News & Opinion

Match Play lacks drama of one-and-done

Golf can be inherently boring to watch until Sunday afternoon, when the week’s top players are in contention to win.

That’s when the game can be stimulating, even exhilarating.

What if the professional tours could re-create that type of enthusiasm all of the time? Wouldn’t you, as a fan, boost your interest?

70b512b1-82b5-4301-a96f-e424ea678fb8_399x600.jpg
© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Dustin Johnson exits the WGC Match Play early, but not early enough after a first-day loss.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Dustin Johnson exits the WGC Match Play early, but not early enough after a first-day loss.

That spirit defines match play. No matter who might be favored, the chance looms for an upset. That’s the best part of the game. Fans can root for underdogs as they progress.  

It’s similar to what has happened during the past two weeks in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, with Loyola’s surprising advance to the Final Four, and to a lesser extent, Maryland-Baltimore County’s unprecedented first-round victory as a No. 16-seeded team.

When then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem announced the format change to the WGC Match Play in July 2014, he emphasized that the round-robin pool play would provide more good golf for fans and that the best players would emerge via more matches.

“We think it's a new direction for the Match Play, for sure,” said Finchem, who retired at the end of 2016, “but one that's going to create a lot more enthusiasm and excitement.”

It hasn’t quite turned out that way.

If you were a fan of Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Adam Scott or Henrik Stenson, your player didn’t make the trip last week to Austin (Texas) Country Club for the fourth year of the revised format.

For Stenson and Scott, the reason was simple. It’s not match play – at least not the kind of win-or-go-home match play with which they grew up in the game, they said. With 16 four-man pools, a golfer can lose early and still advance to the Round of 16, when the single-elimination begins.

Canadian Graham DeLaet, who was not part of the 64-man field, tweeted his disapproval of the pool-play format on Friday.

Played Match Play in Tucson in 2014. Early group on Wednesday, lost. Threw clubs in my car and was on my couch in Scottsdale by 2:00 pm. Collect 30K and spend the weekend at home. That’s a good format. This one sucks.”

DeLaet is correct. The revised format eliminates much of the early drama.

Consider Dustin Johnson. He won the event in 2017, but last week was different. He went 0-3, losing to Bernd Wiesberger, Adam Hadwin and Kevin Kisner. By the time Johnson played Kisner in the third match, Johnson could not advance, and his interest level was nonexistent.

How that reality could “create a lot more enthusiasm and excitement,” as Finchem predicted, is beyond me.

As DeLaet experienced in 2008, Johnson should have been on his couch at his home in Florida late Wednesday after his 3-and-1 loss to Wiesberger. Instead, he wandered the Pete Dye-designed course wondering why he still was in Texas.

Here’s a tip to golf’s leaders: Watching the top-ranked player in the world unravel over three days is not good TV.

Griping was heard in Austin by golfers having to play meaningless matches. Of course, there also is some fairly uneventful golf on Sundays of Tour stroke-play events, too, as golfers far off the lead tee it up early, hours before the leaders contend for the trophy. However, match play is a different game. Meaningless golf has no place in the format. The matches should matter.

The PGA Tour was willing to admit its mistake when it restored the Players Championship to March, beginning next year, after having moved it to May in 2007.

With such precedent, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the Tour to admit a mistake and restore the traditional match-play format.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli