I LOVE matchplay and wish there were more events on tour calendars with the format. Unfortunately the powers that be don’t find it great for TV ratings when the top players are eliminated early on. The WGC–Match Play has even gone to a round-robin format to alleviate this problem, which I think is ridiculous. You stand on the first tee knowing you only have to beat one person that day. One! If they play better, then good luck to them. Much like in tennis, you simply have to outplay and out-think your opponent. You can shoot 65 and lose or 75 and win. But who cares, all you have to do is win more holes than your opponent.
I grew up playing matchplay on Sundays for Mount Lawley Golf Club in Perth during local pennant season, firstly in juniors, then the seniors. I loved the team aspect and with seven matches every week, four wins claimed the victory. After dinner at the end of the day’s play, our team captain would lead us in our club song, “We are the Golden Blues.” We’d sing it win or lose, but always louder and with more gusto after a win. Those Sundays taught me a lot about matchplay and how to get the most out of my game to gain an edge over my opponent.
1. Get ahead early. Be ready to go from the first tee shot and try to win the first hole. Gaining the upper hand quickly tells your opponent you are ready, prepared and they have their hands full for the day. In my matches against Tiger Woods, I knew if I got down early I’d face an enormous task to win because history shows when he gets a lead, whether it’s matchplay or strokeplay, he’s nearly impossible to beat. On my first hole against him I had an eight-footer for par to halve the hole. I made it, won the next two holes and never looked back.
2. Body language and attitude are huge. Look your opponent dead in the eye on the first tee and wish them well, but internally think, I’m going to crush them! Walk tall and with confidence. If my opponent was ever slouched or dragging his feet, I knew to keep my foot down and not give them a sniff of getting back in the match. Also, never, ever give up. Golf’s a funny game and you never know what can happen.
3. Keep your opponent off balance. If you’re the longer hitter, take an iron or fairway wood every once in a while off the tee to have first go at the approach into the green. A lot of my success came because I’m a short hitter. Playing my approach shots into greens first allowed me to apply pressure by knocking it close. Also, given the right opponent, I’d concede a putt early on that normally I wouldn’t concede. Then later if things were close I’d make them finish the same length putt. If the look on their face said, “Really?” I knew I had them.
I’ve used these strategies and more throughout my pro career at the WGC–Match Play championships. Most times I was the underdog but I willed myself to outplay and out-think my opponents more often than not and even took down Tiger a couple of times when he was world No.1. Not bad for a short-hitting lefty from Mount Lawley.
To get your copy of Nick O’Hern’s new book Tour Mentality: Inside The Mind Of A Tour Pro order online at www.nickohern.com.