The 10 Commandments of Match Play

March 12, 2007

While virtually every tournament on the professional Tours is conducted at stroke play, the game that most amateurs play throughout the world is match play — a hole-by-hole confrontation where victory goes to the player (or two-man team) winning the greater number of holes.

Since match play is a head-to-head battle, its strategy is more complex than that for stroke play. In addition to managing your game and contending with the course, you must stay constantly in tune with the match; on each hole you must know and understand your opponent’s situation as clearly as you do your own, then plot your moves accordingly.

With each set of opponents and each hole, a new confrontation unfolds, calling for a unique response. Generalized advice is therefore dangerous. Still, through centuries of match play at all levels, certain tactics have gained virtually universal acceptance.


Tactic 1

The game’s first supreme match player was John Ball, a taciturn Englishman who won eight British Amateur Championships between 1888 and 1912. Ball was blessed with steel nerves and a smooth-flowing swing that never varied — two undeniable assets for match play — but he claimed his secret was that he played “against par.” Said golf writer Bernard Darwin, “It was his business to go faultlessly down the middle and let the other man make the mistakes, and the more intense the crisis, the more closely he stuck to business.”

In one competition, Ball’s opponent hit into a bunker on a par-five hole. “He’s in a bunker,” said one of the gallery members. “You didn’t see, did you?”

“No,” answered Ball. “Why should I? It’s my business to get a five.”

Bobby Jones had similar success playing against “Old Man Par, a patient soul who never makes a birdie.” That game plan was sound enough to win one British Amateur and five U.S. Amateurs.

Of course, as with all match-play advice, there are exceptions. If the match is tied with one hole to go and your opponent has stuck his approach six feet from the flag, you have no choice but to go for a birdie yourself. If, on the contrary, your opponent hits his approach into a pond fronting the green, discretion will be the better part of valor.

Tactic 2

Unless you are a five-handicap player or better, do not take literally the notion of playing against par. Play instead against your “personal par,” a scorecard that you have a reasonable chance of beating.

Sadly, many players try to bring a course to its knees. Match play seems to induce a euphoria that makes the 18-handicapper think he will perform like Jack Nicklaus. (The brutal truth is, on most days he won’t even play to his 18.) You should stem this urge to pull off the spectacular shot.

Assuming you have established a plan of attack for the course you’re playing — a plan that fits your game — stick to it. Such a plan will force you to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. If your plan calls for a 4-wood on a lengthy par three, you won’t stubbornly take a 3-iron, no matter what club your opponent may select.

A final but important aspect of playing your game is to maintain your usual pace of play — don’t let an exceedingly slow or fast player get you out of rhythm. This can be difficult advice to heed if you’re a fast player being held up by a slower player, but if you keep yourself busy and use the extra time to plan your shots, you can overcome the situation.

Tactic 3

You will have some good holes and some bad holes, and so will your opponent — this is the essence of match play. The key is to maintain your composure. Don’t get too elated when you go ahead or too dejected when you lose ground.

“Absolute idiots play steadiest,” said W. G. Simpson over a century ago in The Art of Golf. “An uphill game does not make them press, nor victory within their grasp render them careless.”

Jerome Travers won four U.S. Amateur Championships in part because he knew that “in the game of golf confidence is a great helper. Let a player lose it and he is marked for slaughter. On the other hand, an attack of overconfidence is apt to be fully as disastrous. Overconfidence and carelessness are teammates.”

South Africa’s Bobby Locke, as tough a competitor as ever strode the fairways, maintained an absolutely stolid demeanor. “I try to avoid all extremes,” he said. “I have been called many things when I am playing because my expression never changes — ‘poker face,’ ‘muffin face,’ etc., but that is due to a determination never to convey to my opponent what my inner feelings are.”

Horace Hutchinson wrote that “the best competitive golfers are the distrustful and timorous kind, who are always expecting something terrible to happen — pessimistic fellows who are quite certain when they come upon the green that the ball farthest from the hole is theirs. This kind of player never takes anything for granted and cannot be lulled into complacency by a successful run over a few holes.”

Tactic 4

The natural tendency is to be a bit lackadaisical about the first few holes of a match. “There’s a lot of golf left” is the standard rationalization for a poor start. Some players even cling to the perverse belief that a victory at hole number one is a bad omen.

But the first hole is just as important as the last — in fact, a fast start puts immediate pressure on one’s opponent. The wise player thus gets straight to business, with a minimum of socializing on the early holes. In the cautionary words of Hutchinson, “Applying oneself fully to one’s work is impossible while discussing politics, the crops, weather, and the grouse.”

Tactic 5

Golf history is full of stories of players who came back from seemingly impossible deficits. The most astounding may be the match between Al Watrous and Bobby Cruickshank in the 1932 PGA Championship. Nine holes down with 12 to play, Cruickshank fought his way back and won in sudden death. More recently, Tiger Woods capped his amateur career in 1996 by coming from five holes down in the final match to win his third consecutive U.S. Amateur.

Never say never, either in the course of a match or the play of a hole. Let’s say Player A puts his approach to a par four on the green 30 feet away, and then Player B knocks his ball into a pond in front of the green. Too often, this is where B concedes the hole, in his mind if not aloud. The fact is, he still has a chance. By taking a drop, pitching close, and holing the putt he’ll make a five, forcing Player A to two-putt for victory or three-putt and halve. In singles match play, many holes are won with a bogey.

Furthermore, once you show yourself to be a quitter, your opponent will be encouraged — and the opposite is also true. As Darwin observed, “There is nothing more wearing to a leader who is playing well than the knowledge that his enemy is refusing to crack. If by hanging on we can drive that knowledge into him, we may make him crack instead.”

Tactic 6

It’s human nature to ease up a bit when you hold what seems to be a comfortable lead. But the Watrous/Cruickshank match is ample proof of the danger of complacency. As Jerry Travers said, “Never prematurely announce the funeral of your opponent.”

Wrote Simpson, “With five up, play greedily for more — play a five-yard putt as if the match depended on it.”

Locke never was accused of being one of golf’s nice guys, but he rarely finished last. He was proud of his “killer instinct.” Locke would tell himself, “I’m going to beat this fellow over the head and keep on beating him until his skull cracks.'”

It is this Lockean willingness to roll over an opponent that marks the toughest match players. As Hutchinson wrote, “It is an un-Christian counsel, but the mood for success in golf matches is a silent hatred — temporary only, be it observed — of your opponent.”

Tactic 7

Since the golf course is your first opponent, you should make a point of knowing what sort of condition it’s in. Some practice putting before the round will help you with the speed of the greens. As you walk through the holes of the match you should pay attention to flag positions on the upcoming holes. Most important, watch the way your ball and your opponent’s ball behave on landing — this will give you an idea of the hardness of the fairways and greens, a factor that affects club selection both off the tee and into the green.

Nicklaus claims he won the 1959 U.S. Amateur because he paid close attention to the course. By the last hole of the 36-hole final between Nicklaus and Charlie Coe at The Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado, the course had become hard and dry. Coe, hitting first, played an 8-iron approach that landed near the flag but bounded well over the green. Observing this, Nicklaus punched a low 9-iron that ran along the ground and stopped within eight feet of the hole. He then sank the putt for a one-up victory.

Tactic 8

It should go without saying that you need to pay close attention to your opponent. Says GOLF Magazine Playing Editor Curtis Strange, “In match play I want to be fully aware of what my opponent is up to at all times, because it can influence whether I play a particular shot aggressively or cautiously.”

Beyond this you can learn things about the golf course, as Nicklaus did by watching his opponent’s ball. On a par three, if your opponent hits first, you can judge your own club from the club he selects. (Although the Rules prohibit you from asking what club he hit, it’s legal to take a peek in his bag and see which club is missing.) This assumes, of course, that you know your own strength relative to your opponent’s — what is a 5-iron for him could be a 6-iron or 4-iron for you. Around the green in particular it pays to watch how a ball runs, as you can often observe the effects of grain, slope, and moisture.

If you aren’t familiar with your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, by watching him closely you may learn something early in the match that could help you later on. Let’s say he hits into a couple of greenside bunkers and plays poor recoveries, then later in the match he hits into another bunker while you’re just outside him, facing a ticklish downhill chip. Armed with the knowledge that your opponent is shaky from the sand, you can play a conservative chip shot — get the ball on the green and settle for a six-foot uphill putt for par rather than risk a delicate little flop shot that might stay in the fringe.

The final reason for watching your opponent is to note any change in his mannerisms or pace of play. Sam Snead was one of the best at sizing up opponents. He says: “One of the best ways to judge when the pressure is getting to your opponent is by watching his routine. Everyone has a pace of play and a routine that he follows, but when the noose starts to tighten, he falls out of his pace and routine. Instead of taking two practice swings, he may take three. He may hesitate over club selection. If he smokes, he may chain-smoke to try to calm his nerves. When you sense this, it’s time to pour it on and turn up the pressure.”

Tactic 9

According to Strange, “the best way to put pressure on an opponent is to keep the ball in play.” In most matches, accuracy is much more important than distance. Even when you are out-hit from the tee, you have an opportunity to be the first one on the green, thus putting the pressure back on your opponent.

Although scramblers and magicians in the tradition of Walter Hagen and Seve Ballesteros can unnerve their opponents, the inexorable assault of a fairways-and-greens grinder like Strange is far more fearsome, as the pressure is unrelenting.

“Drive for show” has little meaning unless part of the show is accuracy. Indeed, if ever you should divert from your game plan in a match, it is to err on the side of caution from the tee — take a 3-wood occasionally rather than a driver-and wait for your opponent to make the big mistake.

Tactic 10

Every golfer must fight the urge to follow a bad shot with a spectacular recovery, or a bad hole with a spectacular hole. Spectacular play succeeds only in making the player foul up and lose the hole. In most instances, the smart move is to get safely and surely back in play, and then resume the attack.

Hutchinson wrote, “Perhaps the most fatal beam of all that can float over your mental vision is the vision of a past hole badly played which you are filled with some insane notion of ‘making up for.’ This idea of ‘making up’ by present extra exertions for past deficiencies is one of the most deadly delusions that is prone to affect the golfing mind. Its results are inevitably ruinous.”

One situation where patience is particularly vital is on the tee after you’ve hit a drive out of bounds. At this point, most golfers hastily tee up a second ball despite the fact that, strictly speaking, it is their opponent’s turn to hit. The wise move is to back off and allow the opponent to play (after all, he too may hit into trouble), allow yourself some time to cool off, and then tee up a second ball.

Most battles on the golf course are won not by the transcendent brilliance of the victor but by the mistakes of the vanquished. Be patient and eventually your opponent will win you the match.

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