Nicklaus: U.S. players need match-play experience

Jack Nicklaus said last week in Morocco that up-and-coming U.S. players need to play more match-play tournaments to learn how to win. (File photo)

Want to breed a winning attitude? Compete more at match play.

That’s the message from the game’s greatest player.

Jack Nicklaus passed on some interesting thoughts in Morocco last week, but his belief that match-play golf breeds winners might have been the most interesting.

Nicklaus is worried that U.S. players go into the professional game without the same hunger many international players have. He feels more match play would help maintain a winning attitude.

“There are probably going to be guys who make this year’s (U.S.) Ryder Cup team who won’t have won a tournament,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t want to name names but it’s easy to make a nice living on the PGA Tour these days and not win a tournament.”

Nicklaus said international players were coming more to the forefront because they learn to win at an early age.

“Look at the international players now playing on the PGA Tour,” he said. “All have learned to win from an early age because they play more match play. When you play match play it teaches you how to win.

“We have guys coming out of college golf who haven’t learned to win because college golf is a team game, and it’s all about the team winning, the team score, not the individual.”

Nicklaus pointed to a scenario where college coaches would deter their players from taking on risky shots because it might harm the team score. “So they lay up at par fives rather than go for them,” Nicklaus said.

“Those things don’t happen in match play because you only have to beat the other guy. So you learn to be more aggressive. We have internationals playing on the PGA Tour who have grown up playing match play and have learned to win at a young age.”

Nicklaus said one of the most positive moves made in recent years was college golf moving to a match-play format for the NCAA Championship. He claimed kudos for that move since he recommended that change a number of years ago. Nicklaus would like to see much more match play in the college game.

Match play is the staple diet here in Europe, whereas stroke play is king in North America. Every British and Irish kid grows up playing match play in club golf and so learns to win early. All that matters in match play is beating the other guy or the other pair.

Rhys Davies gave credence to Nicklaus’ theory when he won the Hassan II Trophy a few days later. The former East Tennessee State player grew up on match-play golf in Wales. Maybe that’s why he enters every event with one aim: to win.

Of course, many American players enter tournaments with that main idea in mind. I remember once asking Paul Azinger at the Open championship if he was in the field to win?

He looked at me as if I was from planet Mars. “Of course I’m here to win,” he said. “I wouldn’t have flown over here if I thought I wasn’t going to win.”

It’s one question I’ve always regretted. I put it down to being young and stupid.

Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Ray Floyd and Tiger Woods fall into the winning-is-the-only-thing-that-matters category, so it’s not as if the Europeans have a monopoly on the winning attitude.

Far from it.

Besides, early U.S. Ryder Cup teams sure had a habit of winning regularly against British and Irish guys force-fed on head-to-head golf.

However, Nicklaus may be on to something. There was a huge talent gap in those early Ryder Cups. There isn’t anymore.

Maybe being reared on match-play golf explains why Europe has had a winning attitude in recent years.

Maybe the U.S. needs to adopt Nicklaus’ match-play philosophy if it wants to remain a powerhouse in world golf.

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