Learn from McIlroy: Four match play tips

Match Play
USA Today Images
Gary Woodland congratulates Cadillac Match Play Championship winner Rory McIlroy on Sunday.
By Mark Aumann
PGA.com

Problem Area: Fundamentals
Series: Lesson Learned

Published: Sunday, May 03, 2015 | 8:13 p.m.

Match play uses the same skill set as stroke play, but an entirely different set of strategies. Because you're playing against an opponent instead of the entire field, it's almost like chess on grass. You may be required to outthink your opponent -- in addition to outplaying them -- to order to win.

"Match play is a great format, because amateurs can learn a lot from what the pros do," said PGA Teaching Professional Chris Czaja of Boca West Club in Boca Raton, Fla. "The skill levels are different, but the strategy remains the same."

Rory McIlroy was 2 down with two holes remaining in his Friday match with Billy Horschel, and in danger of being eliminated from the Cadillac Match Play Championships at TPC Harding Park. McIlroy rallied, and eventually engineered several other comebacks on his way to winning the championship by a 4&2 score against Gary Woodland in the final match.

MORE LESSONS: Play the percentages by playing smarter

Czaja, a former PGA South Florida Section Teacher of the Year, offered four tips to make you a better player when it comes to match play. 

1. Be a better manager

Match play, perhaps more than stroke play, is all about course management. Play to your strengths whenever possible. You don't have to play the greatest round ever to win. In match play, all you have to do is be better than your opponent on that hole.

"You have to play to your strengths, but you also have to recognize a bogey could win a hole if the other player's in trouble," Czaja said. "A two-putt for par could win the hole. You don't have to be aggressive in certain situations.

"It all comes down to course management. If you know your strengths and weaknesses when you play your regular game, you should have those in mind when in match play."

Czaja suggests putting your practice rounds to good use by figuring out whether an aggressive or conservative play is your best bet.

"I work with amateurs in a situational playing lesson," he said. "For example, if you're facing a 200-yard carry over water or can lay it up, I make them play it both ways and see what happens. Play both balls all the way in. What did you score? It's similar to having a difficult bunker shot and playing to the fat part of the green or trying to pull off a Phil Mickelson-type shot. If you can avoid an double-bogey or worse, why not take the easier shot?

"In match play, you don't want to be the guy making the bonehead move. You want to play it smart and always keep the pressure on your opponent."

2. Be like a chameleon

Czaja said the best match play players have an innate sense of when to go for the jugular and when to wait for their opponents to make a mistake. That may change from hole to hole, or even from shot to shot, depending on the situation.

You've got to stay within your game plan but be willing to change that strategy immediately when the opportunity presents itself.

"You've got to be able to switch to an aggressive shot or a very conservative shot to give yourself the best odds of winning the match," Czaja said. "If you're aggressive by nature, you're going to have to learn to play more conservatively, and vice versa. The best match play players that I've seen have the ability to know when to change their strategy at a moment's notice.

"If your opponent stiffs one at the pin, you have to play more aggressively yourself. You'll have to go for it, too, and not play conservatively."

On the other hand, if your opponent's in the rough and unable to advance the ball a reasonable distance, you should immediately realize that the smart play is the safe one. Don't go flag-hunting at that point, if you can land safely on the green and gain the momentum.

3. Be first off the tee

Why? Two reasons, according to Czaja. The obvious one: that means you've won the last hole and have the honor. But the second is much more important. The first shot on every hole sets the tone for every shot to follow in match play.

If you put your drive in the middle of the fairway, your opponent must do the same. If you dump one in a water hazard or out of bounds, you've immediately given your foe an opening.

If you're on the green in regulation, you hold the advantage over someone in the greenside bunker or still away. And holing your putt, especially if your opponent needs to make his to halve the hole, is huge.

The more mental pressure you can put on your opponent, the more tension he'll feel. Tension in golf is never good, and leads to mistakes. Make your opponent sweat the next shot.

"Hitting first is absolutely an advantage in match play," Czaja said. "Holing the putt first is big."

4. Be stingy when it counts

One of the unique strategies in match play is the idea of the conceded putt. Not all three-footers are the same, Czaja said. So don't concede them all, especially if you're late in the match or trailing.

"Early on, I tend to be more generous conceding putts than I am down the stretch," Czaja said. "Concede putts early in the round but as many later in the round. And if you're behind, make your opponent make everything."

But remember, you should prepare every one of your putts as if you're going to have to hole out, even if it seems like a gimme at first glance. You want your total focus to be on the task at hand, not whether the other player is allowing you to pick up.

"As a player, I would always have in my mind that I would have to hole every putt," Czaja said. "I never expected to be given a putt, so I would never be surprised when I'd be asked to make that two-footer. I was already planning on it."

 

 


Try this ...