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Playing with matches: How match play can bring out the best in golf


In the wake of the blowout victory 19 to 9 (like 60 to 28 in football) by the American team over the Europeans in the Ryder Cup a few weeks ago, I thought it might be nice to discuss some of the elements of match play golf. The game of golf actually began hundreds of years ago as a contest between two players, trying to best each other, while bracing themselves against the stiff breezes sweeping over the Scottish links. Match play golf is essentially very simple. Two players (or two pairs of players) compete hole by hole, and the golfer/s who wins the most holes wins the match. Simple. What’s not so simple is that many golfers do not grasp the idea of match play, or the rules or the strategies of match play. The Ryder Cup, President’s Cup, Solheim Cup, Walker Cup, Curtis Cup, NCAA golf finals and other international team events are all contested in match play format, in contrast to the regular LPGA and PGA Tour style golf which is stroke play (total score) from week to week.

While the Rules of Golf apply, there are, of course, a few variations and contingencies in the rules that are particularly important. One is that a stroke or hole may be conceded to your opponent at any time, as long as the ball is not in flight. Very short putts are the strokes mostly conceded. Note that a conceded stroke may not be declined or withdrawn. Another rule that is sometimes strictly adhered to is that the player who is “away,” i.e. farthest from the hole, plays first. Formal match play tournaments are surely not a matter of “ready golf.” You play in order of who is away until the balls are holed. If you were to play out of order, your opponent has the option of making you hit it over.

When a hole is won or lost, neither player need continue golfing. Pick up your ball and go to the next hole; the match play game tends to be faster that way. In stroke play if you play the wrong ball, you incur a two-stroke penalty; in match play it’s loss of the hole. Slow play that is deemed excessive? Loss of hole. There are many more subtleties.

My first tip about match play is that you play your own game, even when you have a partner. You should not get caught up in watching your opponent’s play and wondering if you can top him. Over the years, I have found that the emotional ups and downs in a one-on-one match can be far greater than just going out an trying to shoot a score. Each hole is a mini-battle, with a possible victory or a loss. The nice thing, though is that a disaster on a single hole is only one hole, and usually won’t sour the outcome. Former PGA of America president Rick Martino views it this way: “Stroke play is essentially conservative in nature, because par is (most) always a safe score, while soaring to a large number can effectively shoot a good player out of a 72-hole tournament. It’s just too difficult to recover. However, match play allows players to take far more risks. If a gamble fails, all you’ve lost is one hole – a temporary setback that you can usually recover from.”  Consider what happened two years ago in the Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, when their cherished and favored homeland son, Rory McIlroy, nervously yanked his opening tee shot out-of-bounds, leading to a triple and missed the cut.

In terms of adjusting to match play, my next tip is to keep your emotions I check. Too many golfers start thinking ahead and assuming what will happen. Don’t. If anything, expect that your opponent will make the great shot to get out of trouble and will make the improbable putt that you saw as not makeable. Don’t allow yourself to be surprised. Surprise can be dreadful in a tight match. If the fellow fails to pull off the miracle shot on one hole, go to the next hole and just assume he’ll also play that one well. A golf match can be an emotional rollercoaster if you allow it. Play the golf course first, not your opponent. That said, play smart golf by watching the other guy and where he hits it. If you’re playing in a “net” format, know where all the strokes fall.

Dr. Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact him at docblanchard71@gmail.com.