News & Opinion

Tour stuffs Match Play’s March madness

Now that the PGA Tour has abandoned longtime tournament host Firestone to play its summertime WGC in Memphis, the World Golf Championships as they were conceived have undergone a complete facelift. As was the case with Mickey Rourke or Maria Shriver, not all of that cosmetic surgery has turned out as planned.

Some slips of the scalpel were the Tour’s fault. Others might best be described as unavoidable. The autumn gathering in China, for instance, has failed to attract premium fields since it became an official member of the WGC franchise in 2013. What began 20 years ago as the American Express Championship has undergone several transformations, bouncing between Europe and the United States until 2006, then settling at Doral before fleeing to Mexico in 2017 amid all the controversy surrounding resort owner Donald Trump.

Talk about golden parachutes. Not only did the Tour find a willing
financial partner in Grupo Salinas, a Mexican conglomerate, but it finally balanced the WGC platform with two U.S. events and two international tournaments. Camp Ponte Vedra always will have dollar signs in its eyes, but it also has a nose for global growth, making Mexico an ideal fit.

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Regardless of how far Tiger Woods advances this week in the WGC Match Play, something will be missing: the finality of a first-day loss. A defeat on Wednesday doesn't mean a ticket home.

All of which brings us to this week’s Dell Technologies Match Play (tee times), the WGC with the strongest identity and home of the Tour’s most unforgivable compromise. The switch to a round-robin format in 2015 has been an undeniable bust, one of those instances when the dollar signs strangled the insatiable appeal of competitive suspense. By breaking the field of 64 players into 16 groups of four and guaranteeing every contestant a minimum of three matches, the Tour blindly accommodated all parties attached to the event at the expense of the person who should matter most.

You. The golf fan. The one watching on TV.

For 15 years, Match Play Wednesday offered some of the most exciting, chaotic, unpredictable action a viewer could want. It wasn’t just that the lower seeds won 40 percent of all first-round matches under the previous structure, but that the single-elimination, lose-and-cruise mandate sent many of the game’s biggest names packing on a regular basis.

Rhyme or reason? Don’t even bother. In 2002, Tiger Woods was beaten in his opening match by Peter O’Malley, who wouldn’t have made the field if Thomas Bjorn hadn’t withdrawn because of a sore shoulder. Nick O’Hern dispatched of Woods twice before the weekend, first in 2005, then on the second extra hole of their third-round tilt in 2007. By that point, there had been so many “upsets” over the years that it seemed silly to call them upsets anymore.

How about that Jeff Maggert-Andrew Magee overtime finale at the Match Play’s 1999 debut, when the four semifinalists came in ranked 24th, 26th, 50th and 61st? Or when 62nd seed Kevin Sutherland edged No. 45 Scott McCarron for the title in ’02? In a Tigercentric universe even more oppressive two decades ago than it is now, the element of surprise was a refreshing diversion.

Unscripted, logic-defying drama seemed to have found a permanent home … and then Camp Ponte Vedra killed it. Colin Montgomerie led a brigade of foreign players who weren’t keen on traveling 6,000 miles to play 15 or 16 holes, then having to decide whether to fly home or sit around for a week. Because the major networks (ABC, then NBC) didn’t take over the telecast until the weekend, they were left with their own version of a high-risk, limited-reward scenario.

Unless Woods advanced into the latter rounds or a flock of star power was still around on Saturday, the Match Play was a tough sell in the ratings department. And when Accenture bailed on its title sponsorship in 2014, the Tour finally buckled. In the interests of revenue and what some neckties must have considered to be greater commercial appeal, wild and wacky Wednesday was wiped out for what is basically a 54-hole qualifier.

It was a lousy decision, but also a reflection of the world in which we live. Money talks, and if players squawk and corporate support walks, the Tour balks.

The inaugural premise among many optimists was that the Match Play would become pro golf’s version of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Even casual fans would fill out a bracket and follow the action via that fledgling tool called the Internet or Golf Channel, but when Eastern Michigan wound up facing Old Dominion in two of the first four finals, the air began seeping out of the balloon.

Seventeen years later, we’re still waiting for that Duke-Kentucky dream matchup. The closest the Match Play has come to producing a duel of two superstars on a Sunday afternoon occurred in 2004, when No. 1 seeds Davis Love III and Woods met in what proved to be an anticlimactic finish to the week. Ernie Els and Jim Furyk sat out the event that year, leaving Love with one of the top spots, and Woods beat him, 3 and 2.

The final was a 36-hole affair in those days, but we’ve seen numerous blowouts, even after it was reduced to 18 holes in 2011. Bubba Watson’s 7-and-6 thrashing of Kevin Kisner last year was the Tour’s lowest-rated Sunday telecast to that point in 2018, in part because Woods didn’t qualify for the event and in part because it competed for viewers against NCAA hoops.

And in part because it simply wasn’t very interesting. The Match Play was an event built almost exclusively for the hardcore golf fan. It would have been nice if the neckties had left it that way.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com