Welcome to the only week of the year when the PGA Tour’s ardent free-marketeers develop a sudden appreciation for a safety net from the authorities. Specifically, the free passes issued for the first round of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the day on which so many stars used to be dispatched early.
Now Wednesday’s losers live to fight another day. I blame Hunter Mahan and Victor Dubuisson.
Since the WGC Match Play began in 1999, the Tour, its broadcast partners and fans have eagerly awaited a final that pits two heavyweights against each other. But match play is capricious, and what we’ve seen instead is an occasional heavyweight reach the Sunday showdown only to square off with a comparative middleweight (to be fair, some of those middleweights added heft to their résumés later).
But there have never been enough Tigers or Rorys in the final match to compensate for those times when fans had to subsist on a Kevin Sutherland or Scott McCarron.
The low point arrived early: 2001, in Melbourne, Australia. Metropolitan Golf Club was perhaps the finest course to host the Match Play, but that year almost 40 players declined to make the journey, including six of the top 10 players. An event created for the top 64 players in the world rankings was eventually won by No. 90, Steve Stricker, who defeated Pierre Fulke in a final that probably didn’t even draw many viewers in Nyköping, Fulke’s Swedish hometown. The debacle ensured that the “World” in the tournament’s title would ever after refer to the composition of the field, not the geographic range of venues.
Granted, Melbourne is a long way from anywhere, but even subsequent venues in California and Arizona were too far for some guys to travel given the prospect of playing just one round. It took almost 15 years, but eventually the PGA Tour found a way to engineer star presence on Match Play weekend, something player performances had regularly failed to deliver.
After three consecutive finals featuring low-wattage names — Mahan (twice) and Dubuisson, both fine players who earned their spots, but neither of whom drew a crowd — the Tour announced a format change for 2015. That tweak — 16 groups, each with four players facing off over three days to decide who will advance to the knock-out phase — has largely achieved the desired result of keeping more brand-name players alive until the weekend. But along the way, the very essence of match play — the early upset in which a Goliath trips over a David — has been lost.
Golf geeks will remember (more fondly than TV executives, who were focused on ratings) the first-round massacres that once defined this tournament, the Wednesday slaying of a slew of superstars who barely had time to lace up their spikes before it was time to gas up their jets. Even Tiger wasn’t immune, ousted in his opening match by the unheralded Peter O’Malley in 2002 and by future Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn a decade ago.
In 2019, the last time the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was contested, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas were the top seeds in their respective groups but all failed to make it out of round-robin play. Yet it took three days to seal their fates. Under the current format, no one’s bracket is ever busted on day one because the Tour doesn’t actually permit a bracket until day four, when the win-or-go-home phase commences.
Match Play Wednesday was once among the most entertaining, knife-edge days in golf. It ought to be again. Viewers should not have to rely on Golf Channel’s estimable Steve Sands and his whiteboard to illustrate the various permutations that might see a player sent packing. It should be as obvious as W or L.
If the Tour is betrothed to this group play format that indulges players with more opportunities to deliver than an Amazon driver, then it at least ought to add the volatility of a quick-fire challenge by contesting all three group matches over nine holes on one day. No chance for a losing player to regroup, no tune-up with a coach, no supportive call with a shrink. One day, all in. Or out.
So what if we end up with a final that lacks real star power? Character actors sometimes steal the show, and they will have authored their share of compelling storylines along the way.
Elite sport belongs to competitors who deliver at the moment it is required, not those who summon form a day or two later. On his way to winning the Match Play in ’19, Kevin Kisner posted six straight victories over an impressive roster of players, including Tony Finau, Louis Oosthuizen, Open champion Francesco Molinari and, finally, Matt Kuchar. But Kisner lost the very first match he played that week, to Ian Poulter (Kisner also made the 2018 final, that one without losing a match).
On Friday, Ohio State and Purdue were summarily dispatched in the first round of the NCAA’s March Madness tournament. Neither was gifted a chance to turn things around against some other team on Saturday and Sunday to keep their dream alive. Win or go home, the binary heart of match play.
Whoever can’t figure things out Wednesday at Austin Country Club shouldn’t be playing on Thursday and Friday either.
Published at Golfweek.com, March 21, 2021.