Match Play Strategy In Golf: The Do's and Don'ts

Stanley Chou/Stringer/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

In stroke play, the golfer plays against the golf course and a large field of other golfers. In match play, the golfer plays directly against another golfer: Your opponent is right there next to you. You get to see exactly how well or how poorly he or she is playing, and they get to watch your game, as well.

That makes match play a different ballgame, literally and figuratively. And, in ways large and small, it changes the way golfers approach the match.

Key Takeaways

  • A player who is leading in a match can play more conservatively, choosing the safer play for a stroke; the golfer who is trailing is often forced to play more aggressively and sometimes try riskier shots.
  • Decide on your strategy for conceding putts to your opponent before the match starts, but be prepared to adjust to your opponent's strategy and putting abilities.
  • You must always be judging how you stand within the match and on the hole you are playing against your opponent's standing in the match and on the hole.

One on One

Match play adds nerves and gamesmanship to golf. Both are likely to increase because the one player you must beat is right there next to you. Take a lead and you're likely to feel more relaxed. Fall behind and you're likely to feel much more pressure.

Match play is usually played more aggressively than stroke play from the very first shot. You want to put the pressure on your opponent early, then keep it there.

But there are certainly times when it's best to be conservative, and some golfers believe the best initial strategy is to play your normal game until someone wins a hole: Give your opponent a chance to make the first mistake. Most believe, however, that falling behind early is too big a risk, and so aggression is called for from the first tee.

A player with a lead will generally play more conservatively; a player trailing will usually become more aggressive. Either way, match play requires that you react to your opponent's successes and failures.

Reactionary Golf

What do we mean by reacting to your opponent's play? The object in match play is to win individual holes. If your opponent hits a fantastic shot, that forces you to try to hit an equally good shot.

If your opponent chunks a shot into a pond, that gives you an opening to play safe. In match play, it doesn't matter if you take eight strokes to play a hole if your opponent is taking nine.

Your decisions on the types of shots to play are directly related to your standing in the match (ahead or behind?) and on the hole (sitting pretty or in pretty bad shape?).

On the Green

The way that match play affects a golfer's strategy is perhaps best showcased on the green.

Let's say you have a tricky downhill putt. In stroke play, you would be very careful not to run the putt way past the hole, because in stroke play, a high score on an individual hole can ruin the round.

But in match play, how aggressive you are with this putt depends on how things stand on this one hole. If your opponent has already holed out and your putt is to halve the hole, you must be very aggressive with the putt. If you run it 10 feet past, it doesn't matter — the hole is lost whether you miss by 10 feet or one-tenth of an inch.

On the other hand, if your opponent has a short, easy putt remaining, you must try to make your putt, obviously, but you must temper your aggressiveness just a little bit. There's always a chance your opponent will miss his short one, and you want to be able to make your comebacker.

If your opponent has an equally difficult putt remaining, then be more careful with your putt. Running it way past the hole, leaving yourself a difficult comebacker, is a bad play when a halve is otherwise the most likely outcome of the hole.

Conceding Putts

You should go into your match expecting to have to make every putt. Don't expect your opponent to concede anything — your mindset should be that you are prepared to hole out every putt you'll have during the round. Your opponent might, in fact, offer concessions at various points, but you must be mentally prepared if he doesn't.

By the same token, you must decide how to approach offering concessions to your opponent. Of course, conceding a putt to your opponent increases the odds of his conceding some of your putts, too. And if you fail to concede an early short putt to your opponent, your opponent might then decide not to concede similar putts to you.

But what do you know about your opponent? Is he a good putter or a bad putter? It matters when deciding your approach to offering concessions. A great putter is probably going to make those short putts anyway. So pick a distance — say, two feet — and, at least early in the match, concede any putts within that distance.

But if your opponent is a terrible putter, make him putt everything outside six inches.

Some experts at match play believe you should concede every short putt early in the match. If it meets your length criteria, concede it. Why? So you can stop conceding later in the match at a critical juncture. Say the match is all square on the 17th hole, and your opponent faces a 2-footer with a little break. You've conceded every 2-footer today, but this one you're going to make him putt. The fact he hasn't had to make any of these in the match to this point increases the odds he'll miss this one.

Of course, at no point do you want to concede a putt when you believe there's a realistic chance that your opponent will miss it to give you a win or a halve, and only rarely would you concede a putt that gives your opponent the hole (if the putt is three inches, yes; two feet for the win, no).

On the Tee

You always want your tee shots to be long and down the middle. But in match play, when you are first to tee off, it becomes even more important to find the fairway. A poorly hit tee shot is an opening for your opponent; a well-struck tee ball puts more pressure on your opponent.

If you are trailing in the match, however, you may have to be aggressive with your tee ball regardless. You might be forced to grip-it-and-rip-it and hope for the best when playing from behind in the match.

If your opponent hits first from the teeing ground, her shot impacts your decision. If she hits a lousy tee ball, then maybe the best thing for you to do is hit 3-wood or a hybrid to better the odds of keeping your ball in the fairway. You can be more conservative when your opponent has made a mistake.

If your opponent cracks a terrific drive, then you'll feel pressure to try to match it.

The Hero Shot

You're standing in the fairway, 210 yards from the green. You can get the ball to the green, but 210 yards is right at your limit. And you must go over a creek fronting the green in order to do it. Do you go for the green? Or do you lay up?

The answer depends on how you stand on the hole and in the match. If you're ahead in the match, maybe it's not worth the risk. If you are 2-down and the match is on the 14th hole, you might feel you have no choice but to risk it.

Then again, how does your opponent stand on the hole? If he's in a bad spot, then perhaps the hole is winnable without trying that hero shot. These are some of the factors you must consider in match play.

How Many Holes Are Left?

Always consider your options in the light of how you stand both in the match and on the particular hole. The closer you get to the 18th hole, the more aggressive you'll need to be if you're trailing.

Likewise, carrying a lead late in the match gives you the option of playing more conservatively. But that can change quickly if your opponent puts together a couple great shots.

Balancing Act

Match play is a balancing act. You must balance the need to be aggressive enough to win individual holes against the situations at hand: Where do you stand in the match? How do you stand on the hole? How does your opponent stand on the hole?

And you must control your nerves. Don't get cocky when you're ahead. Always assume your opponent is going to make his putt or hit a great shot on that approach to the green.

And don't panic if you fall behind early. You'll need to make something happen, but that doesn't mean trying every low-percentage shot that presents itself.