How To Prepare For A Match Play Event

The world’s top 64 players head to San Francisco this week to compete in the 2015 World Golf Championships – Cadillac Match Play. This tournament brings the most intense and competitive format in the game of golf to the forefront; match play. During most of your competitive rounds, you’re trying to post a number to beat the rest of the field, or the other players in our foursome, but in match play you’re playing one person. Head to head. Mano a mano.

I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck. But I am thinking, I am going to bury you.

– Seve Ballesteros

Considered the greatest Ryder Cup player in history, Seve had the mental tenacity that was perfect for this format. His quote sums up one fundamental of which match play is all about and what he was best known for – gamesmanship.

Make no mistake that golf is a gentlemen’s game, but during a match play format gamesmanship can play a key role. Seve embodied this by using his irritating habits to routinely get under the skin of his opponents.

While many of us don’t have Seve’s personality, fire, and wizardry of the short game, the first thing you learn during match play is to never count your opponent out of a hole. Everyone has witnessed and been a part of too many matches where the  opponent has hit a wayward tee shot and before you realize it, your opponent has just hit a miraculous recovery shot to within two feet of the hole while you missed the green and struggled to save par to tie.

If you look at some of the best match play golfers over the course of time (Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Seve Ballesteros, Bobby Jones, and yes…Ian Poulter) they all had many of the same personality traits and three key characteristics that are needed to succeed in match play:

1. A fierce and competitive drive

2. Imaginative short games

3. Aggressive putters with the ability to make putts from all ranges

Here’s 8 Steps to Help Prepare and Position Yourself for Success in a Match Play Event

1. Have a Game Plan

Play a practice round and strategically plot out how you want to attack the golf course.

Here are a few questions you should ask yourself. Should I hit a driver or 3-wood off of the tee? Where do I want to position my second shot? Where’s the ideal place to putt from on the green?

Early on, it’s easy to let your adrenaline and excitement get the best of you, so it’s imperative to never stray from your game plan. Stay focused and trust your preparation.

2. Play Your Own Game

If you’re playing a long hitter don’t try to match their length, play to your strengths.

All too often golfers try to keep up with a long hitter and start swinging out of our shoes resulting in drives that are continually putting you out of position.

3. Watch Your Opponent

Study your opponent’s body language; do they appear confident, nervous, or anxious? Are they struggling to control their putter? Are they pressing to match your shots or aggressiveness?

Make sure to study their idiosyncrasies. Often times late in the match when the pressure is on you’ll be able to use one of their characteristics against them and have them play right into your hand.

4. Keep It in Play and Be Patient

Don’t let things go sideways early on. Avoid getting down early in a match. Make your opponent beat you with birdies, not pars.

There’s nothing more frustrating in match play than playing an opponent who routinely hits every fairway and green, and is always tapping in for par.

Before you know it, you are 7 holes in and 4 down. Be sure to stay patient, minimize mistakes, and find your groove early on.

5. Give Your Opponent Putts Early

Early in the match give your opponent those testy four and five footers. This will give them a false sense of confidence.

As the match progresses and you’re not giving those putts, they’ll have built no confidence on the greens and they’ll be trying to make key putts under pressure with no feel for the green.

6. Play the Course, Not Your Opponent

Take what the course gives you. Don’t try to match your opponent shot for shot, play your game and the course.

For example, if you’re on the third hole and your opponent is able to carry a fairway bunker 265 yards off of the tee, don’t try to match their shot if your game plan does not call for it.

Play your game; hit your tee shot to the left side of the fairway giving yourself a seven iron to the green. If you try to match your opponents shot, you can easily put your ball in a bunker and lose the hole never giving yourself a realistic chance at winning.  Stay disciplined!

7. Don’t Let Up

If you find yourself winning early in the match don’t let up. Stay focused and go for the kill!

Matches can swing at any moment, on any shot, so never let up on your opponent or lose focus.

8. Always Expect the Worst to Happen

Picture this; you’re all square walking off the 17th green. Both you and your opponent place your tee shots in the middle of the fairway on 18. Your opponent is away and hits his approach shot into a green side bunker. The ball appears plugged and under the lip of the bunker. Playing conservatively, you decide to hit your approach shot safely into the middle of the green, but 40 feet away from the hole. As it stands, you are now thinking that you could quite possibly win the match with a par or even a bogey. As your mind starts to wander about the potential of winning the Club Championship, your opponent hits an incredible bunker shot to within an inch of the hole and escapes with a par. All of a sudden you are feeling the pressure of needing a two putt to go to extra holes. With no surprise, you leave your lag putt 10 feet short and miss the par putt costing you the match and the Championship.

Always remember that in match play, expect the worst to happen!

Follow these tips and you will find yourself in a better position to score! Or, if you need one-on-one help reach out to our PGA Professionals.


To catch-up on instructional tips from our PGA Professionals, visit these articles from the last few months:

Chip or Pitch? When to Use Each Shot
3 Simple Chipping Techniques for Precision and Accuracy
6 Steps to Putt Successfully on Fast Greens
How to Prepare for a Tournament
How to Conquer the Long Greenside Bunker Shot

Annika’s Advice to Take the Punge Successfully and Start the Year off Right (YES, it’s THE Annika!!!)

Kevin Bender

Kevin has been a Class “A” member of the PGA of America since 2009 and graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in Business Administration. He has 7 years of experience at two of South Florida’s most prestigious clubs, Coral Ridge Country Club and the Broken Sound Club. Prior to Global Golf, Kevin was the Lead Professional at the Hasentree Club in Wake Forest, North Carolina for 4 seasons. Kevin has an extensive knowledge in club fitting along with a tremendous passion for golf course architecture and has traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe playing many of the world’s top courses.