Tait: Art of match play is lost on golfers in U.S.

Ian Poulter has 13 career wins, but is better known for his great play in four Ryder Cup appearances.

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Anyone wanting to know the difference between golf in the United States and British Isles only has to listen to Ian Poulter and Bubba Watson talking about match play. Poulter is quite happy to head out onto the golf course without a scorecard, whereas Watson seemingly can’t do without one.

The scorecard differentiates golf on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. British and Irish golfers hardly ever use it, while U.S. golfers can’t do without it.

Watson clearly doesn’t care for man-to-man golf. He’d rather play Old Man Par.

“I don't like it (match play). I'd rather play stroke play for four days,” Watson told Golf.com before the WGC–Accenture. “You can make an eight on a hole and you're only one down. That's not golf to me. I think it should be everybody gets up there and tries to shoot a score.”

Compare that to how Poulter talks about the oldest form of golf. “I love it, just absolutely love it,’ he said. “I like that it’s just me against the other guy rather than the rest of the field. There’s a different psychology to match play than stroke play, one that suits me. Give me match play any time over stroke play. We don’t play enough in professional golf.”

It comes down to a case of nurture over nature. Poulter and other British Isles players are weaned on match play. It’s the form of golf most club golfers play. Get four players at any golf club and they will normally play four-ball better ball. The balls get tossed up on the first tee, handicap strokes are calculated and off they go. Two players, meanwhile, will play a match against each other.

Club golfers in the United States are almost forced to play stroke play because of the USGA handicapping system which dictates that a score has to be returned every round for handicapping purposes. Golfers in the British Isles don’t have to turn in a score every round to maintain their handicaps.

The result is that golf is normally quicker in the British Isles than it is in the United States. Once the hole is won, the four-ball or two-ball moves on. Whereas in the United States players think they have to hole everything out for handicapping purposes.

British and Irish elite players who go on to play in the professional game also grow up playing match play in many of the big amateur tournaments – the British Boys, the British Amateur, and match play decides all team matches in the British Isles. So players like Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Justin Rose and the others grew up playing match-play golf for their countries at junior and senior level.

Compare that to the United States where most of the American Junior Golf Association tournaments are stroke-play events. College golf consists almost purely of stroke play, although the NCAA Championship now has a match-play format.

More match play is needed in professional golf. Maybe if there was more in American amateur golf there would be more in the pro game. After all, the PGA Tour is the biggest tour in the world and sets the trend other tours follow.

Maybe then future Bubba Watsons would grow up more like Poulter, appreciating the fine art of match play.

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