Match Play a reminder that different is interesting
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Jordan Spieth is competing in match play for the second time this month.
The first occasion was only in his mind.
He was five shots clear of Justin Rose when he made the turn at Augusta National and was trying to keep his mind off the green jacket ceremony. So he told himself he was 1 down to Rose in match play and “let’s play against him and see what we can do to get back.”
“That kept my head off of anything else that was going on,” he said.
Rose would have beaten him, 2 and 1, if that were the case. It wasn’t. Spieth won by four and has a size 42 jacket to show for it.
Now it’s for real at Harding Park. And while the stakes aren’t nearly as high, the interest figures to be greater than most weeks in golf. Even with a change in format, and a change in venue from the high desert to the city by the bay, everyone looks forward to the Match Play Championship.
It’s the one time of the year golf is like tennis, minus the grunting. There will be 96 matches over the next three days to determine the 16 players who advance out of their four-man groups, and then 15 single-elimination matches after that to determine a winner.
If it’s so compelling, why not do this more often?
It’s a fickle format even by golf standards. Tiger Woods was either No. 1 or No. 2 in the world 10 times in the Match Play. Half those times he didn’t even make it out of the third round. There is some debate whether it really identifies who played the best golf that week. And it’s not very appealing to television. Beyond the fact the best players don’t always reach the championship match, the final is four hours of only two possibilities.
The greatest appeal of the Match Play Championship is that it’s different.
That should be a message for the PGA Tour at a time when it’s getting harder to compete for attention.
Different is good, as long as it doesn’t compromise the competition.
The Match Play Championship has its place on the PGA Tour schedule — once a year. The tour wisely returned to a modified Stableford competition for the Barracuda Championship in Reno, Nevada. The only trouble with that tournament is that it’s held opposite the World Golf Championship at Firestone, so the top players don’t get a chance to play.
Perhaps the PGA Tour should take a cue from across the lake at Olympic Club, where final qualifying for the new U.S. Four-Ball Amateur Championship is this weekend.
There is a place for team competition.
Gone are the days of the Miami International Four-Ball, the first victory for Byron Nelson during his record 11 in a row in 1945. His partner was Jug McSpaden. In the 1970s, the tour had the Walt Disney World Team Championship. Ben Crenshaw won it with George Burns in 1979, and it counted among the 19 PGA Tour titles for Crenshaw when he went into the Hall of Fame.
Imagine converting one of the PGA Tour events into a 120-man field of 60 teams in which the players could pick their own partners. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, each sporting a neon swoosh, might be appealing. Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler. Or a pair of 21-year-old friends like Spieth and Justin Thomas.
Because it would be medal play, there still would be an individual winner that would get a spot in the Masters and a two-year exemption (and yes, 500 FedEx Cup points). And the team element would be compelling.
And if the PGA Tour was really bold — and could find a willing tournament and title sponsor — how about bringing a little imagination and shot-making into the game by creating a seven-club rule? Cut the maximum number of clubs allowed in half to seven, and let the players choose which seven they want for each round.
It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not.
The game is still about getting the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible, and with apologies to Winston Churchill, it’s not like those seven clubs would be “singularly ill-designed for the purpose.” Back in the day, a starter set was the driver and 3-wood, 3-iron, 5-iron, 7-iron, 9-iron and putter.
The starter set for Seve Ballesteros was a 3-iron.
Shouldn’t that still work?
Geoff Ogilvy earlier this year broached the idea of the old Mixed Team event with LPGA Tour players, which is overdue to return. This could easily be part of each tour’s official season with a team winner and individual champions, male and female. The problem would be reduced playing opportunities, and the tour already is struggling with that.
Still, it’s time to think beyond 72 holes of stroke play.
It works for the majors and for most weeks — just not every week. Even for the Royal & Ancient game, that gets old.