The PGA TOUR got its taste of the match play format this week at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship. Whereas most weeks are contested over 72 holes of stroke play with the lowest score winning, the Accenture champion went through a series of six match play contests in which the goal was to simply win more individual holes than his opponent.
There are not many tournaments in professional golf that use the match play format and it is for that very reason that events like the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship so intriguing to watch. This week’s event at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Arizona was no different. Some wicked weather patterns changes from snow to perfect days to chilly high winds accounted for lots of birdies and eagles, just as many balls in the desert and out of play, and a fair share of upsets. The event was a spectators’ dream and it certainly offered us all some great viewing in addition to plenty of opportunities to learn from the world’s top 64 players.
Not many of us get to play competitive Match Play but I do have a few observations from this week’s event that can equip you mentally for if and when you do:
• Momentum – A big deal in Match Play: As is always the case, there were numerous matches where a competitor was handily up against his opponent but a long putt or a crooked bounce or a timely birdie switched the flow of the match completely. The most notable example of this was in the Stricker/Poulter semi-final. Stricker birdied the first to clinch a 1-up lead. Poulter won the second to square the match but then Stricker hit a magnificent 5-iron to six feet on the third, a tough downhill par three. Poulter hit the green but faced a wild forty-footer with multiple breaks. Andvantage Steve Stricker. Incredibly, Poulter holed the birdie putt and it completely took the wind out of Stricker’s sails. He missed the short birdie attempt to halve the hole and Poulter seized the momentum and the match (indeed he admitted in a post-round interview that the putt was indicative of the nature of match play and it turned the momentum of the match). He went on to pitch in for birdie at the sixth and eagle the par-five eight to take a commanding lead which he never relinquished. The take-away from this anecdote is that no matter the state of the game, you should keep your head as the momentum can change and the favor can switch with one stoke. The key is to use a sound approach and good decision-making to keep yourself in the game so when that momentum-swinging event happens, you are either in position to take advantage of it, or in position to not let it affect you adversely.
• Strategy: The best way to ensure success is to study the course and adopt a strategy that will best maximize your strengths whilst disguising your weaknesses. Once you have that strategy, be disciplined and stick to it. Realize also that successful match-players keep the pressure on their opponents at all times. Commit to memory that pressure is telling and it is bound to uncover a player’s weaknesses, no matter how good that player is. Keep the pressure on a player by positioning tee-shots so that you hit your approach shots to the green first. There is nothing more difficult than to top an approach shot that is already on the putting surface, and continually having to do so puts added pressure on a player. Also, do not give putts too early or too freely. Make your opponent mark the ball and wait and make him/her putt everything outside of two feet. You will be surprised at the results. Not to mention the fact that you will probably get into his/her head with your approach.
• Every dog has its day: The very nature of Match Play lends itself to results that are unexpected. The match is over 18 holes at the most, and it is against one player and not a full field of players. That being said, if you are the underdog, remember that everything about the format of play lends itself to surprises. At the Accenture Match Play this week there were, by my count, 23 (of 64) matches where the higher seed was beaten. That equates to nearly 36 percent of the games. In other words, just more than one out of three matches were upsets. So take note and write this on your competitive heart. If you are the favorite, don’t go to sleep on your opponent; don’t drop your guard and focus intently on every shot! If you are the underdog, play your game and keep pressing; focus intently and remember that the nature of an 18-hole match play game allows for anything to happen.