Match play brings out the best and worst in golfers

I love match play and wish there were many more tour events like the Accenture Match Play Championships. They attract the world’s best and every hole is a new game buzzing with renewed energy with every tee shot.

My golfguy and I compete at match play quite often ourselves and have a great time. But I know deep down that no matter how well I could ever strike the ball, chip or putt, I would never have excelled as a professional golfer.

I just don’t have the killer instinct – a trait mandatory in match play, even more so than in stroke play.

In stroke play, you try and beat the course, except perhaps in a playoff, or down the stretch when you’re tied with your playing partner for the lead.

While in match play, suddenly “threes a crowd” – you, the course and that guy/gal standing next to you on the tee.

And that change to a wide angle lens brings a whole new dynamic to this gentleman’s game.  It’s now beat or be beaten, kill or be killed.  Professional match play turns nice guys into ruthless warriors.  It’s not just about winning anymore; it’s about annihilating your opponent. 

I understand that attitude in Ryder/President Cups where it’s country against country, but seeing Rickie Fowler bulldoze his good buddy Phil Mickelson last weekend was somewhat disturbing to watch, for me anyway.

Never once did Rickie let up on Phil. Never once did he think to give Phil a generous gimme, even when he was many shots ahead. But Phil didn’t seem to mind it.  Perhaps that is because he and Rickie are so much alike; he probably sees a little bit of Lefty in the young motocross maniac.  In fact, he almost looked like a proud papa when shaking Rickie’s hand at the end.

I once saw Tiger make his long time friend and mentor Mark O’Meara putt out when his ball was only 18 inches from the hole at a WGC match play event (Mark was already down by 4 at that point).

O’Meara was not pleased; Tiger just laughed and told him to putt it out. There’s something very sinister in that. Tiger calls it gamesman-ship. I call it something else.

I recently read Jaime Diaz’s article “My Five: Best Match Players“. With a 7-1-1 record, Walter Hagen made the top of his list and I’m not the least bit surprised. Although he was playing long before my time, from everything I’ve read, Walter Hagen was a callous competitor, showing no mercy to his opponents.

I read that he once called his main rival out of the clubhouse to witness Hagen sink his final putt on the 54th hole, and then told the guy he would beat him the next day to win the championship, which he did. How much that little mind game helped derail his competitor, I don’t know, but I do know that it didn’t impress me much.

It’s one thing to be tough mentally, but quite another to play mind games.

I know, I know, you’re saying, “But Golfgal, that’s what match play is all about.” And you’d probably be right. I just don’t like what it says about golfers who play with your mind to gain an advantage. What does that say about them in real life?

In the corporate world, I’ve heard the same rant for over 30 years, “You have to separate business from personal.” I could never do that either. Seeing someone being raked over the coals in a boardroom and then watching the raker ask the rakee how his kids are, seems so…phony. I just can’t trust people like that.

So I guess there is good reason why I’m not a Tiger Woods or Rickie Fowler or Walter Hagen.  I don’t want to play their game.  Perhaps that is what separates the pros from casual golfers like me.  For them, it’s not just about winning – it’s about domination.

I guess I should be happy that I’m too old to compete in any professional capacity. It’s a lot more fun to love golf  for what it is – a game.  I think I will stick to a friendly game of “greenies” and let the pros stick it to each other.


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