One of the great joys of golf is placing friendly wagers against your buddies in match play format. Whether it's for pride or a Nassau with plenty of junk, it's a great way to get the competitive juices flowing. And not to worry, you can keep your amateur status as long as you don't bet "excessively."
A common question I get asked by readers is if a player should adjust their strategy during match play or other kinds of competitive formats. There are plenty of ways to answer this question, and I'm going to give you the Practical Golf explanation, which I believe will stack the odds in your favor in the long run.
Plenty of people tell me they love to play as aggressively as possible in a match since your total score for the round doesn't matter as much. If that's your version of fun, go for it! But if you want to win some money over the long haul, read on.
Reacting to Other Golfers Is Not a Great Idea
Changing your decisions based on what another golfer is doing during their round is seldom a good idea. There are many reasons why I believe this, and it mainly has to do with taking you out of your routine and abandoning sound golf judgment.
Preparation is one of the keys to becoming a better golfer. Before you tee up, it's better to have most of your strategic decisions made. For example, on almost every course I play, I know what club and targets I'll select off the tee. I rarely change that plan unless something dramatic changes with the wind or turf conditions.
Additionally, I have a framework in place for how I will make choices on which clubs and targets I will select on approach shots. Here is a straightforward method I recommend for most of you.
I will rarely, if ever, deviate from these decisions based on what my playing partners do (teammates or opponents) in any kind of match or stroke play competition. I admit it's almost impossible to keep the blinders entirely on, but you don't want to be reacting to every single shot others are hitting in your group. In my opinion, you'll get baited into making suboptimal decisions that are either too aggressive or conservative for the situation.
Let's explore a few hypothetical situations to illustrate my point.
Playing It Too Safe
Let's say your opponent makes a mistake with their tee shot. Perhaps they hit it into the trees or landed in a fairway bunker. Statistically speaking, they have already lost strokes on the hole. But as you know, golf has a strange way of playing out. You can't accurately predict what their final score will be based on that tee shot alone.
Your original decision was to hit driver on that hole, but now you're thinking of laying back with iron for safety. Well, it turns out that you are already losing strokes yourself because you'll be farther away from the hole. Also, it's not a guarantee you will hit the fairway (read this article to find out why).
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that extreme safety gives you a better chance of winning. Many times, it's a false sense of security.
The Flip Side
Where most golfers get into trouble is when they feel they need to be aggressive because of another golfer's excellent shot, or if they are a few holes down early in the match.
The same rules apply. Just because your opponent hit a great tee shot or approach shot, there is still no guarantee that they will make a birdie. They can always make a mistake, but if you respond with an error of your own, you've never given yourself the chance to post a lower score.
Aggressiveness typically occurs when golfers start losing a few holes and feel that momentum is slipping away. They might begin picking targets off the tee that are too bold, start hunting at pins or trying to slam putts in the hole. As I've written before, you can't force birdies; they are the byproduct of smart decision making and shot execution.
The likelihood is that your opponent will cool off eventually. You need to remain patient for your opportunity. On some days, that might never come, but you want to keep giving yourself those chances rather than shooting yourself in the foot.
Living With the Results
A couple of weeks ago, I was playing in a team match-play event at my golf course. It was a great match, and no team ever got up more than one hole. Luckily, my putter got hot towards the end, and we won two holes in a row to approach the 18th one up. As we got to the last green, it seemed very unlikely the opposing team was going to win the hole, but low and behold, one of our competitors made incredible sand save for a net birdie, sending us to extra holes.
My playing partner and one of the opponents made a couple of big mistakes off the tee and their approaches that effectively took them out of the hole. I watched my other opponent land his ball on the green about 25 feet from the pin before it was my turn.
The pin was tucked on the left side of the hole, and in my head, I knew it was likely that my opponent would two-putt for a net birdie. I was tempted to adjust my aim because it was a playoff hole, but I chose the smart shot towards the center of the green. I hit a draw that landed about 8 feet from the hole.
Sad news though, my opponent two-putted, and I missed my birdie putt by about an inch, sealing the loss.
While I was disappointed, I knew that I made the right decisions. Had I tried to pin hunt, and my ball flight had been precisely the same, my shot would have landed in the greenside bunker.
Either way, I had given myself a chance to tie or beat my opponent with the original decision. The overly aggressive play would have likely lowered those chances. It just didn't work on that hole - that's golf!
It's Hard, But Sticking to Your Game Gives You the Best Opportunity
While there are endless variations of what can happen in these kinds of competitive situations, my overall recommendation is to try your best to make smarter decisions. It is very tempting to change your approach based on what others are doing in your group, and I admit I am not perfect at sticking to the script every single time.
Overall, I don't think "situational golf" wins out in the long run. If you're a smart course manager and resist the temptation to make sub-optimal decisions based on hole-to-hole fluctuations, I can assure you that the money will pile up in your pocket over the long run. The golfers who are continually changing their decisions from moment to moment as the match unfolds will have a much harder time staying focused and executing.