TG's top tips to help you win every match

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As enjoyable as a strokeplay or Stableford triumph is, there’s something special about taking on your opponent one-on-one and coming out on top over the course of 18 holes. Holing the decisive putt that breaks your opponent’s heart is one of the sweetest feelings in golf, whether it’s to secure the Ryder Cup for Europe or a crucial point for your club in a match against a rival club – or even just to beat your six-year-old at the local pitch and putt. Give yourself a head start in every match by following the advice of the players who have proven themselves to be the toughest to beat. You’ll be dispatching opponents and shaking hands on the 10th green before you know it…

1. LOOK THE PART
What you’re wearing might seem insignificant, but the right gear can give your team the edge before you’ve even reached the golf course. “America always had more than we did,” says four-time Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin. “They were flying Concorde and we were in the back of the bus on British Airways. I was able to get those things addressed, and we were then able to get the best out of what we had as a team.”

“They overwhelmed us with their equipment,” agrees eight-time participant Peter Alliss. “It all looked better than us and we were made to feel like second-rate citizens.” Make sure everyone on your team has a team shirt and the right colour trousers. If you look like a good team, you’re more likely to play like one. If you turn up looking a mess, you’ve given your opponent a mental boost before you’ve even started.

2. BUILD TEAM SPIRIT
But it’s no use wearing the same shirt as your team mates if you’d cross the road to avoid them. “I encouraged the players and their wives and girlfriends to stay together for food and beverages,” says Jacklin. “Before that, there was no camaraderie and team spirit, which I think is very important. Golf is normally such a solitary pursuit, so players should relish the opportunity to be part of a team.”

3. PICK THE RIGHT PAIRINGS
Getting on well with your partner is one thing, but you also need to be well suited in terms of golf. “When picking foursomes teams, captains need to make sure they pair people who know each other really well and play similar games,” says Dave Stockton, victorious in each of his three Ryder Cups. “If you don’t know each other very well, then you end up apologising after every bad shot, which isn’t good for focus or morale. And if you don’t play similar games, then it can be tough for the longer hitter to adjust. I played in two Ryder Cups and the only match I ever lost was when I played with Jack Nicklaus and he got tired of having to hit shots that were 20-25 yards longer than the ones he’d usually hit.”

4. KNOW YOUR ROLE
“In most fourball matches, I was the shortest hitter and this meant my only job was to put my ball on the green,” says Dave Stockton, a winner of three Ryder Cups. “If you are the first hitter on a par 4 or par 5, your job is to play smart, hit it on the green and let your partner, who is closer, be more aggressive.”

5. DON’T BE INTIMATED
It doesn’t matter if you’re a 28-handicapper in the worst form of your life and you’re drawn against the club champion, anything can happen over the course of 18 matchplay holes. “It doesn’t matter if you’re number one seed or number 50,” says former WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship winner Henrik Stenson. “I remember how close I came to being knocked out by Zach Johnson in the first round in 2007, the year I won.”

6. TELL YOURSELF YOUR OPPONENT IS HOPELESS
When you play anyone at matchplay, you must think about stuffing them 10&8,” says Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter. “You must be respectful, but be absolutely ruthless as well. Whoever you are playing, you must try to convince yourself that they are no good, and that you are better than them all. If you don’t believe that, you will lose.”

7. KNOW THE COURSE
If the match isn’t at your home club, a visit or two before the match could be the difference between victory and defeat. Don’t believe us? Perhaps you’ll believe Ryder Cup hero and five-time World Match Play Champion Seve Ballesteros: “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 the greens at the par 3s and my drives at the par 5s would give us a better chance of being up in two. It seemed to work, because we won both foursomes.” What are you waiting for? Get that tee-time booked.

8. MAKE A FAST START
“You have to be ready from the get-go and get off to a fast start,” says Rory McIlroy. “In a 72-hole strokeplay event, you can try to play your way into a round because there’s a long way to go. But in 18-hole matchplay, you have to attack from the very start. So be aggressive and try to make as many birdies as you can.”

“You want to put your opponent under pressure right away and get your nose out in front,” agrees Poulter, who boasts an undefeated Ryder Cup singles record and a 72% point win rate. “Attack every pin and keep your foot on the accelerator. After every shot the clock is ticking, and it’s a lot easier to win holes early than late.”

9. BUILD ON YOUR MOMENTUM
Getting a lead – even if it’s just 1-up – can make your opponent feel like he’s chasing you and make his game fall apart. “Get some momentum going early,” says Stenson, who holed the winning Ryder Cup putt at the K Club in 2006. “It’s nice to be ahead early and then your opponent has to chase and try to make birdies to get even.”

10. BUT DON’T PANIC IF YOU’RE BEHIND
Whilst momentum is important, the match is never over until you’re shaking hands. “Learn to be patient,” says Medinah hero Justin Rose. “If you get down in a match, just keep doing your thing and limit the mistakes. A mistake some guys make is to start to push a little too much, and then you start to give away cheap holes. You have to believe that you can turn it around.” Four-time Ryder Cup winner Padraig Harrington agrees: “If you’re down, your goal is to win that hole. Get one hole, then the next.”

11. PLAY THE COURSE… AND THE MAN
“The big question is whether you play the course or the man,” says European captain Paul McGinley. “I think great matchplay players do a bit of both. In terms of shot selection, some of it is simple. If your partner hits it out of bounds, make sure you keep it in play. You might hit a 3-wood off the tee so you get the opportunity to hit first into a par 4 afterwards, which can allow you to put pressure on your opponent by hitting it close.”

12. GET IN YOUR OPPONENT’S HEAD
“I definitely use a few tactics,” says 2014 WGC-Accenture Match Play winner Jason Day. “I always make sure I’m walking in front of my opponent, to show him that I’m there. I might make him putt a one-and-a-half foot putt on the first hole, just to say, ‘I’m not giving you any of those’, so he knows it’s going to be a hard match to play.”

13. THE SHORT PUTT DEBATE
And that brings us to one of the dividing topics in matchplay tactics: when should you concede a short putt and when shouldn’t you? You can take the ‘surprise him’ approach, like Seve: “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. He will know that you know he is a little edgy, and nine times out of 10 he will miss one sooner rather than later – 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?’

Or you can opt for Poulter’s ‘no gimmes’ tactic: “I’ve heard this idea about giving putts early on in order to pile the pressure on later, but it is absolute nonsense. If you give a two or three-foot putt, a player is entitled to put the ball down and hit it as a practice anyway, so it is irrelevant. For everything but a simple tap-in, make them putt it every time.” Former Walker Cup man Tommy Fleetwood agrees: “Don’t give them anything. You never know what’s going to happen. If you’re not giving them two-and-a-half footers, they’ll get annoyed at some point, and then they might miss one because they’re angry that you’re not giving them anything.”

Graeme McDowell, who sealed Europe’s win in 2010, prefers a more generous approach: “There’s nothing worse than watching him line up a putt and thinking, ‘Am I being stingy there? Am I being tight?’ Sometimes I ask my caddie, ‘Should I have given him that?’ 

14. BE READY TO HOLE EVERYTHING
Whatever you decide to do about giving your opponent gimmes, don’t expect any of your own. “I’m never surprised by someone making me hole out,” says McDowell. “I always like to mark the ball before a guy can give me a gimme, to say, ‘If you want me to knock it in, I’ll knock it in for you’.

15. TAKE THE RIGHT PUTT FIRST
If you’re in a pairs match, putting out of turn may be to your advantage. “If you think you can help your partner – or he can help you – by changing order, then do so,” said Seve.

16. BUT DON’T RELY ON YOUR PARTNER
Combining well with your partner is crucial, but never rely on yours to bail you out. “Tom Weiskopf used to tell stories that I would say, ‘Go rack your cue, Tom’, meaning pick up your ball because I’m going to make my putt,” says Jack Nicklaus, six-time Ryder Cup player and twice captain. “Of course, I didn’t say that, but the mindset is a healthy one for matchplay. If I had an eight-footer and my partner had a 12-footer on a different line, I might want to just hit mine in. Point is, don’t rely on your partner; rely on yourself. You’re playing your own ball, so think about what you can do.”

17. KNOW WHEN TO KEEP QUIET
“If you are playing with someone in fourballs or foursomes, it is often better to keep quiet than say something,” says Seve. “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. 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 hit his shot, all indecision has gone.”

18. NEVER LOSE TO PAR
“Good combinations in fourballs always have one player in contention at every hole,” says Seve. “When I played with Jose Maria Olazabal 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 first 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.”

19. FORGET ABOUT OTHER MATCHES
If you’re playing as part of a team, keeping tabs on how other matches are getting on can be tempting, but is best avoided. “You have to realise that you can only think about your match at that moment,” says Sergio Garcia, winner in four of his six Ryder Cup appearances. “We can all only win one game. Even if you’re seven down, if the overall match ends in a tie, it might come down to how many you lose by.”

20. YOU’RE NOT THERE TO MAKE FRIENDS
“Every time I played I was ready to have a fight,” says Fleetwood. “I never said anything friendly. For the 18 holes that we played, I wasn’t a very nice person. I wasn’t unsportsmanlike or anything, but I wasn’t your mate. When you’re playing, be ready to destroy them. You’ve got to have that attitude in order to beat them. You can speak to them after, when you’re done.”

Rory McIlroy, victorious in both the Ryder Cups he has played so far, agrees: “I would be very comfortable having a chat going down the fairway in strokeplay. In matchplay, it is a bit different. You have to be a little more poker-faced and keep yourself to yourself.”

Do bear in mind that certain competitive behaviour deemed reasonable when a Ryder Cup is on the line might seem a bit over the top when you’re playing your pal for a fiver – judge the situation and adjust your friendliness (or lack of) accordingly.

21. WATCH YOUR OPPONENT
While your opponent is playing a shot, don’t just close your eyes and silently pray that he duffs it into a bush. Take Seve’s advice and pay as much attention to your opponent’s shots as your own: “Your opponent has the honour and drives into trouble… what is the smart shot for you? That depends 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.”

22. MAKE THE RIGHT DECISIONS
Now you know what shape your opponent is in, what do you do? “In a strokeplay event, I spend 99.9% of my time focusing on my own game,” says Seve. “In matchplay, my opponents are not there for me to ignore; they are there to help me with my choice of shot.”

“There are times when you need to be sensible,” says Poulter. “Birdies are what win holes, but if your opponent has hit it in the water hazard and you know the best he can do is bogey there is no point being overly aggressive, making an error and allowing him to get off the hook. Take par if you need to take par to win the hole; just keep your man under pressure.”

23. ALWAYS EXPECT THE WORST
“I’m trying to hole everything and I always expect my opponent to do the same,” says Poulter. “I never want a surprise, so even if it looks as though your opponent is out of the hole, you still have to expect him to hole his next shot. Even if you hit it to six feet, and your opponent misses the green, don’t for a second think they are not going to hole their chip shot. That way you won’t be shocked. And concentrate on your six-footer as though you’ve got it to win a Major.”

24. BUT FOCUS ON YOUR OWN GAME
“I’ve heard the theory about laying back to hit first into greens in order to put pressure on your opponent but I don’t believe in that either,” says Poulter. “I don’t think it makes any difference if you are a good enough player to accept that your partner has hit a good shot and then you have to go and hit it inside him. If you are playing well you don’t have to worry about hitting in first or second. I’m concentrating on my game. So no matter if my opponent has hit to 2ft or 20ft I’m still trying to hit it stiff. If my opponent has hit to 10ft that isn’t putting me under any more pressure than I’m already under because I’m still trying to hole the shot.”

“You just want to play it like it’s a strokeplay round,” says Jordan Spieth, who will take a vast amount of junior matchplay experience into his Ryder Cup debut this year. “Obviously if you see your opponent in trouble, maybe you’ll be a little more conservative, and matchplay lets you get away with a bad hole, but ultimately whoever shoots the best score wins most matches.”

Poulter doesn’t think it’s quite so simple: “It’s matchplay and you’re not playing the golf course, you’re playing the opponent. Have the mindset that you’re going to win every hole.”

25. DON’T GIVE THE HOLE AWAY
“There will be times when you hit a poor shot – you just have to make sure your next one is a good one,” says Poulter. “If you miss a green, then hit your chip close. Or if a poor drive forces you to lay up, make sure you hit your approach inside your opponent so he has to work to win the hole. There is nothing worse than giving a hole to your opponent.”

26. PUT BAD HOLES BEHIND YOU
While it’s never good to have a nightmare on a hole, doing it in a match is far less destructive than doing it in a medal. “It gives you the chance to make 8 or 9 on one hole and then you start over again the next hole,” says Seve.

27. DON’T LET YOUR TEAM DOWN
“I hate to lose, and I think that’s the number one reason I have a good matchplay record,” says Colin Montgomerie, who won five Ryder Cups as a player and one as captain. “I think to win you have to have this fear of losing, and I had a dramatic fear of losing. You felt that you were letting down your team-mates if you did happen to lose, so therefore you won. I’ve always been a great competitor, and I was determined to do as much for the team as possible, and it was my job in these Ryder Cups to gain as many points as possible for the team.”

28. LET THE BIG DOG EAT
“If ever there is an opportunity to get to a green, I’ll go for it,” says Poults. “On a short par 4, or somewhere that gives the best chance of making three, I will be really aggressive in matchplay. You’ve got to take on risks. Cautious golf doesn’t win matchplay ties. You have to hit driver where you can hit driver, you’ve got to take on the short par 4s or leave yourself as short an approach as possible into the longer holes. If you don’t, your opponent will and you don’t want to leave that opportunity open.”

29. TRY TO HOLE EVERYTHING
We’re beginning to see why no one likes playing against the relentless Poulter. “Every shot I hit to a green in matchplay I try to hole and it is the same with putting. If it is a 2ft putt or a 40-footer I am trying to make it, not just get it close. That’s why I will always chip aggressively in matchplay and very rarely leave it short. When they go in they can be a killer for some players if they weren’t expecting you to make it.”

30. ENJOY THE MOMENT
Standing over a putt to seal the match with all your team-mates watching? Stop trembling with fear and enjoy it. “I’ve handled pressure situations pretty well,” says Thomas Bjorn, victorious in both his Ryder Cup appearances and set to make his third appearance in the event at Gleneagles, but his first since 2002. “They are what it’s all about. You want to be right there when it’s happening.” Channel your inner Bjorn and rattle it home.