News & Opinion

Match play? It’s not real golf

Hideki Matsuyama at 2019 WGC Dell Match Play
Hideki Matsuyama and the PGA Tour's WGC Match Play return this week to Austin Country Club, under the shadow of Pennybacker Bridge along the shores of Lake Austin and the Colorado River in Texas’ capital.

This week’s WGC Match Play, which is not to be confused with Ryder Cup, falls far short of its ‘March Madness’ hoops counterpart

As diversions go, this week’s WGC Match Play gathering should serve as a pleasant interlude to the PGA Tour’s endless succession of stroke-play events. The LPGA has added a tournament of nearly identical structure to its 2021 calendar, to be held at Shadow Creek in late May. There are worse places than Las Vegas to stage a product with a certain appeal to the gaming industry.

Of course, match play’s strongest identity can be found at the game’s recreational level, where it remains the format of choice for a vast majority of those who maintain a handicap. Some groom that number with a bit of customized math, which is one reason why many clubs and state associations use stroke play to determine qualifiers for significant events. If you want to find out who the best players are, you count ’em all and make everybody hole out 18 times.

This scares the bejabbers out of some guys. It’s not all that uncommon for a 5 handicap to shoot in the 90s at a local amateur event, if he doesn’t quit first. Golf is a really fun game until you start keeping score. When every strike of the ball has a direct effect on your performance, when every stroke comes with equal value, that good walk spoiled can lead to high hopes foiled.

Match play is far less taxing. You can leave all the heavy lifting to your four-ball partner on a rough Saturday morning. You could play the entire round without actually making a putt and still win. Drive it out of bounds? Congratulations, you’ve just earned a 15-minute vacation. To say it’s not “real golf” is a bit of a reach, but seriously, it’s not real golf. It can be extremely tactical in nature and a lot of fun, but it’s a different animal than when you’re left alone to govern your ball for four hours on a 6,800-yard bed of pins and needles.

It’s like playing gin rummy at a high-stakes poker table, and at the game’s highest level, it really doesn’t work in terms of identifying the best golfer that week. Tiger Woods, a man somewhat familiar with the vagaries of match play, used to say, “You can shoot 73 one day and win, shoot 65 the next and lose.” Skill and course management are essential, but the luck of the draw assumes a much greater role when you’re facing one opponent instead of 143.

The PGA of America did itself a huge favor when it acceded to the demands of the television networks and switched the PGA Championship from match to stroke play back in 1958. While there’s certainly room on the schedule for a week of head-to-head competition, a major championship should adhere to the ultimate standard as a test of the world’s best. Stroke play is the most difficult format, which only justifies the immense rewards distributed to today’s tour pros.

It is further validated by the WGC Match Play history. In its 22-year existence, the tournament hasn’t produced anything resembling an Ali-Frazier super bout in the final. Only once has a pair of top-5 seeds squared off on a Sunday. That occurred in 2004, when Woods beat Davis Love III in a 1-vs.-3 duel that Eldrick won easily. Just three numero unos have made it to the finals since, and though all three went on to win the title, the highest seed among their three opponents was Jon Rahm (21st, vs. Dustin Johnson in 2017).

The two most recent editions of this affair featured a 48 beating a 23 and a 35 knocking off a 32. It’s almost like a raffle when it comes to the randomness of the players who advance deep into the weekend, which wouldn’t be so bad if the title tilt were somewhat riveting. You want drama? Try an Al Pacino flick. Just one of the past five championship matches has even made it to the 16th green, an extension to a trend from the tournament’s formative years, when there were three blowouts for every nail-biter.

This thing was supposed to become golf’s answer to college basketball’s “March Madness,” but 64 guys have been showing up for two decades and nobody ever brings any fireworks. That’s not the Tour’s fault. Camp Ponte Vedra has tried three locations and all kinds of changes to the competitive infrastructure. Still, it remains the weirdest of events, almost devoid of memorable moments and historical resonance.

Perhaps match play just ain’t for multimillionaires. The Ryder Cup, which doesn’t pay a dime to the participants, continues to captivate the game’s audience like no other golf gathering on earth. Anticipation. Electricity. Unparalleled passion. It doesn’t seem to matter that Uncle Sam gets battered harder than a piñata at a frat party. In a sense, Europe’s dominance has become a luscious storyline. When David shows up to meet Goliath, he brings a sawed-off shotgun, not some outdated slingshot.

The difference is very simple. When you assemble a pair of 12-man teams battling for joy, pride and a flag, the match-play format ignites a powder keg of possibility. And when you play for everyone but yourself, wonderful things happen. Guys from other countries turn into marauders. Grown men rejoice like little leaguers. Delirium rules, and golf fans can’t help but notice.

Too bad that won’t be the case this week. Anyone interested in buying some fireworks?

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