Will Match Play Championship Ever Catch Fire?

(originally published February 24, 2011)

Why is this week different from all other weeks?

The answer, on the PGA Tour at least, is that this is the week for the Accenture Match Play Championship.  The winner is determined by a series of head-to-head matches, six rounds in all, instead of everybody in the field playing their separate rounds and totaling their strokes at the end.

The pros don’t see a lot of match play – generally just this limited-field event, the Ryder and Presidents Cups, and the European Tour’s even more limited Volvo World Match Play Championship in May.  It takes them away from their comfortable routines and introduces an element of randomness into the results.  In one match, a player might be over par but win because his opponent was having a terrible day, while some other player makes half a dozen birdies and loses to someone doing even better.

It may be unfamiliar to the pros, but it’s the form of the game that most of us play in our weekend foursomes, whether individually or in tandem with a partner.

Match play connects the pros to the history of the sport.  Golf was played for hundreds of years before anyone got fussy about writing down all those numbers and doing the math.  Golf holes weren’t given “par” scores (“bogey” scores in the U.K.) until late in the 19th century, and then their purpose was to provide a mythical opponent for an infrequent communal match among all players – whoever beat the phantom opponent (or “bogeyman”) the most times was the winner.

Stroke play was a rarity; the format was used only when competing for a special prize, such as a medal (thus the older term “medal play” for stroke play).

When the course might be rough or rugged or just plain uncertain, why worry about an exact score as though the grounds were as groomed as a billiard table?  It’s just you against me, and whoever gets his ball in the hole first is the winner.  Match play should be quicker, too.  When one person is out of the hole, he concedes, and you both pick up your balls and move on to the next tee.  The pace is brisk and the competition lively.  Since the match is scored hole by hole, one bad hole doesn’t ruin your whole game.

It has its fluky side, but match play is an important part of the game.  The PGA Championship was a match play event for its first 41 years.  This might be why the roster of PGA champions includes names like Tom Creavy, Chandler Harper, Walter Burkemo, and Chick Harbert.  On the other hand, the U.S. Open has always been stroke play, and its list of winners contains Sam Parks, Jr., Tony Manero, Jack Fleck, Steve Jones, and Michael Campbell.

The pros don’t love match-play events, because of the win-or-go-home aspect.  Your whole week can be over in just a few hours.  That should be what makes it exciting for viewers and spectators as well.  But a match-play elimination tournament poses a problem for TV.

In a normal tournament week, if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson enter the event, chances are pretty good they’ll still be playing on the weekend.  NBC is televising the Accenture semifinals and finals on Saturday and Sunday, and they’ve already lost Tiger.  Mickelson has never made it to the finals in the twelve years of the event.  The network can hardly relish the prospect of such final matchups as Jeff Maggert over Andrew Magee (1999), Steve Stricker over Pierre Fulke (2001), Kevin Sutherland over Scott McCarron (2002), Henrik Stenson over Geoff Oglivy (2007), or last year’s all-England final in which Ian Poulter beat Paul Casey.

A match-play event should be the easiest for a long shot to win.  With equivalent fields of 64, to win a stroke-play tournament a golfer has to play better than 63 other competitors; to win a match-play event, he only has to beat six of them, one at a time.

The PGA Tour would love it if we would all get excited about the Match Play Championship.  The Golf Channel promotes it as if it were March Madness, with its own subspecies of bracketology.  There is a 64-man bracket, and this year Golfweek posted a fan challenge on its website, www.golfweek.com, enabling readers to make their picks and compare their results to those of the magazine’s experts.  The site received about 4500 entries, demonstrating that this is very much a niche event as opposed to the millions engaged in office pools about college basketball.

Picking the brackets for a series of 18-hole matches is like picking the NCAAs on the basis of which team will be leading after the first ten minutes.  When the PGA Championship was a match-play event, the format varied, but the last several rounds were all 36-hole matches.  (In the early years, from 1916-34, all matches were 36 holes; until the last two years of match play, the first two rounds were mostly 18 holes but switched to 36 thereafter.)  The genuine talent differences among the top 30 players are very small; any of them can win over 72 holes in any given week, and 18-hole matches make the event an almost total crapshoot.

I wouldn’t want to see a major title decided this way, but it’s different and entertaining, an enjoyable diversion for an occasional week in February.

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