20 Ways to Win at Match Play
The thrills and chills that define the Ryder Cup are partly rooted in the way the event is scored. Match play is golf's most exciting format. On every hole, you win, lose or draw. Plus, you battle more than your opponent -- you take on the course, your swing and your emotions. To achieve victory, it takes good shotmaking, smart strategy and inner steel. Here's how to win every single match.
1. Drive It Like Dustin
In his 2016 U.S. Open victory, Dustin Johnson topped the field driving-distance average by 30 yards. Expect more tee-box fireworks from D.J. at Hazeltine, and for him to build on his career 3-1 singles record in international match-play competition.
"Blasting it by the other guy only gives you an advantage in match play if it bothers your opponent," says Scott Munroe (Boca Raton Resort, Boca Raton, Fla.). "Don't worry -- it'll bother him."
Pick up some yards right now with D.J.'s signature bowed left wrist (photos, below). Bowing shuts the face, so the ball can't slice and rob you of distance. "To avoid hitting a hook, pair the bow with a strong forward weight shift on the way down," Munroe says.
2. Show No Mercy
If you get an early lead on your opponent, slap on the war paint and finish him -- fast. "Fear the wounded animal," says performance psychologist Bhrett McCabe, Ph.D. "Taking a quick lead can loosen up your opponent. He knows it can't get worse. Your hot start can put him in a better competitive mindset." So stay aggressive. Keep doing what gave you that lead. Put him in his place, and eventually, he'll fold.
3. Ignore Your Opponent
Pay your opponent little attention. Focusing on his game only makes it harder to concentrate on your own. "We teach players to be indifferent," says Jamie Mulligan (Virginia C.C., Long Beach, Calif.). "If your opponent sinks a 50-footer, big deal. You can only win holes with your swings, not his."
4. Be a Man With a Plan
Before you hit your first practice ball, you should know which holes you'll hit driver on, which pins you will and won't go after, and the trouble spots to avoid. The better your plan for the course -- and the better you stick to it -- the more competitive and less distracted you'll be. Play your game.
5. Up Your Sand Game
The average 5- to 15-handicap gets up-and-down from a greenside bunker less than 20 percent of the time. Those are bad odds under any conditions, let alone the pressure-cooker of match play. "Find the sand, lose the hole," says Munroe. "To buck the trend, spend time in the practice bunker the week leading up to a match." When you thump it to inches from that 6-foot-deep trap, you won't just salvage a halve -- you'll crush the other guy's spirits.
6. Don't Get Suckered
"Courses love sticking pins in tough spots on match-play days," says V.J. Trolio (Old Waverly G.C., West Point, Miss.). "Favor the center of the green and lean on your putter." Got a balky flatstick? Consider laying up. "Play to your sand-wedge range if you can't get home in regulation," advises Trolio. "The higher the loft, the easier it is to attack tight pins.
7. Be Mentally Bullet-Proof
Hoping your opponent chokes a 3-footer or rope-hooks one into the trees is a fool's game. "Hope, for all its positive connotations, is based in fear and accepting that you've lost control," McCabe says. "It's the opposite of belief." The smart strategy? Build a plan that assumes your opponent pulls off every shot. You'll strengthen your mind and never feel disappointed.
8. Sprint Out of the Blocks
Some golfers tend to get careless on the first few holes of a match. Hey, we get it. There's lots of golf to play, and back-nine heroics are part of the Ryder Cup. But it's harder to make up for lost holes than it is to climb up a traditional leaderboard. Unlike stroke play, where carding birdie gives you a three-stroke jump on the guy who made double-bogey, match play rewards you with a single hole. Savvy golfers understand that the value of winning the first two holes is exactly the same as winning the last two. This doesn't give you the green light to blast driver off the deck in the first fairway in order to play well out of the gate. Simply execute your plan (see No. 4), and don't wait for the seventh hole to do it.
9. Set the Pace…
Every golfer plays to the beat of his internal clock, from the pace he uses to walk between shots to the timing of his pre-shot routine. "Disrupt your opponent's natural rhythm by playing noticeably slower or faster than him," says Bill Moretti (Austin G.C., Austin, Texas). "When he starts taking two practice swings instead of his normal three, or rushing his reads, it's working."
10. …but Don't Get Slow-Played
Your opponent may try to disrupt your normal pace of play by slowing his game to a crawl. The moment you sense it, call him on it. Better yet, if you're in a competition, ask an official to put your group on the clock. That will shake his nerves. "Match play isn't a popularity contest," Trolio says. "It's okay to ruffle some feathers on your way to victory."
11. Put On a Happy Face
Stay positive. It keeps you focused on your plan and sends the message that you're the one controlling the match. Do it with body language: Stand tall, keep your head up, add some pep to your step and a tune to your lips. It's not just feel-good mumbo-jumbo. Harvard psychologist Amy J.C. Cuddy's research on posture suggests that positive body projections can boost your testosterone levels by 20 percent. You feel powerful, so you act powerful! Other studies show that the simple act of smiling creates chemical reactions in the brain similar to those connected with feelings of enjoyment, which helps you shrug off doubt and heighten confidence. And a confident golfer is a dangerous golfer.
12. Take a Concession Stand
In the days before your match, envision the situations when you'll concede putts and when you won't. One time-tested strategy? Concede anything inside the leather early in the match, then force your rival to putt out from similar distances down the stretch. This keeps him from gaining confidence on short putts early on, and your sudden lack of generosity may affect his nerves enough to make him miss a gimme.
Another tactic: Concede nothing. Force him to putt every ball, even tap-ins. This will grind on him like 80-grit sandpaper. And if he has the same strategy in mind for you, thwart his plan by always marking your ball, assuming you'll have to putt everything.
13. Keep It In the Short Stuff
Any good match-play strategy starts with finding fairways. The straighter you drive it, the more you force your opponent to do the same. Suddenly, he'll start "steering" the ball, which rarely works. "If driver isn't the most accurate club in your bag, don't use it," Munroe says. "Opt for a 3-wood, or try a 2-wood head with a driver-length shaft." You'll sacrifice some yards, but you'll still have a chance to hit greens in regulation, which may not be possible from the rough. "Don't stress if your opponent drives it past you," Munroe adds. "That just means you have an opportunity to be the first one on the green, putting pressure back on your opponent."
14. Run Silent…
You tend to chat during a friendly round, but match play isn't the time for banter. Keep your lips sealed, and focus on each shot one at a time. "Winning at match play is about managing the course," says Carol Preisinger (Kiawah Club, Kiawah Island, S.C.). "Play to your index, and you'll probably win. It should almost feel like your opponent isn't even there."
15. …or Run Your Mouth
It's possible to psych-out the other guy with a few choice words. "Cagey match-play golfers know how to subtly instill doubt in their opponent," says Krista Hall (Berkeley Hall, Bluffton, S.C.). Two of our favorite verbal darts: "I didn't know you hooked the ball" and "These greens run faster than they look, don't they?" Your opponent will be in his head, and toast before the turn.
16. Be Like Bubba
The two-time Masters champ enters the 2016 Ryder Cup ranked 172nd on Tour in driving accuracy…ouch. But before you lay bets against him, consider that he hits almost 70 percent of his greens, good for 17th. His knack for turning wayward drives into birdie putts should prove to be a nightmare for the European team.
"Things won't always go as planned," says Jim Murphy (Sugar Creek G.C., Sugar Land, Texas). "You'll miss shots. How you recover from misses will go a long way toward determining the outcome of your match."
Bubba can seemingly will the ball onto the green following a bad drive. And you can do the same. "Have two rescue shots in your bag," Murphy suggests. "Learn how to punch it through trees with a mid-iron, and take a lesson in escaping fairway bunkers." Nailing these common get-out-of-jail shots will keep you in every hole, no matter how wild you get off the tee.
17. Mind the Card
If you get strokes in your match, note where they fall on the card. If they come early in the round, you can play cautiously at the outset -- a few solid pars will help you build a quick lead. Knowing where your opponent will get strokes is just as critical to your success. If he gets strokes early on, consider a more aggressive approach (hit driver on tight holes, go after sucker pins, go for that par 5 in two). You want to avoid having to play catch up early in your match.
18. Don't Take the Bait
Some days you'll get an opponent who's more talented than you. He'll split fairways and pound greens, baiting you into shots beyond your skill set. If you play his game, you'll lose.
"Golfers who tank matches often talk about how great their opponent played," McCabe says. "In hindsight, all he did was capitalize on your mistakes -- errors that resulted from you trying to hit shots you had no business attempting."
As an underdog, it's even more important to play the course, not the man. "If your opponent beats you, fine," adds McCabe. "But don't make it easy for him."
19. Get the Eye of Tiger
From the 1991 U.S. Junior Amateur through the 2013 Presidents Cup, Tiger Woods amassed a 92-19-2 record in singles match play. "Tiger was the best at making something out of nothing around the green, which crushed his opponents," says Mike Adams (Medalist Club, Hobe Sound, Fla.). Be like classic Tiger: Don't try to chip it close -- try to chip it in. "Take practice swings with your wedge while looking at the hole to get a feel for distance and speed, just as you do when taking practice strokes with your putter. You expect putts to go in. Why not your chips, too?"
20. Kill It from Short Range
When forced to putt from a few feet out, you've got to can it. Not only does missing short putts gift-wrap holes for the other side, it gnaws away at your confidence to the point where even tap-ins make your knees knock. "Just before you tee off, hammer in putts from one, two and three feet," Munroe says. "Rattle the back of the cup. Seeing the ball go in is a huge confidence boost. You'll need that swagger when it counts for real."