Master the Course

How to bring a gladiator mentality to match play

By Chip Sullivan
Published on

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To be a Match Play Champion, you need to think like a gladiator. No…seriously.

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, twice a year, professional match play rises for its triumphant return at the WGC Accenture World Match Play Championship each year and the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup in alternating years. This exhilarating event pins the top pros in the world against one another to see who can survive as the gladiator!

Becoming 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 the form of top golf equipment, the best coaching and personal physical conditioning to prepare you to play your best. However, to come out on top, the most important tool in your bag is the mental game.

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 the 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."

You have 2 choices: 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 normal crew, 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 are accustomed to playing in stroke play events, competing against the golf course may be the way to go.

Battling your opponent

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

This 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 to affect how I play. If the same is true for you as a golfer, ask yourself: "Why would I mentally approach match play any differently?"

It depends on your philosophy of the game

Considering these factors, 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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