Complete Guide to Gamesmanship in Golf

By Savannah Richardson

frustrated golfer about to snap club

When it comes to gamesmanship, there are two types of golfers: those who look down on it; and those who prey on the ones who look down on it. If it’s part of your game, you likely have your own tactics that you use on the golf course. Otherwise, you’ve probably been the victim of a few of those tactics.

What exactly is gamesmanship, and how can you identify it on the golf course? We’ll investigate some of the tactics players use and how gamesmanship is viewed in golf. In your next match, you’ll be ready to defend yourself against these tactics, and maybe even employ a couple to get an advantage.

What is Gamesmanship?

Gamesmanship is the art of gaining an advantage by using various psychological ploys and tactics.

In golf, players use gamesmanship any time, but these tactics tend to surface even more during the club championship and match-play events, when players will do whatever it takes to win without breaking the rules.

With golf being the honorable game that it is, some view gamesmanship as disrespectful to its integrity.

How to Identify Gamesmanship

Everyone has used gamesmanship at some point in their life, whether it's on the golf course or somewhere else. Tiger Woods was well-known to play mind games at times to intimidate his opponents, and he proved on a global stage just how impactful it could be. Before Tiger, Seve Ballesteros was famous for his gamesmanship tactics.

To identify when someone is trying to psych you out, there are some things to look out for. Is your opponent constantly coughing, or standing too close for comfort while you’re swinging? Are they asking prying questions about your equipment or technique? They could be trying to get into your head.

The list of identifiers goes on, but in short, this person finds ways to live in your head rent-free. This person will do whatever it takes to win without technically breaking the rules, and they’ll push the boundaries as far as they can.

10 Common Gamesmanship Tactics in Golf

There are countless methods devious golfers employ to gain a psychological advantage over their opponents. Here are 10 of the most common that you should know about before your next big match.

Conceding Short Putts

One of the most well-known gamesmanship tactics is refusing to concede short putts. A creative way many players approach this tactic is to concede those two-footers all day until it really matters, then make their opponent putt it out at the end. After not putting a short one all day, the pressure of a match-changing two-footer could just be the difference between a make and a miss.

While it won’t work on everyone, it could work at the right moment.

Crowd the Tee Box

One tactic Tiger has used is to crowd his opponents on the tee box. Rather than giving ample room to a player teeing off, he may toe the line of personal space. This tactic may fluster an opponent and distract them from the shot at hand.

Calling One Club and Grabbing Another

This tactic is used on the tee box of a par-3 or when opponents have a similar yardage into a green. Simply mis-identifying your club selection -- muttering to yourself that it’s a five-iron when you actually hit a four-iron -- can cause some confusion. If your opponent decides to hit the same club as you they could either hit it short or fly the green, and leave them wondering why the club didn’t go the right distance.

High Standards

This tactic may seem silly, but if you reach a par-5 in two, and say “Dang, I caught it on the toe,” or you hit one flush to two-feet and you complain about how you play, this can get into your opponents head.

Film Your Opponent’s Swing

Unless you’re playing against a PGA Tour professional, all golfers have insecurities about their swing. Filming your opponent while they tee off or hit from the fairway, then showing them, can cause them to question every minor detail they saw in the video. They could either fix their swing and play lights out, or overthink every shot, giving you the advantage.

Know the Most Random Rules of Golf

You never know when the Rules of Golf can play to your advantage, or to your opponent’s disadvantage. Most know the honor system for determining order of play.

However in match play, if a player plays out of turn, their opponent has the option to cancel their shot, forcing them to re-hit. You can literally make your opponent hit a shot over again, and that alone can cause a player to get frustrated.

Judgemental Golfer

While this tactic is cringe-worthy, there are people out there who aren’t afraid to use it. They vocally judge every single thing about their opponent. Whether it’s the kind of clubs they use, what their swing looks like, how fast or slow they play, or what they're wearing, these players will use every judgemental statement in the book to get into their opponent’s head.

A good player won’t allow this tactic to work, but not everyone is as mentally sound as they should be on the course.

Unsolicited Help

This player will continuously brag to their opponent about is helping his game. If he sees someone struggling with putting, he’ll mention that a certain unconventional grip worked wonders for him. These statements can subconsciously seep into their opponents head and serve as a distraction the next time they’re standing over a three-footer.

Oblivious Golfer

Instead of speeding through you pre-round checklist and arriving to the first tee early, take your sweet time and make your playing partners wait on you. If you act like you’ve got all the time in the world, you just may be in your opponent’s head before the first shot is even struck.

Point out the Obvious

Telling your opponents that there is a massive fairway bunker down the left side of the fairway, the out-of-bounds is right on this hole or commenting how they’ve got quite the downhill shot can immediately get in a player’s head. This tactic could even increase their chances of hitting it OB or into that bunker, demolishing the confidence they built after making those last two birdies.

Fair Game or Not?

There are quite a few traditionalists in the golf world who believe using gamesmanship isn’t okay. However, there is a fine line between having terrible golf etiquette and just being a strategic player.

Some don’t like it, others use it from time to time and some play mind games for 18 straight holes. There is a delicate balance between being strategic and obnoxious, but as long as golf is played, these gamesmanship tactics, and others, will be used.

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About the Author

Savannah Richardson is a staff writer for GolfLink. She’s a daily golfer and has worked for two years covering amateur and professional golf events with Amateurgolf.com and The Brunswick News. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia.