Golf needs more match play
Finland’s Mikko Ilonen was able to outlast Henrik Stenson on Sunday at the London Golf Club to win the 2014 Volvo World Match Play Championship for the first time. It’s his fifth win on the European Tour, and he’s going to get a lot out of this, including a sizeable jump in the Official World Golf Rankings, which will go a long way to seeing him tee it up at the 2015 WGC-Match Play in a few months at Harding Park.
Unfortunately, that event isn’t until the end of April, which means that between the PGA and European Tours, we have a ton of time and events before the next time we see match play, which sucks because it really is a lot of fun and it does break up the weekly stroke play monotony that golf gets itself into frequently.
If you look at the 2014-15 PGA Tour schedule, there are 50 events listed, with only two of them having any sort of match play element to them: the previously mentioned WGC-Match Play and the Presidents Cup. The European Tour does a little better with the Eurasia Cup/Seve Trophy alternating years, but for the most part, it’s all stroke play and maybe it’s just me, but with that many events on the schedule, golf could use a little bit of a format switch from time to time.
In terms of excitement, the 2013-14 PGA Tour season was a little rough to say the least, especially in the early part of the year but the one tournament that really brought it all week was the WGC-Match Play that culminated with the incredible match between Jason Day and Victor Dubuisson. There’s definitely an argument to be made that it was the best event of the year, even though Dove Mountain is probably the worst venue on the PGA Tour and the traditional big names weren’t really a factor.
The standard argument against match play events is that they’re too unpredictable. At the professional level, the players are all so good that the difference over eighteen holes between Rory McIlroy and Steven Bowditch is usually non-existent, which is why you see so many upsets in the format. That doesn’t exactly sell well to the networks that broadcast the events or the companies that put their money behind them. You can bet that Volvo was at least slightly relieved that Stenson was able to knock out George Coetzee on Sunday morning, as a final between Ilonen and Coetzee would have been as popular as Bob Estes at the Democratic National Convention.
Here’s the thing though: only the most crazed of golf fans knew anything about Dubuisson before the WGC in February and now, he’s become a favourite of many and in all honesty, regular stroke play tournaments are pretty much just as unpredictable as match play. Big names miss the cut every week on every tour because golf is difficult, even for the best players in the world. Talk to the tournament organizers in the Middle East who have finally decided not to pay Tiger’s allegedly ridiculous appearance fee about guaranteed returns on investment. Jim Justice has, reportedly, paid Tiger and Phil Mickelson to play at the Greenbrier in the past, despite them never making a cut. We can talk all we want about how match play is unpredictable, but stroke play isn’t a guarantee either. The only real consistency in golf is inconsistency.
The PGA Championship used to be contested over a few days of match play, but that ended in 1958 thanks to broadcasters requesting the switch. Having a major decided by match play isn’t something that I support, but an idea that Shane Bacon floated last year makes a ton of sense to me: make the final event of the FedEx Cup, the Tour Championship, a match play event.
The best thing about match play is that it forces players to be aggressive. Going out there and making eighteen pars in the opening round of a stroke play event is actually pretty solid. Rarely would a player ever be out of a tournament after the first day at even par, but in match play, you better make birdies and maybe even an eagle or two if you want to move on. As good as the Tour Championship was a few weeks ago, how great would it have been to see Rory take on Billy Horschel at East Lake in match play for $10 million? Even if it was two lesser known players, it would have been a lot of fun, just like it was on Sunday with Stenson and Ilonen.
Unfortunately, it’ll likely never change, but having more match play in golf would be a very good thing.