Most golfers are used to playing stroke play, where you play your own ball and count your strokes. But in some competitions (and a lot of times if you’re playing a friendly nassau with your regular golf pals), the format is match play, which means you’re playing head-to-head against another golfer, and you either win, lose or tie each hole, and the match is won by the player who wins the most holes. While both formats require the same skills, match play offers a unique type of strategy since the rules are slightly different from stroke play.
Match play has a lot of benefits, not the least of which is that a big blow-up hole won’t cost you the match the way it can in stroke play (in match play, a hole lost with a quadruple is no more harmful to your scorecard than one lost with a bogey). Another big difference between stroke play and match play is the ability to concede putts. If your opponent has a short putt left that either doesn’t matter for the match or you’re sure she’ll make it anyway, you can give it to her (and vice versa). Also, in stroke play, any breech of an official USGA Rule results in a one- or two-stroke penalty, while in match play the penalty is loss of the hole (since the format of play that is scored in a hole-by-hole competition.)
One of the most fun parts of match play is that it comes with a lot of strategy. Whether you’re playing in a match against a single opponent or you’re teamed up with a partner and playing a team match against another twosome, here are some strategy tips that can help you win:
1. Do everything you can to get off to a fast start.
Set the tone for the match by bringing your A game to the first hole (in other words, make sure you give yourself enough time to warm up and prepare before the round starts—you want to be able take charge of the match out of the blocks). If you can manage to win a few holes early in the match, you can be more aggressive and may close out your opponent early and not have to play all 18 holes.
2. Maintain your usual pace of play.
If you like to play quickly, don’t let a slower player slow you down and get you out of your comfort zone. If the opposite is true and you’re playing with someone much faster than you like to play, go with your normal routine so that you don’t feel rushed (but still be cognizant of keeping pace.)
3. Play to your strengths and always go for the safer option.
An important match is not the time to try to carry the 40-yard water hazard from 200 yards away. Know your shot strengths and always think ahead—play the shot to lay up short of the hazard, hit the next shot onto the green and think two putts for par or bogey. If your opponent hits in the water, you now have an advantage by playing smart and knowing the strengths of your game.
4. Watch your opponent.
If your opponent changes her pre-shot routine, chances are she’s feeling some pressure. Since match play involves mental toughness, watch for any changes that allow you to have an advantage.
5. Utilize your partner.
If you’re playing in a team event with a partner, take advantage of each other. If one of you has a bad hole, pick up the ball and move to the next hole. You may help each other read putts and talk about your strategy. Having a partner to talk to is a lot more calming than trying to make idle chit-chat with an opponent.
6. Be strategic when conceding putts.
One nice element of the match play format is the ability to concede putts, but you should always go into your match planning to hole every putt. With that mindset, you’ll be pleased when your opponent offers a conceded putt. Be careful not to concede too many of your own, though. A great strategy is to give a few putts early in the round, then make the opponent hole all putts as the round continues. A missed three-footer could make a difference in the outcome of the match.
7. Don’t let strategy become gamesmanship.
While it’s important to be strategic in match play, it’s even more important to be a good sport.