Game, Set, Match Play

It’s a strange beast, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

In the run-up to the event, it’s difficult to visit a website, scan a tweet or crack a newspaper without happening upon a sentence or two extolling the many virtues of the tournament’s opening round.

And with good reason. As a fan-friendly, 32-match free-for-all, it can be relied upon to serve excitement and drama by the bucketful. There’s always a grudge match in progress, tragedy in the offing or plucky young underdog boring a hole through the iron-clad reputation of some major champion.

For golf addicts used to subsisting on the meagre rations of 72-hole stroke play, where the first 63 all too often serve as a sort of muted preamble to a tense – not exciting; tense – final sprint to the clubhouse, Day 1 is worth getting giddy about. It’s the lone, neon-signed pit-stop on the arduous road to Augusta National; the conjugal visit that breaks the back of a four-month prison sentence.

What gets diplomatically lost in this groundswell of enthusiasm and bracket-building, of course, is that the rest of the week is usually a massive let-down. No, scratch that – it’s properly boring; really, really boring.

In an ideal world, a match-play tournament would get progressively more exciting as the week wore on. With the guiding hand of Destiny working its magic, stories would begin to take shape, competition intensify and, building with each mislaid iron or conceded hole, a note of genuine peril would begin to plonk away in the background. In this parallel universe, the final would take on a mythic dimension, steering close to the sepia-tinted glory of the former World Match Play.

Needless to say, we don’t live in an ideal world. We inhabit a space where drama can’t really be planned for, chance will always have its say and Nickelback has sold 50 million albums. It’s in the habit of frustrating our attempts to nudge and wish it into pleasing shapes. We dream of McIlroy versus Woods; more often than not, we get Kuchar versus Mahan. Go figure.

In fact I will, because I think some elementary mathematics can help shed light on the source of the Match Play’s annual drama deficit. Take a deep breath, grab the nearest pen and paper: you might want to jot down some observations and formulae while I blow your mind.

Of the Match Play’s 64 competitors, how many can be considered marquee draws, individuals whose brighter moments send the heart-rate soaring and in whose name you’d reorganise an afternoon?

My guess is that even the most ardent fanboy would struggle to name 10. And within that subset, three – Woods, Mickelson (usually absent anyhow) and McIlroy – tower above all others. A stadium finish worth bequeathing to posterity would, you’d think, require the participation of at least one member of this trio or some combination of the remaining seven or eight names.

It doesn’t take a genius of Hawking-esque proportions to note that, by this metric at least, the odds of reaching a positive outcome are not in our favour. And that’s without even parsing the statistical implications of each successive round and tying them up into a miniscule percentage possibility.

Yes, certain other factors can be relied upon to tip the scales in our favour. The most exciting players also tend to be the best ones, for example. Not only that, but the seeding system ensures stronger players enjoy comparatively easy passage to the tournament’s latter stages.

It all sounds quite promising, until you realise the countervailing forces are that bit stronger and more numerous. Dove Mountain isn’t exactly the most demanding venues; in fact, they actively work to devalue consistency and ingenuity, the very currencies in which the world’s better players trade.

What’s more – and this is where things take a turn for the paradoxical – the Match Play’s greatest strength can also be considered its biggest weakness. As the only individual match play event of the year, it doesn’t fit easily into the PGA Tour hierarchy. Its status is reliably uncertain, its notional prestige undermined by the fact of its lottery format and early-season berth. So steep and uncertain is the path to victory, you sense, that elite competitors never really play in earnest; a couple of notable exceptions aside, they’re never quite willing to risk the self-esteem and personal capital demanded of a full-blooded effort.

What’s a win at Dove Mountain worth to Messrs. Woods and McIlroy? A lot less, you’d suspect, than one at Doral a couple of weeks later. As a result, proceedings in Marana tend to feel inconsequential; defeats are shrugged off quicker than you can say “guaranteed paycheck,” and victories celebrated with a tacit acceptance that Chance played the decisive hand. If the players themselves don’t quite believe in the format, it’s next to impossible for fans to pull an Indiana Jones and step out over the abyss.

Time and again, the Match Play’s ambition proves its own undoing. If it were only content to narrow its field – by halving it, say, or guaranteeing the highest-ranked players safe passage to the second round – thereby making victory look more attainable and increase the chances of a high-calibre final, it could do a great deal to boost its status among players and fans alike. But that won’t happen; it wants to shoot for the stars and defy the laws of probability.

Exciting if it comes off, sure, if an epic week of competition yields a Sunday afternoon slugfest between Tiger and the boy wonder, but failure on those terms looks that bit more grim. Specifically, it looks like two (four, if you count the utterly “pointless” third-place play-off) tired and slightly bored millionaires traipsing an empty resort course in real-time. Golf’s purest format deserves the guarantee of something some.