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Subtle tactics

These 11 match-play gamesmanship tricks will throw off your opponent

September 22, 2023
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Ken Redding

At the Solheim Cup and Ryder Cup, as in your weekend match, the line between blatant gamesmanship and clever strategy is a blurry one. Is it possible to gain an upper hand on your opponent without sacrificing class and ruining your reputation? We believe so, provided you're subtle about it.

Of course, you win matches by hitting better shots and making more putts, but these 11 match-play gamesmanship tricks will also help by throwing off your opponent, whether they know it or not. Pay close attention at the Ryder Cup, and you might see both teams using a few of these tactics. Though we don’t recommend using all of these tricks in a friendly match, if there’s a lot on the line, start here.

1. Chat up the introvert, ghost the talker

The discreet gamer gets opponents out of their rhythm. Playing with an intense competitor who’d prefer to keep the dialogue to pre- and post-round salutations? Tell them every story about your spouse and kids—and inquire about theirs. The opposite goes for the compulsive talker. Keep your distance and limit your responses. In each case, it will knock your opponent a tiny bit out of their comfort zone, and quite possibly make them frustrated enough to lose focus on some crucial shots.

2. Stand a little closer

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Morsa Images

Again, subtlety is key here. You don’t need to get in their grill, but try to always stay within your opponent’s vision. Wherever you’d normally stand in an innocent round, take a couple steps closer. (Make sure to watch your shadow, though—remember, don’t be that person.) Constantly making your presence known applies pressure that can drain your opponent over the course of the round. This one is a favorite with the pros—watch where players stand while opponents putt at the Ryder Cup. Often, they won't go far.

3. Need me to move that?

Common etiquette dictates you offer to move your mark if it’s in your partner’s way on the green. Exploit this by taking it a little further. Ask if you should move your mark even if you know their putt doesn’t need that much borrow. Worst case, they don’t think anything of it. Best case, their doubts and second-guessing guarantee a miss.

4. You’re hitting driver, even if you’re not

If you don’t have the honor on the tee of a tight hole, take the headcover off the big stick, even if you know it’s a 4-iron all day. You’d be surprised how often an opponent will take the bait and follow suit, only to knock it in the trees. Hide the smirk, hit the 4-iron, win the hole.

5. Oh, you played in college?

If you’re one of the better players around your club or area, you know the feeling. Get paired up with a stranger, only to realize you’re no stranger to them. They recite your entire golf resume and are eager to tee it up with you. Sure, it’s a great feeling and an ego boost, but avoid being that person in match play. You’re implicitly acknowledging that their accolades intimidate you.

6. Be the first to yell “Fore!”

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Fredrik Skold

Has your opponent blocked it right, and the ball is (sort of) heading toward another group. Make sure you’re the first one to yell the four-letter warning. Maybe even throw in an urgent right-arm signal. You know it’s not that bad, but that’s not the point. If your partner is easily triggered, congrats, you’ve gotten under their skin.

7. Slow it down or speed it up

Just like how you chat up the introvert and ghost the talker, make sure you react to your opponent’s pace of play. For the deliberate partner, walk faster and maybe throw in an innocent comment about the group waiting behind. Take your sweet time when dealing with a get-up-and-hit-it type. If they don’t have an air-tight mental game, they’ll alter their pace and get out of their rhythm.

8. Make them putt the short ones early

A common match-play strategy is to concede short putts early, only to make your partner putt them late in the round. Though that can work on occasion, this writer opts for the opposite approach. Make them hit the knee-knockers early. If they miss, you’re given an early gift and know they need to keep putting them. If they make them, they’ll have spent energy grinding and will spend more being irritated with you.

9. Body language is everything

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Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour

You need to have your opponent convinced that you’re confident and in control, even if on the inside, you’re unsure you’ll pull out the win. Shoulders back, head up and stride with that Rory bounce in your step. Walk a few putts in, even if it feels forced. Send the subtle signals that you know you’re going to win, and your opponent will start to agree with you.

10. Study your opponent’s lie

Close to your partner in the rough or around the green? Head over to their ball and intently study the lie. If you’re really leaning into the gamer mentality, maybe let out a “Hm” under your breath as you look on. Not only will you gain valuable knowledge about their situation that could help you strategize, but you’ll likely get under their skin and get them over-thinking about how the ball will come out.

11. Break out the passive aggressive comments

“That’s not so bad over there.” “Were you trying to do that?” “You might actually get away with it.” One or two of these innocent remarks won’t phase your opponent, but keep piling them on and they’ll start to take their toll.