Austin, TX—March is the time for sports fans to focus on men’s collegiate basketball: the unexplainable upsets, the final-second shots, and even turning games from a certain loss to a miraculous victory.
Golf’s version is taking place this week with the World Golf Championships—Dell Match Play event being hosted for the first time in Austin. Most professional golf events follow a predictable pattern: 72 holes of stroke play golf divided with 18 holes per day. The reasoning is quite simple. The format can accommodate television and it provides sufficient exposure for the key stars to be seen—even if they are not in immediate contention.
In golf’s earliest days, the formats were not just relegated to stroke play. Most amateur events and even a number of professional events used match play as the means to determine champions. In simple terms, match play is where one player is pitted against the other. Each hole is an individual “match.” The winner is the person able to win the most holes during the contest. You win, you keep on advancing. You lose, and your time in that event ends.
Match play can be quite unpredictable and it is that unpredictability that has caused it to be pushed aside for the 72-hole events that dominate the golf scene today. Television fears it for obvious reasons—if all the key favorites are upset early on the likelihood of unknown person “A” playing unknown person “B” can mean a ratings nightmare.
The PGA Tour has only recently modified the “pure” match play format in devising a rather clever hybrid. The top 64 players eligible for this week’s event were divided into 14 sub groups consisting of four players. The top 16 world-ranked players were slotted as the “number one” player in their respective grouping. The other players were then added to the respective sub groups—allocating them by their various standings—one player ranked 17th to 32nd, one ranked 33rd to 48th, and one ranked 49th to 64thin the world rankings so that a rough parity between each group is attained.
Each sub group has three individual matches with the players in that unit. The one player who emerges with the best record moves on to a knockout round consisting of 16 total players. Each is then slotted to face another player in one-on-one matches. At that point it becomes straightforward—you win, you advance.
The four-person units is a smart tweaking because in earlier WGC Match Play events it’s not be uncommon for many of the more noted players to be upset in the first round and therefore causing the event’s value to television, sponsors and general golf fans to wane.
Giving players an opportunity to “lose” but still emerge victorious from their respective grouping is a smart accommodation—providing necessary balance in having match play still be used—but cushioning it against a final product that causes more yawns than excitement.
Match play is an exciting format when the two combatants provide for a real back and forth of quality golf. It can also be deadly dull if the two players display hideous golf that becomes a match in which the emerging winner is just fortunate to have encountered someone who played poorer golf than they did.
The difficulty with match play is that the event can mean an extraordinary number of holes must be played from the first day to the conclusion. Although the unit matches have a maximum of 18 holes—with a full point being split between the two—the knockout matches go extra holes should the match be “square” or tied after 18-holes.
With The Masters ready to happen in just a few weeks, the amount of golf played this week can be quite intense from both perspectives. In one way, match play is abut producing shots immediately when called upon by your opponent. Unlike stroke play, where a trailing opponent has the time to regain their standing over 18 holes, in match play when a player makes a fine score on a given hole, the opponent must either match or better the score in order to claim or tie the hole. The flip side with so much golf is that the entire week of matches can be a draining experience.
Critics of match play have rightly said that in 18-holes any of the world’s best players can beat another. That’s quite true—no different than what the NCAA men’s basketball event has shown time and time again. In the 1964, sports agent Mark McCormack created the World Match Play Championship held at Wentworth Club near London. The field was just 8 players—often those who were clients of McCormack and among them included the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. To minimize the role of “luck” each individual match was scheduled for 36-holes. For its time, the event worked well until the major groups such as the PGA Tour opted to include a match play event in its annual schedule starting in 1999.
Beyond the format change which commenced in 2015, the WGC Match Play has been moved to different locations over the years. For a number of times the event was played in the Arizona desert. It was played in San Francisco last year at Harding Park and this year moves to Austin Country Club. The venue is one many of the players have never seen or played prior to this week.
Ideally, it would be a television ratings boost if the top four players in the world—Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson—were to meet in the semi-finals, but just like the collegiate basketball playoffs the number-one-seeds don’t always play to form and get to that position.
Match play is the format used by most golfers when playing various competitions against one another. At the professional level this week brings a high degree of uncertainty because even if one plays to near top form, it’s possible the opponent you’re facing at that moment can still beat you. Luck of the draw is clearly part of the process—and it’s one professionals don’t see given the usual 72-hole formats used.
With Augusta looming, the Austin match-play event could prove most helpful in getting players ready for the pressures routinely found in major championships. March madness will sort itself out in a big time way with basketballs being bounced in all sorts of directions this week—the same will hold true as golf balls can take equally strange and unpredictable bounces when match play is involved. Yes, the fickle nature of what can happen will be on display in both sports this week.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.