Match play doesn’t always work

Ridiculous save number two along with the great reaction from Day.

Ridiculous save number two along with the great reaction from Day.

CBS got lucky on Sunday at Dove Mountain, as did the PGA Tour and the other governing bodies around the World Golf Championships.

Tiger Woods wasn’t in the field, neither was Phil Mickelson or Adam Scott. With three of golf’s biggest names sitting on the sidelines for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that they find the host course to be absolutely atrocious, there was a serious lack of star power at the event.

Enter Victor Dubuisson.

Dubuisson, a previously unheralded player that only the most ardent of golf supporters had even heard of prior to the WGC-Accenture Match Play, was able to get past Ernie Els on Sunday morning to get into a final with Jason Day. When Dubuisson started slow, Day was able to get out to a lead, and to be honest, we weren’t really watching the most compelling of events with Day sitting three up after twelve holes. Dubuisson was able to slowly chip away at Day’s lead and after Day left a putt just short on the 18th, we had a playoff, which was as you’ll recall, the moment where Dubuisson turned into Seve Ballesteros. On back-to-back holes, Dubuisson put himself in what appeared to be impossible situations after horrendous approach shots and he somehow managed to escape.

My Twitter feed was going crazy, and it wasn’t just people inside the golf industry that were talking about it either, which is when you know that something pretty special is happening. Here’s the thing though: this very easily could have gone the other way.

First off, if you had told Golf Channel and CBS before the tournament had started that their final four would have been Jason Day, Victor Dubuisson, Ernie Els and Rickie Fowler, they probably would have taken it, especially with Tiger, Phil and Adam Scott sitting this one out. However, swap out these players for others with the same seed numbers and we could have seen something like this:

  • Jason Day -> Matt Kuchar
  • Victor Dubuisson -> Jamie Donaldson
  • Ernie Els -> Hunter Mahan
  • Rickie Fowler -> George Coetzee

This is the heart of the issue with having more match play events, or at least ones with this kind of scale and format. Is Justin Rose a better player than Scott Piercy? Of course he is, but the gap isn’t that big when you really think about it. Condense it from a regular 72 hole event to an 18 hole head-to-head, and the gap narrows even further. All of these guys are so good at this level and all of them are capable of going out and firing a 62 on any given day, which would probably give them a 4 up win over someone who shot in the high 60’s, which is still a very good score as well.

I love match play, and I wish we had more of it, but for networks and advertisers, it’s really difficult to sell a tournament that could have two or three relative unknowns out of four at the end of the line. Yeah, that same thing can happen at a regular PGA Tour event as well, and no offense intended to those players, but there’s a reason that the Northern Trust Open went the way that it did a few weeks ago. The final couple of groups that included players like William McGirt, Brian Harman, Jason Allred, George McNeill and Charlie Beljan were passed by established names like Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Charl Schwartzel. Whether it’s right or wrong, I think the thought process is that 72 holes of stroke play is more reliable in determining a quality winner, which is what the PGA Tour and those around the event want to see more than anything.

Coming into the WGC-Match Play, many media members were suggesting solutions for fixing the event, mostly with the intent of ensuring a higher quality field in the first place, which theoretically should provide a more “worthy” champion. With half of the players going home on the first day, it’s not exactly the most appealing of tournaments to attend, even with the $48,000 payout to first day losers. Many of those same media members after the event was over were suggesting that the tournament didn’t really need fixing because of the way that it ended, with the high drama produced by the Day-Dubuisson playoff, but ask yourself this question: If Day hits that putt on 18, are we talking about how great the event was, or that it needs to be fixed?

Like I said, I love the match play format, but I’m also not part of the audience that the PGA Tour and the game of golf in general needs to appeal to. I’m going to watch the events regardless of what format or tour they are on, but the problem is that match play is just too much of a crapshoot when it comes to bringing compelling, consistent golf and golfers to the general viewing audience.

Victor Dubuisson brought some life to the event on Sunday, but next time, we might not be so lucky.

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3 Comments on “Match play doesn’t always work

  1. I am not so sure it is the tournament, but the timing. The top golfers are now focused their playing schedule around preparation for the Majors. Additionally, they can make bucket loads of cash playing none events with less stress. Maybe this is what caused a reduced field at last weeks match play tournament. What do you think?

    Cheers
    Jim

    • Jim,

      It’s a number of factors to be honest, and a lot of these guys, Tiger in particular, have mentioned the idea of “peaking” for certain events like the Masters. If he thinks that skipping other events helps him, he’s going to do it. So, you are correct in that regard.

      I can tell you one thing though: the players don’t like the idea of coming to a tournament and potentially getting bounced after one day and 15 or 16 holes. Combine that with a course that they don’t like at all, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster when it comes to getting certain players out there.

      • Adam

        Great point about travelling and preparing for only 15 holes. As pros, time is money! I guess if you are making millions, picking and choosing which tournaments to play in is part of the game. Additionally, the money is in the Majors (on and off the course).

        Cheers
        Jim

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