Here's why succeeding in match play is all about strategy and controlling emotions

By T.J. Auclair
PGA.com
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Problem Area: Fundamentals
Series: Lesson Learned

Published: Monday, March 26, 2018 | 12:05 p.m.

If you're a weekend golfer, chances are you're always counting up your strokes and tallying them up at the end to tabulate your total. 
 
Sure, that's fun. But what about mixing up your weekend games with some match play?
 
Match play and stroke play are two completely different animals. Match play allows for more strategy, aggressive play, no worry over a blow-up hole, or four, and arguably the most fun part of all -- gamesmanship (which should never be confused with or cross the line into poor sportsmanship).
 
 
We tracked down 2013 PGA National Teacher of the Year Lou Guzzi for some match-play tips, many of which you'll want to employ the next time you jump into the format.
 
1. Be relaxed.
 
Unlike stroke play, it's OK to have one or even a few terrible holes. Whereas a 10 on the scorecard in stroke play can cripple a round, a 10 in match play means you've likely only lost one hole. 
 
"Match play can put people in a relaxed position," Guzzi said. "You can free wheel it a little bit, which can make it a lot more fun. One bad hole isn't going to cost you the match."
 
2. Be aggressive.
 
In match play, you can pull clubs and go at pins you wouldn't even think of attacking in stroke play. It's all about putting pressure on your opponent and forcing them to make a mistake, or -- at the very least -- take them out of their comfort zone.
 
"If you're a good stroke tournament player, you're not focused on anyone else," Guzzi said. "It's just you and the course, one shot at a time. In match play, it's all about the person you're playing. Your strategy can change hole to hole and shot to shot because of what they're doing. Let's say they're 1 up with two to go. Obviously, you may need to take chances you wouldn't take in stroke play. Be more aggressive with a drive because you're down in the match. Going at a flag you wouldn't in stroke play. These are decisions based on playing someone in the match."
 
3. Be devious -- embrace the gamesmanship.
 
There are so many things you can do to dictate your opponent's next move in match play. Take advantage of that.
 
"For instance," Guzzi said, "maybe there's a tee shot where there's no doubt the play is a hybrid shot. If your opponent has the honor, reach for your driver without missing a beat. It'll get your opponent to wonder, 'Why is he or she going with a driver here? Now I have to hit driver.' Then, when they hit the driver they were uncomfortable hitting into the trees, you immediately go back to your bag and grab that hybrid. You just forced your opponent into a mistake. You tempted them to hit driver when you had no intention of hitting driver yourself. Just remember -- they can, and will -- try to do the same things to you."
 
The gamesmanship can be particularly emphasized on the greens. 
 
"How about when you give an opponent 2-footer after 2-footer after 2-footer?" Guzzi said. "Then you're running out of holes and, instead of conceding that 2-footer, you suddenly make them putt it. That's where doubt creeps in. The opponent thinks, 'You've been giving me these putts all day and now you're not?' Sometimes it can get testy with it did with Jason Dufner and Jason Day the other day. Dufner didn't seem real happy about having to make a short putt and communicated that by laying his putter down -- after making the putt -- to emphasize to Day and everyone watching how short it was. The gamesmanship can be fun, but it can also create tension."
 
Also, when you lag a putt up to 3 feet and in, don't even think of marking it. If your opponent doesn't concede, tell them you'd like to go ahead and finish up.
 
"You want them to know before they hit their putt that that you're already in with, say, par, versus marking it and giving them that thought, 'he's not in yet and might not make it.'
 
"Then, what if they make the 8-footer and you marked?" Guzzi asked. "Now the pressure is on you to make your short putt. If we have a putt for par and I'm closer, I'm going to finish. If I mark and you make, the pressure is suddenly on me." 
 
4. Turn every perceived negative into a positive. 
 
"Let's say you're going into a match with someone who is a long ball hitter," Guzzi said. "Instead of focusing on how far ahead of you they may be off the tee, look at it like this: Since you'll be hitting your approach shot first, you have the opportunity to knock it close and put pressure on them."
 
And what if you hit the approach to 25 feet and your opponent is in there tight?
 
Guzzi said you have to keep your chin high and be confident.
 
"Instead of being bummed out all the way to the green, think about how much longer that short putt is going to look to your opponent after you make your 25-footer."
 
5. Always expect the unexpected.
 
This, folks, is the golden rule of match play. When you expect the unexpected -- long putts to drop, chips to go in, hole-outs to happen -- you can keep an even keel. 
 
"They're going to get up and down, they're going to make the putt, they're going to chip in," Guzzi said. "If you don't mentally prepare yourself to expect the unexpected, then you're going to be emotionally destroyed when that unexpected happens... and it will happen."
 

T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.


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