The NUANCES of MATCH PLAY Competition

rulesStroke play is by far the most common form of competition in today’s golf world, but match play still sees its share of the action. All of the USGA’s individual amateur championships are played at match play, as well as the Accenture Match Play Championship and the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup in professional golf. Of course, the USGTF’s United States Match Play Championship’s name speaks for itself. Match play is different than stroke play in a number of aspects: Rules, strategy, tactics, and mindset. Here’s a breakdown of each:

A player who tees off in stroke play outside the teeing ground is penalized two strokes and must start the hole again by hitting his third shot. No penalty exists in match play, except that a player may require his opponent to re-hit the shot if the opponent played from outside the teeing ground.

In stroke play, a player who plays out of turn receives  no penalty, unless both players involved agreed to play out of turn to give one of them an advantage. Then, both are disqualified. Also in stroke play, you often see players on the putting green putt out while others are still away. In match play, a player whose ball is away is always entitled to play first. Should a player play out of turn, the opponent has the right to force the player to replay the shot with no penalty. A famous incident occurred years ago during the women’s Solheim Cup, when Europe’s Annika Sorenstam chipped in for an apparent birdie. The Americans noticed it was not her turn to play,  and made Sorenstam replay the shot.

In stroke play, a player unsure of his procedure is entitled to play a second ball under Rule 3-3. In match play, this is not allowed, and the player unsure as to his procedure must proceed as he thinks is best. If his opponent disagrees with the player’s procedure, he may file a claim with the committee.

The other main difference is in the penalty situations. A violation of the Rules generally costs a player two strokes in stroke play and a loss of hole in match play.

Strategy is the overall game play a player selects for the match. This might be deciding to go for every par-5 green in two, or to shoot at every pin. Nick O’Hern, who took down Tiger Woods twice at the Accenture Match Play,  has a strategy of ignoring what his opponent is doing on the front nine and instead focuses on what would be his stroke play score. On the 10th tee, O’Hern then switches to a match play mindset.

Tactics are the individual decisions a player makes during the course of a match. For example, the second player to play on a short par-4 may decide to intentionally hit the tee shot shorter than his opponent, so he will be hitting first into the green. The theory here is to apply the pressure. Here’s a common scenario you see at the Ryder Cup: Team A has a five-foot birdie attempt, Team E has a 10-footer and a 15-footer, and the other player for Team A has a 30-footer. Team A will often elect to let the player with the five-footer go first in an attempt to apply the pressure.

It is also important to plan a tactic based on what the opponent has already done, rather than what he might do. For example, if the opponent plays first and hits out of bounds on a tight par-4, the second player may elect to play an iron off the tee, lay up for the second shot, and play for a bogey.

Players often play conservatively in stroke play, and we hear often from tour players how “patient” they were. Such luxuries may not be possible in match play. A more aggressive mindset, without being reckless, is often better in match play. Another mental skill is in closing out the opponent. Many players have difficulty doing this. Let’s say they are two up with three to play. The player who is down has nothing to lose, and may start to play free and easy. The player who is up may start to play tentatively or to even play scared. At this point, it would be better to focus on the process of hitting the shot and playing the hole, and doing our best to forget the situation.

Match play was the original form of competition, and will always provide us with some of the most entertaining golf we see. Fortunately, it is alive and well in the 21st century.

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