Maginnes on Tap:~Match Play

Match play doesn’t always work.  More to the point, match play almost never works for large audiences and television networks. 

If Tiger and Rory play each other in the final at the WGC-Accenture Match Play on Sunday, then I will be temporarily proven wrong. However, if Thongchai Jaidee plays David Lynn in the finals on Sunday, the Daytona 500 coverage might get a little boost in ratings. 

Lest you think that the odds of that last one are far too great to concern yourselves with then you just haven’t been paying attention. In match play, anything is possible.

I think that the PGA of America figured this out in the mid-1950s. Perhaps it was the final between Walter Burkemo and Felice Torza at Birmingham Country Club in Michigan in 1953 that led the organization to change the very nature of its championship. Starting in 1958 the PGA Championship became a 72-hole, stroke-play affair, insuring that the stars of the day would have a reasonable opportunity to win the event or, at the very least, still be there on Sunday. 

That is the problem with match play. Obviously this is the strongest field of the year so far on the PGA Tour. Other than Brandt Snedeker (rib injury) and Phil Mickelson (spring break), the top 64 players in the world are in Tucson for this World Golf Championship event. The problem is, if it is a problem, is that half the field will be going home on Wednesday night and if history tells us one thing it is that many of the game’s biggest names will be heading to the airport after the first round.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that Wednesday of the Match Play is one of the most exciting days of the year in golf. There will be 32 winners and 32 losers in a day full of matches. This makes for terribly entertaining television and radio. But revealed in this unique situation is the ultimate unraveling of the match play format. You don’t know who will be left standing on Saturday night.

When the Accenture Match Play was first proposed there were several players who wondered if they could jet off to the opposite-field event that week and tee it up with the rest of the Tour if they got dispatched in the opening round. They were denied that strange opportunity then, and now it is a nonissue as the Accenture Match Play is the PGA Tour’s only event this week. 

Team match-play competition is the most exciting form of golf. The Ryder Cup is the biggest golf tournament on the planet and proves why every other year. But when you lose a match in the Ryder Cup, you don’t catch the next flight home. You regroup and try to get your side a point the next time out. If the Ryder Cup is about pride and country, the Accenture Match Play is about survival and advancement. You could shoot the second-lowest score on Wednesday, but if the guy you are playing beats you….well you get the picture.

The World Match Play at Wentworth is a little different in that they only invite 24 players to compete. They also have a round-robin format. This helps to guarantee there will be some star power in the finale.  But that is not the case at the AMP and consequently it becomes a crap shoot from an entertainment perspective as the week rolls toward either a crescendo or whimper.

Having said all of that, for some reason this event has historically seen the cream rise to the top. Tiger has won three times but he has also lost twice to Nick O’Hern.  Since its inception in 1999, it could be argued that there are only one or two former champions who would claim the Accenture Match Play as the biggest win of their careers. However there are at least 30 players in the field every year who would notch their biggest win by taking home the title.

The formula for winning any match-play tournament is pretty simple: beat the guy in front of you. That is what Hunter Mahan did a year ago. The only people he had to beat were Zach Johnson (Masters champ), Y.E. Yang (PGA Champ), Steve Stricker (Steve Stricker), Matt Kuchar (Players Champ), Mark Wilson (multiple winner) and Rory McIllroy (best in the world).  That is it, that is all he had to do. 

Why don’t we have more of these events? I forget.