The Case for Match Play

Play a New Game

Golf in America usually means one thing: stroke play.  But there is a movement out there, fueled by groups like New Club, to raise the profile of match play.  Why should you try match play your next time out?  Here are five reasons.


Match Play Forgives a Bad Hole

In stroke play, you can lose because of one bad hole.  If you make a ten to my four on the first hole, I can lose the rest of the round by five and still win.  You outplayed me for seventeen holes and lost.  That seems a bit weird.
In match play, no matter how badly you blow up, one hole is only one hole.  You can grind out the finish or  concede and move on.  Once that hole is complete, we’re on to a whole new game within the game.



Match Play Keeps You in the Moment

Paradoxically, match play makes each hole less important, but it makes each swing more important.  In an even (or well-handicapped) match, every hole is competitive, which means one swing could lose it.  With the pressure of losing the hole riding on every drive, iron shot, chip, and putt, match play keeps you relentlessly focused on the present.


Match Play Keeps the Game Alive

In stroke play, the game can be over in a couple holes.  If you make a couple triples or quads, your opponent may be unreachable.  In match play, however, a rout is very unlikely.  Even if one player gets up by two or three holes early on, the match can remain competitive until the end.  One swing can turn a comfortable two-up lead into a collar-tightening one hole margin.


Match Play Improves the Pace of Play

In stroke play, you play each hole until the ball is in the cup.  For any golfer with a double digit handicap, that is, at least occasionally, a time consuming proposition.
After you slice one off the planet and slap it back onto your hole, you’re mentally charred.  Then you lay the sod over an approach or two, chunk a chip, take two shots in the bunker, and three putt.  Forget your score and your enjoyment, this hole has destroyed the pace of play for everyone behind you!  In match play, after you’ve hit a few bad shots, you can put the ball in your pocket and keep it moving.


Match Play is a Mind Game

In the immortal words of Mike McD, “The key to the game is playing the man, not the cards.”  This is as true in match play as it is in No Limit Texas Hold Em.
Can you stick to your game plan when your opponent has stuffed their approach to five feet?  What about when they start a hole by slicing a drive OB?  Do you concede putts early in the round but get stingy late?
These questions, and hundreds more, are what make a game of match play so entertaining and variable.

Give It a Try!

The next time you’ve got your regular foursome together, forget the scorecards and get a match going.  I think you’ll find that the pace, your play, and your level of enjoyment all improve.

Match Play Mindset: 10 Tips To Own Your Competition


1. Take The Match Hole by Hole. …

Regardless of match or stroke play, staying in the present is key to shooting lower scores. But it’s even more prominent in match play as you’re not worried about the rest of the field.
Your should narrow your focus on beating your competitor and keep your goal simple. If you made an 8 on the last hole, let it go. Same as if you made an eagle. Wrote it on the card and simply move on.
You can’t think about the last hole or the future holes in match play or you can get distracted and might lose focus on your current shot.

2. Get Out of the Gates Fast. …

Sometimes when you’re playing in stroke play, you wait a few holes to get loose before you start attacking pins. Most players don’t go flag hunting on the first hole but this is the wrong approach in match play.
Not to say you should start attacking flags with a long iron to a tucked pin on hole one but you want to start out with a n aggressive strategy. Put pressure on your competitor early in the match. Remember, what’s going on with the other players in your group or tournament doesn’t matter.
Unlike stroke play, you can’t depend on beating them big on a hole on the back nine. You want to set the pace early when they least expect it.

3. Always Play Your Game. …

Yes, match play is you vs. one other person but it’s so important to play your game. If they drive it 40 yards past you, who cares. If anything, use it to your advantage by throwing a dart and making them do the same,
Just because you’re playing one player, doesn’t mean you should change your game. Create a game plan for each hole on the tee box or before the round. As the match continues, stick with your game plan and make subtle shifts if you find yourself way up or way down.

4. Putt Aggressively. …

Match play is not the time to be timid on the greens. You need to hole puts or get them to other hole to give yourself a chance in the match. Remember, if you need to make 30 footer to tie the hole, get it there. I’d rather miss five feet long than 18 inches short.
Plus, with the new rules in 2019 and keeping the flagstick in you can be even more aggressive. At the same time, make sure you’re not trying to jam birdie putts in when they’re putting for par or bogey. Strategize your putting to where they are on the green and how the match stands.

5. Know Where You Get Strokes. …

If you get strokes in your match, make sure to note where they fall on the scorecard. Knowing where your opponent will get strokes is just as critical to your success in match play.
If your strokes come early in the round, you can play more cautiously in the beginning. And if your competitor gets strokes early in the round, consider a more aggressive approach as well.
Let’s say you’re on a tight par 4 that you can reach with a good drive and he gets a shot on the hole. The right strategy is to hit the driver and get it as close to the green as you can. In all likelihood, he’s probably going to make par or bogey at worst. And with a stroke, that’s a birdie or par.
So you need to set yourself up to give yourself the best chances. This could include going for a par-5 in two or getting a bit more aggressive with approach shots.

6. Play Smart. …

Match play is all about strategy!
Don’t try to be a hero when you don’t need to. If they miss the green or get into trouble, don’t go flag hunting with a long-iron hybrid, even if you’re “in the zone” and can’t miss.
Always select the right club on your approach shot. Use a rangefinder or GPS to get your distance to the pin, and hit the club that gets you that distance most of the times, not that one time you hit a career shot.
Remember, in this instance, even apar or a bogey can win the hole. Don’t worry about your overall score in the match because it doesn’t matter. Focus on beating your competitor on each hole, not trying to shoot the round of your life. If a bogey wins a hole, take it and move on.

7. Watch Your Opponent. …

Golf is already a very mental sport that can drive players crazy, just look at Sergio’s recent incident for proof. It’s not an easy game and it tends to bring out serious emotion in most of us. And even more so in the heat of 1:1 match play.
Make sure to notice their attitude and nerves from the moment you shake hands on the first tee. This will help you know when to get aggressive and when to play more conservative. Watch early tendencies to help you later in the round.
For example, if you notice their pitching is bad early in the round and they leave themselves a tough shot, aim for the middle of the green on your approach. Remember, match play isn’t about making birdies and shooting a career round. It’s about winning each hole!

8. Embrace Match Play

Match play is so unique as you can give players putts without making them hole it in. One trick I love doing is to give them putts early in the round. They’ll forget what it’s like to have to make a 3 or 4 footer under pressure.
Then, later in the round when it’s getting close, stop giving them putts. This will shake their confidence and make them have to hole the testy putts which they haven’t done all day. This is a fun part of the game that you just can’t get with stroke play.
Also, if a player does this to you, remember that with match play, you can also practice after the hole is over. If you want to practice a few 4-footers, go ahead. Stay ready for when you need it most!

9. Always Expect the Unexpected

As I’m sure you’ve seen, weird stuff happens in golf. Match play seems to make unlikely events even crazier.
Think back to Justin Leonard making the epic putt in the 1999 Ryder Cup from like 50 feet. Stuff like that seems to only happen in match play (or if your name is Tiger Woods).
You need to keep the right attitude so your prepared for anything in match play. Always expect for your opponent to hole the chip or putt so you stay laser focused.

10. Never Give Up

Anytime you’re playing golf, especially in match play, never give up. If you make a big number mid-round, forget about it. Remember, you’re only going down one despite how big of a number you card.
Plus, getting in the habit of quitting mid-round is one that can sabotage a lot of future rounds. Stay patient, have fun, and stick with it until the round is over. Adopt the mantra, “I always finish strong” to stay 100% committed in the match.


Matt Saternus

Founder, Editor In Chief at
Matt is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Plugged In Golf. He’s worked in nearly every job in the golf industry from club fitting to instruction to writing and speaking. Matt lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with his wife and two daughters.

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