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The Loop

Saturday Morning Tip: Winning at match play

August 19, 2011

*I've noticed at a number of clubs this weekend, at least across the Northeast, that a lot of golfers are gearing up for their annual Club Championship. Just on Cape Cod, where I play a lot of golf, Old Barnstable, Eastward Ho and Pocasset all have club championships starting this morning. The same is true in Connecticut, where my home club, Aspetuck Valley, is holding it's club championship. Most of these events are usually contested at match play. Suddenly, you go from playing casual golf (often with a partner), where putts are given easily and there's no pressure, to intense golf, where every tee shot sets up a win, halve or loss on a hole, and you might be told to mark a sliding two-footer on greens that the superintendent mowed and rolled so they Stimp at 11 instead of 8.

OK, what to do? Here are 10 tips from PGA Master professional Rick Martino, who teaches at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. Note that Martino cites possibly the greatest match player of all time, Walter Hagen, who won five PGA Championships at match play. I hope these tips elevate your game this weekend and help turn your club championship into a fun and successful event.

Roger Schiffman

Managing Editor

Golf Digest

Twitter @RogerSchiffman*

1. Play the course, not your opponent. While you certainly want to be aware of how your opponent is playing and how the match stands, it's important to avoid the trap of getting swept up in the emotion of the match. It's a waste of energy and focus to personalize the competition.

2. Always play first. Whenever possible, play first, because if you hit a good shot, it will increase the pressure on your opponent and possibly force him or her to hit a poor shot. Walter Hagen (below), who won five PGA Championships at match play, would often start a game by hitting a 3-wood from the tee. While he might leave himself a slightly longer approach shot, he knew that by playing first to the green he might get an edge over his opponent.


*(Photo by Allsport Hulton/Archive) *

3. Get the ball into the hole first. Again, this is a way of increasing the pressure on your opponent. You shouldn't rush your putt by any means, but do putt out if possible.

4. Always assume the worst. This might be the most important rule of match play. There's nothing that sets you back quicker than assuming you have a hole won, only to see your opponent pull off a miracle shot or sink an impossible putt. This doesn't mean you shouldn't be optimistic--far from it. But you should always temper your optimism with a healthy dose of reality.

5. Take it one shot at a time. Just as in medal play, you have to try very hard to play one shot at a time. Don't dwell on the past, since you can't do anything about what has already happened. When the time comes to play, concentrate on the shot at-hand and only the shot at-hand.

6. Play to your par. Now, depending on your handicap, par is the score you figure you need to shoot in order to win a hole. For higher-handicappers, "par" might be a bogey or even a

double-bogey. You might get to a point late in the match when you have to gamble, but establishing your par and sticking to a game plan that allows you to match that number will win you more than your share of holes--and matches.

7. Watch your opponent. People are creatures of habit. But under pressure, they tend to get out of their routine. They walk faster or slower. They become indecisive over what shot to play or which club to use. When you notice that your opponent is struggling or has gotten out of his or her routine, it's a golden opportunity to stay relaxed and try to increase the pressure even more.

8. Don't look ahead. There's a temptation when you are in front during a match to look ahead to the next round of the draw. The danger is that your concentration will slip, and your opponent might be working especially hard to beat you.

__9. Study the Rules of Golf.__The Rules of Golf can be complicated and difficult to truly understand. But by knowing the rules, you know all your options, and this can help you save strokes. Jack Nicklaus, for example, used to read the Rules of Golf cover-to-cover before the start of every season.

10. Never give up. It's a simple truth that in match play: "It's never over until it's over." You might pull off a miracle shot or your opponent might surprise you and miss a relatively simple shot, and let you back in the hole--or even in the match.