The art of matchplay by Seve Ballesteros

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To celebrate the release of SEVE The Movie (read more here), we take a look at his masterful matchplay. “Matchplay, they say, is a different game. And to a degree, that is true. In a 72-hole strokeplay event, I spend 99.9% of my time focusing on my own game. Matchplay is very different. In matchplay my opponents are not there for me to ignore; more to help me with my choice of shot. I need to be a good decision maker. If there is one attribute a very good match player has, it is the ability to think clearly.

“Every match ebbs and flows from hole to hole, even shot to shot; so knowing instinctively what to do, and when to do it, is what it is all about. The fastest way to defeat is by hitting thoughtless shots.

“These principles hold true whatever level of play; whether you’re playing in a Ryder Cup or on a Saturday morning for a bet. The art of matchplay is best learnt through experience. I’ve made many mistakes over the years at vital moments, just like everyone else. The important thing is to learn from them.”

1. Fill your partner with confidence, not doubt
If you are playing with someone in fourballs or foursomes, it is often better to keep quiet than say something. If you think they are taking the wrong club or the wrong line, think before you speak. The last thing anyone wants from a partner is indecision or doubt. That is certainly true for me. Obviously, if they are making a major mistake; then you need to say something. Just make sure that by the time your partner comes to make his shot, all indecision has gone.

2. Study the make-up of the course
Before a foursomes match, it is important to make a close analysis of the course. A little planning can allow you and your partner to play to your respective strengths. For example, in the 1985 Ryder Cup, I played with Manuel Pinero. Manuel is an exceptional iron player and putter; whereas I was much longer from the tee and good around the greens. Therefore, our plan was for him to take the tee shots at the par-3 holes while I drove on the par 5s; the theory being that he was more likely to hit greens at the par 3s, and my drives at the par 5s would give us a better chance of getting up in two. It seemed to work, because we won both foursomes. 

3. Follow a game plan
Good combinations in fourballs always have one player in contention at every hole. Two is better, of course, but that can sometimes bring its own frustration if both make birdies or bogeys on the same hole. When I played with Jose Maria Olazabál in the Ryder Cup we always planned exactly how we would play. We were always ready to be flexible, of course, but we went to the 1st tee with a plan. Jose Maria would always hit first on every hole. He is a more consistent driver than me, and if he hit the fairway I could be more aggressive. When he did miss, I would play merely to get my ball in play. Losing holes to pars in a fourball match is suicide. Make your opponents think they can win the hole only with a birdie. The knowledge that you are making par puts pressure on them.

4. Think about who should putt first
There are so many factors at play like the state of the game, which of you is the strongest putter and how confident you both feel at that particular moment, that it often makes sense to putt out of turn, if your partner is further away from the hole. The bottom line is, if you think you can help your partner (or he can help you) by changing the order; then do so.

5. Pay attention!
Your opponent has the honour on a long par 4 and he drives into trouble. What is the smart shot for you? Well, that depends on just how much trouble he is in, and you can only know that by paying close attention to the flight of his ball. Only by doing that, can you decide just how conservative to be with your shot.

6. Don’t concede every time
Because putting, more than any other part of the game is played in the mind, try to get your opponent thinking on the greens. Pay close attention to his general demeanour as he approaches and strokes his first short putt. It is easy to tell if someone is confident or not. If he looks a little unsure, make him hole every short putt. Nine times out of 10 he will miss one sooner rather than later. And, he will know that you know he is a little edgy. That is even more damaging to his confidence. If, however, your opponent holes out well, give him a few two-footers. And then ask him to putt one. With luck, that will get him thinking: ‘Why is he making me make that?’

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