Question: How is match-play golf strategy different from stroke play?
Answer: In match play you have to count; in stroke play, you have to add. The difference can turn a companion who plays the course into a guy who plays H-o-r-s-e, daring you to bank it off the saguaro into the cup.
Stroke-play scores are cumulative over 18 holes and all rounds, posted against everybody in the tournament. Match-play scores are win/lose per individual hole against only the person with whom you’re paired. There is no margin of victory on any one hole; there’s only victory. If you win the first hole, you are 1-up, regardless of how many strokes you took. If after 15 holes, you have won four more holes than your opponent, the match is over, 4 and 3, meaning you are four holes up with only three to play, a deficit your opponent can’t overcome.
You must bring both your game and gamesmanship to match play. Let’s say you both reach the green in two. Your opponent, a superior putter, is pin high, four feet away from the cup. You’re 25 feet away and the green drops off just beyond the hole. In stroke play, you would putt conservatively in the hope of making no worse than par. In match play, because your opponent is likely to make his birdie, you must also birdie to “halve,” or tie, him. You go for it. If the ball rolls well past, aggression costs you only one hole, not who-knows-how-many strokes.
Where stroke play is big picture, match play celebrates the moment. Where stroke play keeps many players competitive, match play winnows. And because the sponsors who enable PGA Tour golf believe more is more, match play is less: the Accenture Match Play Championship is the only PGA Tour event that demands you count, because TV broadcasters can do the math.
-- Ellen Alperstein