Match-Play Pressure a Double-Edged Sword July 24, 2014 By Stuart Hall

Every win in match play is a cause for relief, as 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up Davis Riley, of Hattiesburg, Miss., can attest. (USGA/Jonathan Ernst)

THE WOODLANDS, Texas – The U.S. Junior Amateur Championship match-play bracket showed that Andreas Halvorsen was playing Joshua Sedeno in Thursday morning’s round of 32.

Through 13 holes, Halvorsen, of Norway, was 1 down, having never led at any point in the match. To continue his run in this championship’s 67th edition, Halvorsen was going to need a comeback against Sedeno, but also against his own frustration.

My body language was down, and if I really wanted to win this match I am going to have to change that, Halvorsen said. When it’s really hot and you’re trailing, you try and stay calm, but it’s also easy to get really frustrated, especially in match play. You need to try and not spend any more energy than you have to.

Halvorsen squared his match on the 14th hole and won two of the final three for a 2-up win on a day in which two rounds were played in stifling and sticky 90-plus-degree temperatures at The Club at Carlton Woods’ Nicklaus Course.

In the afternoon, Halvorsen gave himself something of a breather, taking the lead on the second hole and never relinquishing it en route to a 4-and-3 victory over Davis Shore to reach the quarterfinals.

The [afternoon] round was much easier, Halvorsen joked.

That is part of the beauty of match play. Pressure and frustration are not as great for those holding leads, and three-foot putts to halve holes do not create the same anxiety as they do for player who is trailing.

A lot of the time, I’m trying to make pars and my opponent then has to make the birdies, which is difficult around [this course], said Zach Murray, of Australia, who lost, 1 down, to Sam Horsfield in Thursday’s round of 16. If you’re making pars, then it puts so much pressure on the player and it starts to get to them and they start hitting wayward tee shots.

Of Friday’s eight quarterfinalists, Horsfield and Will Grimmer have led the highest percentage of their match-play holes played (70.8), while Halvorsen and 2013 U.S. Junior runner-up Davis Riley have led the fewest (59.6) – essentially a six-hole difference over the course of three rounds. Riley and Halvorsen have also trailed the highest number of holes through three rounds – 13 and 12, respectively.

Curtis Luck, of Australia, has trailed on only two of the 48 holes he played to reach the quarterfinals, partly because he takes a unique mental approach.

I always play like I am one hole behind, Luck said. I never play too safe. I don’t start a round like that and I don’t think where the [match stands] should affect how I play. Maybe if I was 3 down with three to play I’d be thinking, ‘Ok, let’s get on it,’ but my game plan does not change throughout the day.

Sahith Theegala reached the round of 16 thanks to his accuracy off the tee, which brought an added advantage.

I think that’s been putting a little pressure on the other guys because they’re seeing me hit it 280 and in the middle of the fairway. It’s a nice feeling, said Theegala, who eventually lost to top-seeded Sean Crocker in 20 holes. 

The shorter hitter, though, has his own advantage, such as was the case in Tony Gil’s 2-up victory over Easton Paxton in Wednesday’s round of 64.

On the par-5 18th, which has water that runs along the left and protects the green, Paxton hit the longer of the two tee shots and was faced with a 264-yard second shot. Gil, holding a 1-up lead, laid up along the right to force Easton’s hand.

I guess he had no other option really, said Gil of Paxton, who hit a cut shot over the water in an attempt to reach the green and increase the pressure on Gil, but came up short. Paxton lost the hole and the match.

Through Anton Serafini’s first 39 holes that stretched into his round-of-16 match against Grimmer, he never trailed at any point. Part of the reason was an emphasis on winning the first hole. 

On the first hole, try and win it because then you have the momentum, then you just keep trying to win holes, because match play is all about momentum, said Serafini, who ultimately lost to Grimmer, 2 down.

Grimmer agreed.

It’s more stress-free knowing you’re in the lead, he said. When you’re down, you start pressing more and then you start grinding over those 4- and 5-footers. They seem longer.

It’s such a long week and there’s so much golf that if you can get ahead in those early matches it does help if you’re down later in the rounds, you have already breezed through some of the early ones, so you have that confidence.

And shortening the week can be of benefit when the finalists could conceivably play the equivalent of nine rounds in six days. Through Thursday’s three rounds of match play, Crocker had played 54 holes, while Riley, Halvorsen and William Zalatoris had played seven fewer.

You want to stay as fresh as possible, Luck said. Maybe that is why I’m feeling fresh, because I really have not had to deal with playing from behind.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.