Every fall, the President’s Cup and Ryder Cup bring us epic battles from the US and International players. It makes for insanely entertaining TV and always fun to see the best players in the world compete on the biggest stages.
Even for amateurs, match play is also one of the most fun ways to play a round of golf as well. It’s unlike stroke play, as you can make a big number and still stay in the match. Plus, it’s much more mental as there is a strategy on nearly every shot. And that’s what makes match play so interesting.
At times, it’s you vs. your competitor and not actually the course itself. But since match play isn’t nearly as popular as stroke play, especially in professional settings, it’s not as frequently discussed. But if you play a lot of friendly golf bets, match play is an awesome format.
In this post, I’ll break down what is match play, how match play works, and the best mental shifts to become the Ian Poulter of your weekend foursome. Because let’s face it, even if his biggest win is the Houston Open, the guy thrives in match play.
Match play vs. stroke play, what is the difference actually?
First off, in stroke play golf, every single shot counts. If you make a 6 and your competitor makes a 3, you’re down 3 shots. Simple math right?
Not the case with match play, which makes each hole that much more interesting.
The problem with stroke play is that one bad hole and you’re out of a match, especially if it’s late in the round. But match play levels the playing field.
In match play, if you make a 6 and they make a 3, you’re only down one. Regardless of how many strokes you lose on the hole, it’s only a one-shot swing. And there’s a thing known as “dormie” which happens later in the round.
For example, let’s say you’re 4 down with 4 to play. Unless you win the next hole and every other one, you’re going to lose the match. At this point, you want to make sure to get aggressive and do whatever it takes to keep the match alive. Once you’re down more than there are holes left, the match is over, aka dormie.
Plus, the strategies are very different in match play as putts can be conceded which makes for some fun rounds of golf.
Now that you understand the basics of match play, here are some of the best tricks and tips to own your mindset and win more matches.
One last note: You may end up involved in match play using the handicap system. If you find yourself in that situation read up on how the golf handicap system works.
Regardless of match or stroke play, staying in the present is key to shooting low scores. But it’s even more prominent in match play as you’re not worried about the rest of the field.
You are only worried about beating your competitor.
You should narrow your focus on beating your competitor and keep your goal simple. If you made an 8 on the last hole, let it go. Same as if you made an eagle. Write it on the card and simply move on.
You can’t think about the last hole or the future holes in match play or you can get distracted and might lose focus your current shot. Remember, you can’t change the past and worrying about the future won’t do you any good.
Sometimes when you’re playing in stroke play, you wait a few holes to get loose before you start attacking pins. Most players don’t go flag hunting on the first hole but this is the wrong approach in match play.
Not to say you should start attacking flags with a long iron to a tucked pin on hole one but you want to start out with an aggressive strategy. Put pressure on your competitor early in the match. Remember, what’s going on with the other players in your group or tournament doesn’t matter.
Unlike stroke play, you can’t depend on beating them big on a hole on the back nine. You want to set the pace early when they least expect it.
Yes, match play is you vs. one other person but It’s so important to play your game. If they drive it 40 yards past you, who cares. If anything, use it to your advantage by throwing a dart and making them have to do the same.
Just because you’re playing one player, doesn’t mean you should change your game. Create a game plan for each hole on the tee box or before the round. As the match continues, stick with your game plan and make subtle shifts if you find yourself way up or down.
Match play is not the time to be timid on the greens. You need to hole putts or get them to the hole to give yourself a chance in the match. Remember, if you need to make 30 footer to tie the hole, get it there. I’d rather see players miss five feet long than 18 inches short.
Putts that are short have a 0% chance of going in!
Plus, with the new rules in 2019 and keeping the flagstick in, you can be even more aggressive. At the same time, make sure you’re not trying to jam birdie putts in when they’re putting for par or bogey. Strategize your putting to where they are on the green and how the match stands.
If you get strokes in your match, make sure to note where they fall on the scorecard. Knowing where your opponent will get strokes is just as critical to your success in match play.
If your strokes come early in the round, you can play more cautiously in the beginning. And if
your competitor gets strokes early in the round, consider a more aggressive approach as well.
Let’s say you’re on a tight par 4 that you can reach with a good drive and he gets a shot on the hole. The right strategy is to hit the driver and get it as close to the green as you can. In all likelihood, he’s probably going to make par or bogey at worst. And with a stroke, that’s a birdie or par.
So you need to set yourself up to give yourself the best chances. This could include going for a par-5 in two or getting a bit more aggressive with approach shots.
Try to avoid having to play catch up by knowing where you stand at all times.
Match play is all about strategy!
Don’t try to be a hero when you don’t need too. If they miss the green or get into trouble, don’t’ go flag hunting with a long-iron or hybrid, even if you’re “in the zone” and can’t miss.
Always select the right club on your approach shot. Use a rangefinder or GPS to get your distance to the pin, and hit the club that gets you that distance most of the time, not that one time you hit a career shot.
Remember, in this instance, even a par or bogey can win the hole. Don’t worry about your overall score in the match because it doesn’t matter. Focus on beating your competitor on each hole, not trying to shoot the round of your life. If a bogey wins the hole, take it and move on.
Golf is already a very mental sport that can drive players crazy, just look at Sergio’s recent incident for proof. It’s not an easy game and it tends to bring out serious emotion in most of us. And even more in so in the heat of 1:1 match play.
Make sure to notice their attitude and nerves from the moment you shake hands on the first tee. This will help you know when to get aggressive and when to play more conservative. Watch early on tendencies to help you later in the round.
For example, if you notice their pitching is bad early in the round and they leave themselves a tough shot, aim for the middle of the green on your approach. Remember, match play isn’t about making birdies and shooting a career round. It’s about winning each hole!
Match play is so unique as you can give players putts without making them hole it. One trick I love doing is to give them putts early in the round. They’ll forget what it’s like to have to make a 3 or 4 footer under pressure.
Then, later in the round when it’s getting close, stop giving them putts. This will shake their confidence and make them have to hole the testy putts which they haven’t done all day. This is a fun part of the game that you just can’t get with stroke play.
Also, if a player does this to you, remember that with match play, you can also practice after the hole is over. If you want to practice a few 4-footers, go ahead. Stay ready for when you need it most!
As I’m sure you’ve seen, weird stuff happens in golf. Match play seems to make unlikely events even crazier.
Think back to Justin Leonard making the epic putt in the 1999 Ryder Cup from like 50 feet. Stuff like that seems to only happen in match play (or if your name is Tiger Woods).
You need to keep the right attitude so you’re prepared for anything in match play. Always expect for your opponent to hole the chip or putt so you stay laser focused.
Any time you’re playing golf, especially in match play, never give up. If you make a big number mid-round, forget about it. Remember, you’re only going down one despite how big of a number you card.
Plus, getting in the habit of quitting mid-round is one that can sabotage a lot of future rounds. Stay patient, have fun, and stick with it until the round is over. Adopt the mantra, “I always finish strong” to stay 100% committed in the match.
As I’m sure you can tell, I love match play. It gives the underdog a much better chance of hanging in when playing a better player. It makes golf more exciting and brings in a lot more mental strategy than stroke play.
The biggest things to remember are to play one hole at a time and try to beat your competitor. Don’t try to shoot a course record or play the round of your life. If you need to hit the middle of the green, don’t go flag hunting.
Get out of the gates early and put pressure on your competitor. And remember, if you have a bad hole, brush it off and know that you’re only going to lose one shot.
Match play is just one of the ways to play golf outside of stroke play. Click here to read about even more golf formats.