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Matchplay Genius

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the virtues of matchplay and what it takes to master it

Posted Feb 26, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece


    Those devotees of the monthly medal at club level and 72-hole strokeplay in leading professional tournaments may find it hard to believe that matchplay dominated competitive golf until relatively recently.  In fact it was only in the years following World War II that the rules of the game began to reflect the growing popularity of the medal round.

                 Yet some of the observations of our brethren in the New World would lead us to think of matchplay as a quirky exercise, designed as a novel break in special events.  I remember when covering the Accenture Matchplay Championship at La Costa in 2000, when Darren Clarke triumphed, a local newspaper columnist ludicrously described matchplay as "sudden-death golf."

                  So what happens on the 19th?  The writer went on: "Every day you go out there with clubs, a blindfold and a cigarette.  I'm surprised the organisers ...... don't consult with the golfers beforehand and ask them: 'What would you like for your last meal?'  In some cases, crow is appropriate. Or just plain dust."

                  The growing popularity of the Ryder Cup has done much to rid the sports columns of this sort of hyperbole.  Indeed a refreshing enlightenment has been evident in American media coverage of this week's Accenture Matchplay, which takes place on the new, Jack Nicklaus-designed, Ritz-Carlton course at Dove Mountain, just north of Tucson.

                   One suspects the Americans still have a lot to learn, however, about the finer points of matchplay, which still dominates amateur golf in Britain and Ireland.  Sutton's Joe Carr, for instance, was acknowledged as a classic matchplayer, who captured three British Amateur titles, apart from 27 matchplay championship triumphs in his native Ireland.

                  He once told me that before every match, he would coldly assess his opponent. If he knew him, he would think about his record, what he'd done and what chance he had of winning, if Carr played well. "I would study the man's body-language as he walked onto the tee, looking for a weakness of some kind," he said.  "Then, if I didn't get a good, firm handshake, I would take that as one up for me.  And if he didn't look me straight in the eye, I knew I had him by the balls."

                 Yet it is fascinating to note that arguably the greatest matchplayer of the last 30 years was not from Britain or Ireland.  Indeed the expertise of Seve Ballesteros is all the more remarkable when one considers his ignorance of the matchplay format until he became an established tournament professional.  But he learned quickly.

                 "A good match-player," he remarked late in his career, "is sensitive to the exact emotional state of his opponent.  By doing that, he can gain the advantage."  Yet Ballesteros had actually captured the Open Championship (1979) and US Masters (1980) titles before making this discovery.  In fact the realisation eluded him until the semi-finals of the 1981 World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth.

                 That was when he met Bernhard Langer in what was clearly a needle match between Europe's top players. Recalling how he took the lead by holing a long birdie putt at the short 10th, the Spaniard said: "When that happened, Langer looked tense. He looked like he did not expect to win."  Ballesteros won the match by 5 and 4 and went on to beat Ben Crenshaw in the final.

                 On being given a wild-card only a few days earlier, however, he was forced to acknowledge his failure in five previous matchplay tournaments.  And it infuriated him. "I should be a good man-against-man player because I like to beat people," he reasoned at the time. "But I'm not. Maybe in matchplay I give the other man confidence. He knows I will always make a big mistake."

                 He then studied the techniques of Hale Irwin and Gary Player, whom he considered to be outstanding match-players, and concluded that while making the odd mistake, they hardly ever made big ones. "Irwin goes par-par and sometimes birdie," he said. "This creates much pressure. I know, I felt it."

                 As luck would have it, he was drawn against Irwin in the first round - and beat him, by curbing his own natural aggression. "Irwin expected mistakes from me and when they didn't come, he became impatient," Ballesteros later recalled.

                 So came the breakthrough for a player who went on to equal Player's record haul of five World Matchplay titles. And even when his game was in serious decline, he still managed to beat Colin Montgomerie in a memorable match at Sunningdale, in the 2000 Seve Trophy.  Well-formed competitive instincts allowed him produce the shots for a controlled performance, while his spirits were lifted by an ongoing study of his opponent's discomfiture.

                Just as had happened with Langer, 29 years previously.

 - Dermot Gilleece in Tucson 

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