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Golf’s ‘March Madness’ requires different game plan

By Adam Schupak

The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is golf's version of March Madness, and it can be as maddening to pick a golf bracket that doesn't quickly go bust as it is in the NCAA basketball tournament. (I rank somewhere in the 7 millions on espn.com.)

So for a little expert analysis on what it will take to survive and advance through golf's ultimate grind this week at Austin (Texas) Country Club, I quizzed two formidable former Match Play champs, Geoff Ogilvy and Ian Poulter, for their insights. 

"Match play," Ogilvy said, "is completely in the head." 

Ogilvy won the event in 2006 when his game was sharp, and reached the final before losing to Henrik Stenson in 2007. Interestingly, when he won his second title in 2009, he described his game as in such disarray that it required a flashing sign reading, "Caution: Under Construction."

"But I was so comfortable with the knowledge it didn't matter what I shot,” he said. “I had my head where it needed to be. I was truly thinking one shot at a time. I think the magic sauce is you have to know you can beat the guy on the first tee. You don't have to think you are going to. You just have to know you can. Any match I ever lost, I was unsure about the match on the first tee. As soon as you place that seed of doubt, it's over."

His philosophy mirrors the thinking of Poulter, who won the event in 2010, and has been a thorn in America's side at the Ryder Cup.

"You just have to be ruthless," he said. "You have to be stubborn. It's a hatred to lose. It's all of that."

When Poulter went the distance, he recalled having a week during which all facets of his game clicked. 

"I drove and putted well and recovered exceptionally well,” he said. “On those occasions when I missed a green, I got up and down. I can't say why I get fired up for match play; I just do. I like it. Actually, I love it."

The winners of the three most recent Match Plays are Jason Day (2016 and ’14) and Rory McIlroy (’15). Tiger Woods has won the most titles since the Match Play’s 1999 debut, with three (2003, ’04, ’08).

Although 18 holes of match play supposedly leads to more upsets than 72 holes of stroke play, which should favor the best player, the winners of the past 15 WGC Match Plays compare favorably with The Players Championship winners during the same span. 

Ogilvy deems the Match Play to be the truest measure of the state of his game. Any time he played well in the event, his form usually carried over for months.

"If you go deep in it, you have more high-pressure shots in one week than you will for two seasons everywhere else," he said. "How many times do you have a 6-foot putt that you absolutely must make? Friday to make the cut and Sunday to win the tournament, sure, but you have that on the first hole and really all week in match play."

As Billy Casper once so eloquently put it, stroke play may be a better test for tournament golf, but match play is a better test of character. This week, we'll find out who hates to lose almost as much as he loves to win.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak