A Lesson Learned: Gladiator mentality for match play

Hunter Mahan wins a showdown with Rory McIlroy to win Match Play championship
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Hunter Mahan wins a showdown with Rory McIlroy to win the WGC - World Match Play championship
Chip Sullivan, PGA

Problem Area: Fundamentals
Series: Lesson Learned

Published: Sunday, February 26, 2012 | 8:30 p.m.

To be a Match Play Champion, you need to think like a Gladiator.


The pure head-to-head competition of match play is as old as the game itself. Match play used to have its place in major professional golf. In fact, the PGA Championship was formatted as match play until 1958. With the start of televised golf and big galleries, the desirability of elimination golf to a single final match no longer made sense. However, one week each year, Professional match play rises for its triumphant return: The WGC Accenture World Match Play Championship. This exhilarating event pins the top pros in the world against one another to see who can survive as "The Gladiator"!

So, how does one become "The Gladiator" in their own arena: Be it on their home course, a local match play event, or even on a professional level? To start, you will need the tools. These come in forms such as top golf equipment, the best instruction and personal physical conditioning that prepare you to play your best. However, to come out on top, the most important tool in your bag is the Mental Game.

When Russell Crowe went to battle in the coliseum as The Gladiator, he faced a slew of strong, talented, and wildly differing foes. I can only imagine how his character trained. Of course we know he kept himself in top physical shape. Also a "given", his tools would be sharp and ready. But did he sit in his cell saying: "Ok, if I beat Mattius Icimus, then I might have to battle Breesus. Those competitors are both strong; yet diverse. What strategy can I implement to handle their contrary arena management skills?" Yeah. No. First, he might get his man card pulled. Secondly, he would be letting random thoughts and possibilities cloud his vision. I'll tell you what The Gladiator was thinking. Over and over in his mind he kept saying, "You Da Man!"

In order to achieve success in match play, you must have a concrete Mental Strategy.

The Mental Strategy is based on confidence. Let your confidence radiate out of you from the first shot on driving range to the end of the match. If you're not confident, fake it. Find a "Poker Face "- Match Play style. A healthy level of intimidation never hurt anyone except the opponent. Carry out your confidence and intimidation factor through your respectful "walk", and not "trash talk".

That being said, you can then divide the Mental Strategy into two segments. You can either opt to focus mentally on your opponent or on the golf course.

Which one you decide is based on your personal comfort level. If your average round of golf is a Saturday Nassau with your golfing cronies, then you are probably more at ease eyeing down your opponent and figuring out your game plan based on his or her "tells". If you choose to battle the opponent, keep an eye on their situation. React with confidence in your own shot making choices. You should play smart, and play shot versus shot. Whereas you might go for a par 5 in two on your regular round, if your opponent is plugged in the fairway bunker, you might opt to lay up. As I mentioned earlier, this strategy would be best for the "Weekend Golfer", with the losing opponent buying drinks in the clubhouse.

Competing against the golf course is the right mental strategy for golfers who regularly participate in amateur or professional stroke play events. I approach match play in just this manner. Strategizing for and preparing to compete against the course is my "norm". Changing the way I prepare to play my best golf -for any format- would seem reckless and out of my element. I don't allow my opponents' shots effect how I play. If the same is true for you as a golfer, ask yourself: why would I mentally approach match play any differently?

Considering these things, in match play I stand assertively in my perspective. Any change to this would jeopardize my rationality over the game. In the book Mental Toughness - Training for Golf by Dr. Rob Bell, I am mentioned as a positive example for this philosophy. By remaining mentally tough and finding strength in competing against only the golf course, I gain control. This control encompasses my attitude, pre-shot routine, swing mechanics and course management. Whereas I cannot control my opponent's choices, I most certainly can control my own. Control breeds strength and confidence, thus embodying the Mental Strategy's main creed.

No matter your choice in adversary -opponent or golf course- approach them with confidence. Be aware of your strengths. Believe in them, and don't change who you are as a golfer simply because the format of the game has changed. Sharpen your mind, go into battle, use "The Gladiator" mentality...and emerge a champion.  

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