The Psych of Match Play

The following is an excerpt from the second chapter in A Quick 9 for the Mind: Stroke Saving Psychology and Philosophy.  As it’s Ryder Cup time, the reflections on match play golf that it includes seem timely.  Enjoy.


Standing on the 18th tee about one stroke off of the cut line of a regional U.S. Open qualifier a top amateur player decided a little extra energy and additional focus ought to be put into the next few shots. He teed up the ball, stared down the fairway, picked a target, and aggressively attacked the par four. He had spent the afternoon 19 battling breezes and a steady mist, hitting most fairways, and making good decisions.  Coming down the back nine he was hovering around 70 a solid score under challenging conditions. The tee shot on eighteen was hit well – clearly it would outdistance his typical drives. Good distance with a slight draw. It landed about five yards beyond his standard drive on a small embankment which kicked the ball into a water hazard.

This golfer sat in my office and shared this story with me. He shared it because it was not a unique story (the only unique part of it was that it was on the final hole of a U.S. Open qualifier and the consequences of the swing were particularly disappointing). During the final few holes of stroke play, he often tried to increase his intensity level a bit to close things out strong. Upon reflection he found no great benefit to this approach and typically no great detriment.  From listening it appeared that he felt it necessary because one was supposed to take the closing holes of a round “more seriously” in order to finish off strong. With only a handful of swings left to close out a solid round and perhaps make the cut, he chose to tell himself to “Give it a little extra. I need a huge drive to score well. This is an important hole!”

Not able to put his finger on what was not sitting right with him, he mentioned that he found it a lot easier to focus during match play competition. He loved staring down his opponent at the beginning of each hole and then getting down to business. He was proud of his competitive spirit and desire to always come out on top. Typically this relentless focus on beating others is a yellow-flag in the mind of a sport psychology practitioner. Both action and research of high performing athletes over the years has shown that participating to challenge one’s self is one of the key factors that leads to greatest success on the playing field. Perhaps this player was not such a great competitor, but one that was
about to fall into the bad habit that overtakes many when they have reached a level of competition where mental mistakes and a focus on others leads them to retire to the sidelines due to lack of mental toughness.

No… this is a solid golfer and a strong competitor. From listening and looking, it became clear that his success in match play is not due to any macho, cut-throat competitiveness of the player. Rather success was due to the “consistent” structure of match play. From start to finish, the goal on each hole of match play is the same – hit good shots, beat your opponent. Bogies create openings, but both pars and birdies win holes and win matches. It is this set up that led to his “mental toughness” on course, not some internal competitiveness.

For a further preview of A Quick 9 for the Mind and to purchase a copy visit


2 Responses to “The Psych of Match Play”

  1. 1 gabinety psychologiczne October 2, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Very interesting article, I recommend to all

  2. 2 AHNaylor October 4, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Thanks Gabinety,

    If you can manage the stress of competing, match play can really focus a player on playing one-shot at a time. Perhaps this means more of a match play mindset/focus is useful in stroke play while the stress-level/regulation of stroke play should be brought to match play!

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