird seat and your confidence, with only two or three two holes to play, may quickly melt away. The key when you're up with just a few holes to play is never to think about when or where the match will end. Don't think, "Well, I should be winning this on number sixteen." Instead, remind yourself to focus exclusively on trying to win the current hole.
If you come to the eighteenth tee all square, you're no longer in match play, you're in a sudden death playoff. The important thing then is to hit the fairway, even if that means dialing back to a three-wood or long-iron off the tee. Above all, give yourself an opportunity to win. Remember that the other guy is feeling the pressure, too. Even if you're all atwitter inside, make your opponent think you're loving every minute. Keep your head high and walk with a confident gait.
Be aware also that whoever stays the most relaxed coming down the stretch has the better chance. Jack Nicklaus was one of the greatest match players of all time precisely because he changed less than anyone else in crucial moments; his opponents knew this and tried to do more than they were capable of doing, frequently leading to disaster. Nicklaus did what he knew he could do, and more often than not came away the victor.
Tips for Gaming
One of the old-school ploys you often hear about is conceding short putts to your opponent early in a match, and then later, when it counts, suddenly requiring him to make one. He won't be comfortable standing over the short putt and might miss. At the Ryder Cup level, that isn't very effective; those guys are too good. But depending on the personality of your opponent, I suppose it's worth trying. Otherwise my general rule is that if you think your opponent might really miss a putt, let him try it. If not, concede.
Another old ploy is to try to disrupt your opponent's rhythm by altering your speed of play. If he's a speedy golfer and starts winning a few holes, deliberately slow down for a few holes. Then maybe speed up suddenly and wait for him on the next tee, and then slow down again. Frankly, this is right at the edge of what we might call gentlemanly conduct, but I know it sometimes happens.
Yet another trick, especially when you are playing on a course you know better than your opponent does, is to stand on the tee with the wrong club in your hand—say, a driver on a short par four, where you know you will actually be using a long-iron. Don't say anything or draw attention to the club, just stand there. If he notices, it may or may not alter what club he uses, but at least he's thinking about what you're doing instead of what he's doing, and that might help you.
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