The Indescribably Ineffable Awesomeness of Match Play

Tonalá It’s not just for the Ryder Cup.

Every year since 1948, my club has played a home-and-home match against our Enemy Club, on the other side of town. Across those seven decades, the results are roughly even, although in recent years my club has dominated. During the first round this year, my partner was Rick, who played basketball for the University of Maryland shortly after the Civil War but can still shoot his age:
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I’ve played a lot of matches with Rick, both as a teammate and as an opponent, and one of the many lessons I’ve learned from him is that, although in stroke play a lousy shot is often a prelude to disaster, in match play it can sometimes give you an advantage that a good shot can’t.

During the first round, Rick hit an uncharacteristically lousy drive on our ninth hole, a par 4 that measures only about 260 yards, uphill. Rick is long enough to drive the green, but he started his shot too far to the right, and his ball hit some trees and kicked way back, to a bad lie on a downslope in the rough only 50 yards ahead of the tee—between the bald spot and the clump of brush in the lower right hand corner of the photo below:

His opponent then hit the kind of drive that’s easy to hit when the guy you’re playing is out of the hole: a high draw that ended up just short of the putting surface, in a little collar of rough to the left of the bunker in front of the green, maybe 30 feet from the cup. Some guys in Rick’s situation would have conceded the hole right then, just to get out of there. But Rick knew that his opponent was already mentally penciling in a win, and that if he could somehow hit a good recovery shot he could take emotional control of the hole. He also knew that he had nothing to lose. If your opponent birdies a hole in match play, a quadruple bogey by you doesn’t hurt you any worse than a par. But if you can turn a hopeless situation into a half . . .

Rick cut a fairway wood around the crap directly in front of him, and his ball ended up on the slope to the left of the green, pin-high. The hole that day was cut close to that side of the green, and the putting surface runs away, but he managed to chip it close.

His opponent now had a pitch for eagle, but suddenly his shot didn’t seem so easy. His ball came out of the rough hot, and ended up 25 feet beyond the hole, leaving a curling downhill putt for birdie — which he left well short. Rick then made his putt, and that meant that his opponent was no longer putting to win the hole, but only to tie it. He missed, and from that moment forward Rick was playing a bowl of oatmeal.

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An English Major’s Lament: Halve vs. Half

When two players tie a hole in match play, they halve it, and their tie is called a half—not a halve (no matter what television commentators say). Halve is a verb; half is a noun. And if you don’t believe me and the dictionary, you can consult Rule 2-2 in the Rules of Golf:

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Now, About That Famous Ryder Cup Concession

Tony Jacklin, 2009. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Tony Jacklin, 2009. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

The first official Ryder Cup, between the United States and Great Britain and Ireland, was held in 1927 at the Worcester Country Club, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The United States won, by a lot. Then Britain, then America, then Britain, then America, then America again. The competition was suspended for the duration of the Second World War. It resumed in 1947, and America won five times in a row. Britain won in 1957, and then the Cup returned to the United States and stayed there until 1985, by which time the inclusion of the rest of Europe on the British side, beginning in 1979, had restored both balance and suspense. The only close contest between 1959 and 1985 was in 1969, when the two sides tied for the first time ever.

That tie was secured on the final hole of the final match, when Jack Nicklaus conceded a short par putt to Tony Jacklin, halving the hole, halving the match, and halving the Cup. After picking up Jacklin’s marker, Nicklaus said, “I don’t think you would have missed it, but I wasn’t going to give you the chance, either.” Nicklaus’s gesture has been celebrated ever since as one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in the history of competition.

On the other hand, the Concession could also be viewed as one of the greatest acts of gamesmanship. It overshadowed the long eagle putt that Jacklin had made on the previous hole to square the match, and Nicklaus didn’t concede Jacklin’s par until after he’d made his own, from double the distance. The Concession made the half look less like a British triumph than like an American act of charity, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been treated ever since. Nicklaus also left forever hanging the possibility that the reigning British Open champion might have gagged over his two-and-a-half footer.

And that’s yet another cool thing about match play.

Does Practicing Making Golfers Worse?

Rory McIlroy during the final round of the 2011 Masters, on a day when he spent plenty of time at the driving range before teeing off.

Rory McIlroy during the final round of the 2011 Masters, on a day when he spent plenty of time at the driving range before teeing off.

I haven’t hit a ball on my club’s driving range in two years, and during that time I’ve played the best, most consistent golf I’ve ever played. I’m not sure that’s a coincidence. In fact, I’ve often wondered whether hitting range balls didn’t make me worse. My first few shots on the practice tee would inevitably include my best shot of the day. Then, as I worked my way through my bag, my swing would deteriorate until I was shanking my wedges, fatting my irons, and slapping weak leakers with my woods. And then I’d go play. One day, I decided to skip the warm-up.

I also stopped using the practice green, and almost immediately I became a better putter. One possible explanation: when I tee off now, I’m the only guy in the group who hasn’t missed a putt that day. I’ll watch other guys on the practice green, to get a feel for the speed, but I won’t stand there lipping six-footers.

The explanation is probably just that I’m a bad practicer. In the old days, when my swing would turn sour I would attempt a frantic intervention, by churning through two or three buckets in the hope that at some point quantity would metamorphose into quality. All I was really doing was cranking my tempo into the red zone and filling my head with negative thoughts. I was also rehearsing, and therefore ingraining, whatever problem had sent me to the range.

But even for players who practice well, hitting range balls before teeing off may be overrated—as Rory McIlroy demonstrated on the final day of the Ryder Cup this year, when he nearly missed his tee time for his singles match with Keegan Bradley. He didn’t have time to go to the range before teeing off, yet he birdied four of the first nine holes and beat Bradley two-and-one.

Rory McIlroy at the 2012 Ryder Cup, after not going to the driving range  before teeing off.

Rory McIlroy at the 2012 Ryder Cup, after defeating Keegan Bradley two-and-one in their singles match, on a day when he didn’t go to the driving range before teeing off.