I have to be honest. I was more than a little surprised when I heard the Australian Amateur Championships were going to be 72-hole stroke-play tournaments.
I’m not going to say match-play is a better form of the game – that would be going a little too far – but it is certainly the best method of identifying the best competitors. Or, to put it another way, locating the best and most versatile golfers in the field.
The oldest amateur championships, those in Britain and the United States, today tend to be a mixture of stroke-play and match-play. After two days of adding your score up and proving you can get yourself around the course in a decent number, the titles are then decided by head-to-head matches. That’s a tough test from start-to-finish, one that surely identifies a really good player.
It’s actually a pity we don’t see much match-play in professional golf. It’s perceived as taking too long. And television doesn’t like it because star players and names might be making early exits. Rightly or wrongly, that’s seen as bad for ratings.
Match-play, however, is perfect for amateur golf, which is why every national amateur championship should have elements of both stroke-play and match-play. It’s just the best way to find the champion. Why? Because match-play is the best version of the game we all love. Yet it’s not played enough by anyone.
At club level here in Australia, members seem to play an inordinate amount of stableford comps, which is almost stroke-play in that it basically involves adding up your strokes. And that is pretty much all the golf those members seem to play. It’s all about handicaps. Which is another mistake. I see so many guys getting miserable because they are not playing to their handicaps.
That’s maybe the greatest thing about match-play. There is no need to worry about what score you are shooting. All you have to do is beat the other guy, which is the fun part. You have a freedom you don’t get in stroke-play, but you are still competing. Match-play really is the ultimate version of competition.
“Every national amateur championship should have elements of both stroke-play and match-play. It’s just the best way to find the champion. Why? Because match-play is the best version of the game we all love. Yet it’s not played enough by anyone.”
Right from the first shot in match-play you are under pressure. If your opponent hits the fairway, you better do likewise or you are immediately at a disadvantage. He has said to you, “show me what you can do.” It works the other way too. If you hole a putt, he has to do the same on top of you. And this sort of thing happens on every hole. There are challenges and moments of pressure all the way from the 1st tee to the end of the match. Constantly having to come up with the goods is just great fun.
When we play too much stroke-play, we forget why it is fun to compete. We need to get away from competing with ourselves – which is pretty much what stroke-play is – and start competing with our friends. At the elite level of the game, match-play is the best way to get good. If the best players went head-to-head all the time, they would pretty quickly become better match-players – and stroke-players. Because they would be forced to perform under pressure all the time. They would, in effect, be playing the final round of the (stroke-play) tournament every day.
From a spectator’s point of view, stroke-play doesn’t get really interesting until it turns into match-play. Think about it. What have been the most famous and exciting stroke-play events over the last 50-years or so? Two that come immediately to mind are the so-called “Duel in the Sun” between Ton Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 and the epic encounter between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon in 2016.
What was so great about those? That’s right. Although the Open Championship is ostensibly a stroke-play event, in those two years we were treated to what were basically one-against-one contests that brought the best out of those involved. Both were examples of just how great match-play can be.
I have always been a great advocate of match-play golf, which is why I was so disappointed by Golf Australia’s decision to make the national amateur championships stroke-play events. I think it is a mistake for the most significant amateur tournaments in the country not to have at least an element of match-play. It’s a less interesting direction for the game to take.
I really feel quite strongly about this. Once you can play golf at all, match-play is the fastest route to improvement. Think about it. You get better when you are out of your comfort zone and you are being challenged. You rise to those challenges because you have to. A three-foot putt on the first green doesn’t mean as much in stroke-play as it does in match-play. Yes, you are obviously trying to hole the three-footer for par or whatever, but you don’t have to as you do in match-play.
“Match-play is the fastest route to improvement … You get better when you are out of your comfort zone and you are being challenged. You rise to those challenges because you have to.”
In match-play you learn more about yourself. You get a boost of confidence from holing that three-footer under pressure. And even when you miss it, at least you know what it felt like to have to hole it. And next time you’ll be better prepared. You’ll be more comfortable. That’s called learning how to compete, which in my experience is the fastest route to improvement.
In contrast, stroke-play golf and handicap chasing has a magnetic effect. But not in a good way. I see so many guys worrying about their swings and reacting in a negative fashion to their previous shots. In match-play that doesn’t happen nearly so much. Because you are reacting more to what your opponent does than what you have just done. Match-play gets you focused on shots more than swings. At least it does for me.
Here’s another fun aspect of match-play. Let’s say you turn up at your local club for the weekly Thursday comp. It’s a stableford. At the end of the day, only one guy walks away a winner. And everyone else goes home a “loser.” But in match-play half of those in attendance leave having won. Isn’t that a better way to leave the course?
I say all of this because my own experiences in the game have told me and shown me just how beneficial match-play can be. Early on it taught me that I had to keep my “head on” if I was to be successful. In match-play the last thing you want to do is give your opponent a boost by displaying weakness. An obvious display of dejection or a temper tantrum is guaranteed to do that of course. An opponent is always going to see negative emotions on your part as an advantage. So, you have to avoid giving them that energy
I look back now and see that the guys who were outwardly calm and level-headed were always the hardest ones to beat. They seemed impervious to anything and everything. I, on the other hand, made mistakes. But the key was I learned from them. And I learned quickly.
As a professional, I was lucky enough to reach the final in three World Golf Championships at match-play, winning two of those. And the benefits didn’t stop at the end of those finals. After all three, I played well for at least six months, such was the boost to my confidence. I felt like I gained a year’s worth of experience in each of those weeks. On so many occasions I had to get up-and-down, or I had to make a putt, to avoid going home. When I won one of those WGCs I had seven putts that I had to make. If I had missed any of them, I was out. You just don’t get that sort of pressure in any other form of the game.