AUSTIN, Texas – Early last year, European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley offhandedly referred to his circuit’s match-play event as a “bastardized” version of the format.
It was neither apology nor epilogue for the event, just the way of the world.
The ancient format may be the purest form of competition in some golf circles, but at the professional level match play just doesn’t work, at least not on an individual basis.
For all the excitement that the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup generate each fall, the one-and-done finality of individual match play is a square peg in the round hole that is professional golf, which is how the PGA Tour ended up with the round-robin format that will be used at this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Group play neatly cured two of match play’s biggest ills – Tour types who weren’t keen to be packing up on Wednesday afternoon and corporate officials who were even less keen when one of those one-and-done victims was a star.
But for everything the new format – which features three days of group play that cuts the field to 16 followed by single-elimination matches on Saturday and Sunday – fixed, there are just as many reasons to be disgruntled.
Henrik Stenson, one of five players who skipped this week’s event at Austin Country Club, specifically mentioned the round-robin format, which began in 2015, as one of the reasons for his no-show.
“I was not that keen on the round robin,” Stenson said earlier this month. “To me, match play is do or die. Either I win or I lose. I kind of like that format.”
Adrift in the irony of the new format is the fact that the Tour took the best Wednesday in golf and watered it down to three semi-entertaining days of group play. Lost in the new format is the central theme that every match brought with it the intensity of a Sunday in contention.
Instead, for three days players jockey for position within their groups, buoyed by the notion that a loss may hurt their chances of advancing to the Sweet 16 but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee their fate.
Consider Jason Day the authority on the distinctions between the old and new formats.
In 2013, the Australian survived a 22-hole shootout on Day 2 against Billy Horschel on his way to the championship, which he won in 23 holes.
Although Day went undefeated last year on his way to his second WGC-Match Play victory, the intensity, at least for the first three days, just wasn’t the same.
“I like the other way where it’s just you either win or you go home, because it forces you to go out and play,” said Day, who conceded the first year of the new format took some adjusting to. “I need to play well here. If I don’t play well then I’m going home. I’m going to watch these guys on the weekend, because I really want to be here. I’ll take either way, but I like the kind of format before.”
Gone under the new format are the types of upsets that made Day 1 at the Match Play a must-watch for many fans. Unlike the NCAA Tournament, there really aren’t true Cinderella stories at the Match Play, but that didn’t make the early upset any less entertaining. Just ask Charles Howell III, who “upset” then overall second-seeded Tiger Woods in Round 1 at the ’13 Match Play, 2 and 1.
“There was definitely a lot of pressure with the one-and-done format,” Howell said. “I understand why they went to this format, but there is something about a do-or-die that was appealing. You knew 32 guys were packing up and leaving on Wednesday. That Wednesday was probably more exciting than this Wednesday, that’s the fairest way I can say it.”
Not every player misses the old format, particularly considering the event’s move to late March which would make an early exit just two weeks before the year’s first major championship a scheduling non-starter for some.
“You have a better sense of who is playing good or not; it’s a more fair system to find out, OK these guys are playing the best,” Brandt Snedeker said. “So when you do get to the knock-out stage, you know the 16 best guys are in there. It’s better for TV, it’s better for us, gives us a chance to learn the golf course.”
According to various sources, Tour officials aren’t doubling-down on the round-robin format just yet. Stenson told reporters earlier this month at the Valspar Championship that he’s proposed a modified format similar to that used at the U.S. Amateur, where the field plays 36 holes of stroke play with only the top players advancing to match play.
“You could potentially even put another couple of guys in the field if you wanted to, to start with,” Stenson said. “Then you get to make sure that everyone is around for a little bit.”
At least under Stenson’s model the spirit, if not the letter, of match play is maintained, but it still doesn’t return the event to the glory years when Wednesday at the Match Play was a reason to call in sick to work and pay attention because for half the field it was going to be a short week.
Now that was intense.