The art of psychological warfare called gamesmanship, most commonly seen during the Ryder Cup, will be deployed in late February at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. To learn these dark arts, you must first know what to look for.
Let’s be clear: Gamesmanship isn’t cheating. Swinging a corked bat is cheating; repeatedly stepping out of the batter’s box is gamesmanship. “It has to be within the rules,” says Dr. Richard Coop, GOLF MAGAZINE’s mental game guru. “It doesn’t violate the rules but may violate the intent of the game, which is sportsmanship.”
Golf’s undisputed master is Seve Ballesteros, who would arrive at the Ryder Cup armed with clubs and (ahem) a cough. Gamesmanship, though, isn’t always as transparent as Corey Pavin’s camouflage cap at Kiawah Island. Before their 1971 U.S. Open playoff at Merion, Lee Trevino famously tossed a rubber snake at Jack Nicklaus. It broke the ice–and, maybe, Nicklaus’s concentration. Trevino beat the Bear and spent years insisting the prank wasn’t a ploy.
“You have to ask– are they doing it, or is it in your own mind?” says Coop, who has worked with many PGA Tour pros, including Nick Faldo and Mark O’Meara. “Some players have a reputation for gamesmanship, so while they may honestly clear their throat, everyone thinks they’re doing it with intent.”
Even if the act of gamesmanship is imagined, it’s important to get over it. Fast. “You don’t want someone else controlling you,” Coop says. “If you give in to that stuff, it means part of your mind isn’t where it should be. You must be playing well for them to resort to that last-ditch effort. I tell my guys to take heart from that. Turn it around and make it a positive.”
There’s a fine line between geting the upper hand and getting a fist to the face
• Keep quiet. “It’s the Hogan strategy,” Coop says. “Ignore the other guy.”
• If you bomb it past your opponent, pause in the fairway when you reach his ball, like it’s your drive. He’ll be deflated when you walk 30 more yards to yours.
• Put a spring in your step, like the “quick-steppers” on Tour who start walking in their rival’s downswing. “They do it once, and it’s in your mind the whole day,” Coop explains.
• Let the other guy find his own errant shot. He’ll lose his cooland his focus. Play dumb. If your shot calls for an 8-iron, feather a 7 instead, then say, “Gosh, the wind took that one!”
• Jangle coins in your pocket as the other player readies to hit. Ditto loudly ripping the Velcro on your glove.
• Walk to the next tee before your opponent putts out shows a lack of manners, not Hoganesque focus.
• Avoid comments like, “There’s OB left, but you’re playing great, so don’t worry.” Giving unwanted advice is Johnny Miller’s job.
• Never, ever show up on the first tee wearing a Stetson. It doesn’t intimidate anyone. You listening, Captain Lehman?