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Matchplay Masters

The mental side of the Ryder Cup is key to winning

Posted Sep 25, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

davis love

There is a way of competing in the Ryder Cup.  When they had teams lacking America’s strength in depth, Europe were forced to discover it under the astute leadership of Tony Jacklin.  But the US have begun to catch up, largely as a consequence of severe hammerings sustained at Oakland Hills in 2004 and The K Club two years later.

The key question now is whether Davis Love will apply those lessons in attempting to regain the trophy at Medinah with a seemingly sparkling line-up this weekend.  Though he was overlooked by Tom Lehman as a wild-card for the 2006 team, Love still felt moved to write to the defeated American captain after the event.  “It was the nicest letter,” Lehman recalled. “He said I was one of the best captains ever, for the way I handled the lead-up to the matches.  And this from a guy I overlooked.”

It is often said in sport that you can learn more from defeat than from victory.  And despite their success under Paul Azinger’s captaincy at Valhalla in 2008, the Americans showed at Celtic Manor that they still have much to learn about matchplay.  Nobody understood it better than Seve Ballesteros, one of the all-time great exponents of the format who once observed: "A good match-player is sensitive to the exact emotional state of his opponent. In that way, he can gain the advantage."  

Interestingly, it was a skill the Spaniard had to acquire. It was only after winning his first two Majors, the 1979 Open Championship and 1980 US Masters, that he discovered the essence of matchplay, largely because he had never had a competitive amateur career. Failure in five World Matchplay events, caused him to remark angrily: "I should be a good man-against-man player because I like to beat people. But I'm not. Maybe I give the other man confidence because he knows I always make a big mistake."

In an intensive study of acknowledged experts like Hale Irwin and Gary Player, he learned that this was, indeed, the key.  Though liable to make the odd mistake, they never made big ones. "Irwin would go par, par and sometimes birdie," said Ballesteros. "This creates much pressure. I know, I felt it."  Eventually, with his game in serious decline in the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, he scrambled marvellously while losing to Lehman at number one. "It was like a short-game clinic," Lehman recalled. "Seve was amazing.  When I think of where he was hitting his second shots from, he should have been beaten by 8 and 7 rather than 4 and 3."

Yet it was a lesson Lehman was unable to instil into his own players, 11 years later.  “American players generally have little experience of matchplay, especially in a team situation,” he admitted.  “It means that when pressure comes on, we revert to what we're comfortable with, which is strokeplay.  Suddenly, guys play like they’re in the US Open.  They instinctively seek comfort in the ‘I'm-going-to-get-my-par' mentality. Whereas you want guys going for every shot and not being worried about it costing too much if they hit it in the water or whatever.  At worst, it's only loss of hole.”

Lehman went on:  “Growing up and playing the sort of club golf that Europeans do, means they're always going to be good competitors.  Their mentality is to hit every shot at the flag and when things start going their way, those shots end up stiff.  It's tough to beat a guy who's hitting it close every time and making his share of putts.  Yet over the years, some Americans have had a naturally good mentality for matchplay.  They didn't worry about that bad shot or bad hole. They just fired at the pin.  Larry Nelson, for instance, would wear you out with the way he'd not only hit it on the green every time, but hit it close. That’s what Lanny Wadkins did, too.  And Tiger Woods does it.”

When Lehman turned professional, if you didn’t get your tour card in the US, you went to Asia, Europe or South Africa.  “Now, with so many tours here, nobody goes anywhere,” he said.  “I've actually told young guys of 22 or 23, if it was me and I knew my game wasn't good enough to compete here, I'd go straight to Europe. I wouldn't waste my time on the Nationwide Tour or the Hooters Tour.  I'd go straight to Europe.”

So who’s going to win at Medinah?  The answer, I believe, is to be found, not in the recent strokeplay form of the various team members, but in their ability to adapt to the challenge of the occasion.  That’s why the Ryder Cup is such a fascinating event and why the weekend’s outcome is so difficult to predict.  Come on Europe!

- Dermot Gilleece

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