August 22, 2009

Keys To Match Play Success

Today is the penultimate day of the Solheim Cup, with the USA currently leading the European Team 4.5 to 3.5. Personally, I am still waiting to play my Club Match Play semi-final (I've already won my flight, and am now in the Final Four) and this time, I am playing a golfer who is clearly better than I am and will not make tactical mistakes to save me should I have an errant hole.

Even when one is playing a better player, the same principles of match play success still apply. Here are my keys that have served me well thus far:

Play the course, not your opponent.

This key comes from one Bobby Jones, one of the great golfers and most fearsome match play opponents in the history of the game. Even though match play is mano y mano, it is still you versus the golf course first, and most likely, last. Don't get caught up in the emotion of what your opponent is doing, and take dead aim with your own ball and do the best you can -- this will serve you longer than trying to out-do everything your opponent does.

Always play first.

It's always better to play first, because that leaves your opponent in the position of answering your good shot.

Walter Hagen, who won five PGA Championships at match-play, would often start a game by hitting a 3-wood from the tee. That assured him of being in the fairway, leaving his opponent in the position of having to do the same. If s/he is not playing the course first and trying to best you instead, s/he'll have a lot more pressure on them, which already gives you an edge.

Get the ball into the hole first.

This is anotiher way of increasing the pressure on your opponent. Don't rush, but by putting out, you're done, you can relax and catch a mental break before the next tee and you will leave your opponent feeling the pressure to beat or match your score.

Always, always, ALWAYS assume that your opponent will make the putt or make a great shot.

This might be the most important rule of match-play.

There's an old saying about assume: there are two words in assume, ass and me. By taking for granted that you've already won a hole or that there's no way that your opponent can do what s/he needs to do, you've given them the edge by letting your guard down and with it your dropped concentration.

Take one shot at a time.

You can only hit one shot at a time, so give each one your level best. That doesn't mean don't play each hole to your game plan, but you can get yourself into trouble with half-baked layups or lag give each and every one your total concentration.

On the other hand, what's done is done, and if you made a poor shot last time, forget about it. You can't undo it, and you can only deal in the present. Even more importantly, if you just made a GREAT shot, that was also in the past and don't let it make you overconfident. Overconfidence also leads to dropped concentration and dropped concentration leads to bad shots. That in mind, keep your head level and take each shot as if it were the most important one in the match.

Watch your opponent. Closely.

There are two reasons for this: first of all, by watching your opponent, you can see where their head is at, and you can tell if they are struggling. If you notice that your opponent is struggling or has gotten out of his or her routine, it's a golden opportunity to stay relaxed and try to increase the pressure even more. You do this by making a great shot on your own.

Secondly, and let's be honest: people make mistakes, or worse, cheat. The Rules are your friend, and if your opponent breaks the rules, you've just won the hole. Don't feel bad about calling them on it, because you are bound by the rules, and obliged to follow them. So are they. And besides, if you call them on an obvious rules violation, that will get in their head and very possibly will give you a major mental edge.

Study the Rules of Golf and Its Decisions.

You have to know the Rules, for the reasons listed above - you have to follow them and so does your opponent. Even as an amateur, you should have a solid working knowledge of the rules and how they are applied. While the USGA and the R&A's rulebooks can make for dry reading, go through them in the offseason and learn them well.

Then, as I have advised in the past, read Barry Rhodes' "999 Questions On The Rules of Golf." Mr. Rhodes has written a very-easy-to-read book that's enjoyable and will allow you to improve your knowledge as much at a time as you are willing to take on. You can also read Mr. Rhodes' fine web site at

I cannot stress enough or too often that the rules are in place to help you -- and the only way that they can do that is if you know them. They are your friend, so visit often.

Finally, never, ever, NEVER give up!

I once heard the great basketball coach, Jim Valvano say that as he was stricken was cancer and close to death. Valvano was using his NC State team's 1983 run through the NCAA tournament as a metaphor for life - and his battle with cancer. In that run, NC State found themselves in a position where they had to win their conference tournament to even get to the larger NCAA tournament, and to win that, they had to beat the defending national champion -- the Michael Jordan led North Carolina team. They did that, and were rewarded with playing the University of Virginia - only the #3 team in the country and the heavy favorite in their game. They won that too.

In the NCAA tournament, NC State found themselves often trailing and in dire circumstances. They never gave up, they never gave in, and by the time all was said and done, they won despite all odds. "The Cinderella Slipper fits!" was the exclamation of NC State's play-by-play announcer, but the truth was that hard work and a never-say-die attitude is what carried the day.

That applies as much to golf as basketball -- by never, ever giving up you can do what you think you can't do. A positive attitude is key. You can't say can't, because as soon as you do, the next word that follows will be "couldn't."

It's a simple truth that in match play: "It's never over until it's over." You may pull off a miracle shot or your opponent may surprise you and miss a relatively simple shot, and let you back in the hole - or even the match.


  1. Jimmy V's speech still makes me misty. I watch it at least once a year.

  2. Great advice and quite timely. I have a semi-final match play round tomorrow afternoon.

    The rules advice is especially important. I am always stunned at how many players make some huge rules errors that can result in loss of hole. It can be tough to call a golfing "friend" out on a rule, but the rules are there for a reason. Knowing them is definitely to your advantage.

    Good luck! Can't wait to hear more.


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