Industry News

Round robin doesn’t fly, so here’s a Match Play fix

By Gary Van Sickle

All you can ask of a tournament is a great finish or a great champion. If you get that, well, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

So, it’s hard to argue with a Dell Match Play Championship that gave us Jason Day regaining his world No. 1-ranking by beating Louis Oosthuizen in last year’s final, after Day first won a titanic semifinal clash against Rory McIlroy with a big putt on the final hole at the Pete Dye-funky Austin (Texas) Country Club.

That’s the kind of marquee showdown that this World Golf Championships event, which returns to Austin beginning today, has promised but often failed to deliver over the years. In fact, Day’s 5-and-4 final victory against Oosthuizen felt a little anticlimactic after the Day-McIlroy undercard.

Still, match play is the most entertaining form of golf. The Ryder, Solheim, Walker and Presidents cups prove it. Every hole has an outcome – win, lose or draw – and is a tournament in itself. But the Match Play was better when it had the same win-or-go-home urgency that we enjoy in the NCAA basketball tourney when it, too, was single-elimination for a 64-man field.

Players didn’t like going home Wednesday, fans hated to see half the field depart after one day and sponsors really despised seeing top drawing cards such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson get knocked out in the early going.

Now we have 16 four-man groupings, with three days of round-robin match play. The 16 group winners advance to weekend match play. This format leads to:

  1. too many dead-head matches Friday between players who can’t possibly advance;
  2. too many matches, period: 32 each day;
  3. a congested course that meant Chris Kirk and Branden Grace waited nearly three hours last year for their group playoff;
  4. two sessions each day on the weekend is eight hours-plus of golf, overload for all but the most ardent viewer;
  5. quirks such as nine players with 2-1 records being eliminated while two players who won only one match advancing.

Here are three plans to fix what used to be my favorite PGA Tour event:
Monday, Monday. Go back to straight-up match play, win or go home, for the 64. Instead of drawing names from pre-selected groups, the top-ranked players pick their spots in the field and select their opponents. So, No. 1 Dustin Johnson goes first, writes his name wherever he wants on the bracket and names his opponent. He’d probably pick the lowest-ranked player in the field, right? But what if he decides to make a statement and says, “I want a piece of Rory” and selects Rory McIlroy? Ooh, this match just got personal before the first ball is struck. Imagine this a decade sooner and Woods, then No. 1, choosing Mickelson as his opening opponent? That’s box office. This draft show might get the highest TV ratings of the year. Would the oh-so-conservative PGA Tour ever go for this? Nah. But this idea is too cool to keep to myself.

The doubleheader. Keep the straight-up match play with the field of 64. Losers still go home Wednesday, but that blow is softened by holding the Dell the week after the WGC Mexico Championship (formerly at Doral) following the West Coast Swing’s conclusion. It’s a convenient connection from Mexico City to Austin, and being back-to-back makes going home Wednesday easier to swallow for the 32 first-round losers, who now have time to refresh and prepare for the next week’s Florida Swing opener. Two straight WGCs should be can’t-miss stuff, and players won’t skip the Dell, as Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, Justin Rose and others are doing this week.

Mix-and-match. Numerous players have suggested two rounds of stroke play, with the low 16 advancing to match play. Fans see all of the top players for at least two rounds, and then the match-play fun resumes. Though I prefer match play, I like this version over the confusing round-robin format.

While a big-name winner would validate the event, my proposals would make it more watchable for all of us.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle