What Makes Match Play a Special Format for Golfers
Post by Sports Journalist Alex Picken
After Bubba Watson’s brilliant win at this year’s WGC Dell Match-Play event, we constantly heard both players and commentators talk about the joys of match-play and how great the format is for both the viewers and all the professionals involved. Not only this, but at our own local golf clubs or just simply playing against friends in this format, match-play tournaments are always incredibly popular by everyone to participate and compete in. But what is it that makes match-play such a special and entertaining format, what is the secret that makes us all so encapsulated and passionate over events like this year’s tournament?
One significant factor we see time and time again in match-play is how it effects certain players games in such positive ways. Take the performances of Ian Poulter and Patrick Reed for example, had struggled during the regular season, missing cuts and struggling to play there way into contention for winning any serious tournaments before this event. Even though these players may have struggled in stroke play events in the past, their respective match-play records are unbelievable and would terrify any opponent. Poulter’s Ryder Cup nickname of ‘The Postman’ and his fierce persona in match play competitions have certainly led to some incredible highlights and unbelievable shots throughout his career. Patrick Reed’s incredible display at Hazeltine in the 2016 Ryder Cup highlighted Reed’s incredible match-play abilities, his brilliant display against McIlroy was one of the most incredible matches in Ryder Cup history, this was combined with a cocky and confident persona which has made him famous on the match-play circuit. There is no doubt that both of these professionals are great golfers in their own right, but their golfing performances in match-play competitions elevate their game to another level and they seemingly become a different animal on the course, a golfer who believes they can beat anyone placed in front of them. We can only hope for a possible match-play finale between the two in this year’s Ryder Cup in France, possibly creating one of the most anticipated and emotionally charged match-ups in the history of the competition.
Both of these players have similar characteristics with one another, but the overriding factor when it comes to their match-play prowess is their unbelievable determination and strong-willed mindsets. This is what I believe to be the secret of match-play, it is simply about the mindset you have going into the competition itself. The format is designed to be played as 18 different competitions, each one completely different and unique from the last. It gives golfers the chance to have a complete disaster hole, where everything seems to go wrong, and you end up reluctantly conceding that particular hole, but the brilliance of match-play means that losing that hole in that fashion, is the exact same result and worth the same as your par losing out to a great birdie. Unlike any stroke-play event, the difficulty of the course takes a back seat as the most important factor and suddenly the player in front of you is the only thing you have to beat. It is one of the only times in golf where realistically all a golfer must do to come out on top is out play the person next to him, the other factors are pushed aside for the time being. Many of these great match-play golfers don’t magically become better golfers overnight, in my opinion they have simply mastered managing and maintaining a more positive and determined mindset that the rest of the field, once a player achieves this, the format of match-play really does appear to be easier.
The format also simply allows for more excitement than the standard stroke-play format in my opinion, would the Ryder Cup really be as memorable and enthralling if it was a 4-day stroke play event? I completely understand that the traditions of stroke play tournaments and the difficulty of them should not be underestimated, they demand incredible focus, concentration, precision and determination in order for you to come out on top. I would never agree that this format of the game should be lost, nor will that ever realistically happen, but in my opinion the format of match-play is the future of the game of golf, and more events like the WGC should be created and supported by the golfing community. The excitement the format creates for both the players and the fans, have led to some of the most incredible golfing moments and highlights embedded into golfing fans brains overtime.
As you’ve probably guess already, it’s fairly obvious that I’m a big fan of match-play and personally think it’s a format of golf I seem to strive in. When I was 18 I spent a year at the Lee Westwood Golf School in Cheshire, towards the end of my final year we decided to have a match-play tournament against the other members of the golf academy. After some inconsistent golf and some occasional lucky breaks, I had made it to the match-play final, playing against one of the best golfers in our academy, who just a few weeks before had been competing and succeeding to make the cut in the British Amateur qualifying. Stood on the tee I was incredibly nervous and worried about making a fool of myself. It was at this point when I turned to the school mentor and incredible golfing brain of Sandy Wilson, a previous tour professional who competed in hundreds of tournaments, including six Opens. I told him about my nerves and he said something to me about the match-play format that stuck in my head:
“What on earth do you have to be nervous about in match-play? If you play in a stroke play event, there are over 100 different possible outcomes that could happen, 100 different possible scores that you might finish with. On the first tee of a match-play event, its 50/50. You’re either coming off the 18th with a win, or you’re not.”
Pretty simple right? This was the kind of simple and to-the-point speech Sandy is famous for, but for me it was just what I needed to hear before playing. His words had calmed me down and made me realise that this is a format that is based around fun and excitement, not something to be intimidated by. I proceeded to hook my first tee-shot left, only just staying within the bounds of the course. I hit my next shot through a cluster of bushes and trees, finishing well long of the green. I stood over my 20-yard chip shot and made great contact, I stood there and watched the ball roll down the slope and hit the bottom of the cup for birdie. I went 1-up on the first hole, and never lost the lead for the rest of the match, winning 3&2 on the 16th hole. It was the most relaxed and calm I have ever felt during a competitive round of golf, and it is something I religiously tell myself whenever I enter a match-play competition in the future.
The format of match-play will always be around in both the professional scene and at local club level because it is simply the best way for golfers to test their skills against their fellow players on a completely level playing field. The format of match-play helps create fierce and brilliant rivalries which are remembered by fans for years to come, along with building partnerships and friendships that are idolised and applauded by fans all over the world. This is the important thing about match-play and why it’s a format that should never be overlooked or lost, these factors like rivalries and partnerships create memories and moments like no other in golf, the excitement, intensity and emotion we see in match-play moments is something unique and incomparable to any stroke-play moments, the secrets of match-play is something which is so hard to describe, whilst simultaneously being something that is just beautiful to watch.
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