News & Opinion

To restore Match Play magic, start with 16

It remains the quintessential way that most of us play golf: The match.

I play you – or my partner and I play you and your partner – for a $2 Nassau (or more), drinks or just to brag. The greatest things about match play are that each hole is a match in miniature, and you can make up a disaster hole by winning the next one.

The way we watch match play when the best players in the world compete has mostly to do with the prestige of the event. The Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup and, to a lesser degree, Presidents Cup have captured golf’s collective imagination for years. Some of us will sit still for the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Women’s Amateur, Walker Cup and Curtis Cup, although we might not know the contestants.

However, the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play begins this week in Austin, Texas, and golf fans don’t seem to fully embrace this one. Quick quiz: Who won last year’s Match Play, and whom did he beat in the final? (Yes, I had to look it up, too. Bubba Watson drummed Kevin Kisner, 7 and 6.)

But you don’t fail to remember who won the Ryder Cup. How can you forget Patrick Reed vs. Rory McIlroy or Ian Poulter at Medinah? They’re lasting memories because they were performances for the ages.

Dustin Johnson won the WGC Dell Match Play in 2017, beating Jon Rahm, 1 up, when Johnson was No. 1 in the world. But would it have been a more exciting match if the two had met in the Ryder Cup singles? If the answer is yes, then we need to look at why.

The WGC Match Play starts with 64 players – the top 64 in the Official World Golf Ranking. If a player withdraws, he is replaced by No. 65, and so it goes. From the event’s debut in 1999 until 2015, No. 1 played No. 64, etc., in a single-elimination bracket.

The first round of the Match Play was really the most exciting day of the event as we watched upset after upset. Tiger Woods was eliminated before weekend play by Nick O’Hern – twice. It was golf’s version of March Madness.

But after that, we experienced the upset hangover. All those top players who went out on the first day wrecked the bracket for the rest of the week. That’s not to say that the Match Play has had Humpty Dumpty winners every year. Woods has won it three times. Jason Day has won twice, as has Geoff Ogilvy. Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar and Luke Donald are past champions.

But all of the winners had easier routes to the championship than they might have because so many of the best players had been eliminated. So, in order to keep the higher-ranked players around longer than the first day, pool play was instituted in 2015. Beginning Wednesday, players will compete in four-player pools in round robin for the first three days. The 16 winners emerge from pool play and then play single-elimination from there to the final.

In single elimination, players had to win six matches to take the title, but the final was scheduled for 36 holes. In pool play, the eventual champion must win seven matches, but the final will be 18 holes. Still, it happens in a five-day period. Even with the physical conditioning of today’s athletes, that’s a lot of golf.

The players who reach the final have to be mentally fried, which could be a reason the final matches aren’t as compelling as they might be.

The Volvo World Match Play, which had a number of sponsors over the years, was contested in Europe from 1964 to 2014. In its heyday – in the 1980s-90s – the game’s highest-ranked players were invited. During that time, it was a 16-player field. From 1979 to 1998, each edition was won by a player who already was a major champion, or soon would be one. Ernie Els won it seven times; Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros each had five titles; Greg Norman and Ian Woosnam each won it three times.

The creation of the WGC Match Play in 1999 on the PGA Tour signaled the coming end of the World Match Play. But if the WGC Match Play wants to aspire to the success and visibility of the European event, perhaps it should consider reducing the field to the top 16 in the OWGR. Every match would be watched by even the most casual golf fans, and the players wouldn’t be burned out by the time they reach Sunday’s final.

There’s no magic in a 64-player bracket. Of course, anything can happen – and does – in 18 holes of match play, and anyone in the field can beat anyone else. Ask O’Hern. But if you want people to watch and the matches to be as dramatic as they can be, let’s cut to the chase by cutting the field down to 16.

We might even remember who wins.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf