Tim Finchem's greatest legacy may be his support of match play despite annual consternation over a format that literally grew the game. After three years of round robin guaranteeing players three matches, there is still some kvetching about the loss of knockout dramatics, but even after a year where two WD's had the potential to issue a fatal blow, the WGC Dell Match Play was an enormous success: high energy, international intrigue and so much great skill on display.
As I wrote for Golfweek's weekly issue, match play is enjoying a renaissance through some strange combination of Finchem's devotion to saving the format, the move to round-robin play, the increased affinity for team match play events and the high risk, huge reward alternation in NCAA team format.
Match play is cool again.
Considering that the sport was built on match play centuries ago its little wonder that Jordan Spieth said last week it should be deciding a major. Television ultimately put the kibosh on a return of the format, making it ironic that television now embraces match play because of the faster pacing, raw emotions and overall excitement it brings.
In our ADD world, each match has stories to tell and each hole produces a result. And in our crowded sports landscape, worrying about filling 33 minutes of post-match dead time takes a back seat to putting forward an event generating buzz.
This long post will try to resolve how the WGC Dell Match Play can get better and how can we work more match play into the schedule?
Two Small WGC Tweaks
The first is simple: lose the halves. Fans and media are asked to work too hard during the round robin play trying to figure out pod scenarios which include half-points for halves. They are not interesting and sudden death playoffs add much-needed tension to the first three days.
The second solution would not have had a huge impact in 2017, but should be considered and was suggested to me by fine souls not seeking credit: reseeding after round robin play by world ranking. The NHL seeded its playoff teams for several years and then reseeded after each round to reward top seeds. But due to travel-planning issues, the practice ended in 2014.
Given the randomness of the initial bracketology in the WGC Dell Match Play, the emphasis should be on giving higher seeds some reward for their standing while giving fans hope for the occasional dream match up. Consider what the weekend bracket would have looked like after a reshuffle of the group winners by their tournament seeding, not the placement of their bracket pools:
Dustin Johnson (1) vs. Soren Kjeldsen (62)
Alex Noren (8) vs. Charles Howell (61)
Paul Casey (12) vs. Hideto Tanihara (54)
Bubba Watson (13) vs. William McGirt (48)
Phil Mickelson (14) vs. Ross Fisher (47)
Brooks Koepka (20) vs. Kevin Na (46)
Jon Rahm (21) vs. Zach Johnson (44)
Marc Leishman (28) vs. Bill Haas (42)
Again, this is for years when the ranking form holds better and seems like an easy solution.
More Match Play Options
As I noted in the Golfweek piece, European Tour Commissioner Keith Pelley is all-in on match play due to its faster, edgier elements as well as providing tangible results to chew on during Thursdays and Fridays. He is said to be quite protective of the new Perth stop and has introduced a team match play event called Golf Sixes this May.
So before you vote, I'd like to nominate some other fomats. Naturally I want to see them all but realize it's likely unrealistic on a crowded schedule. Then again, after Zurich enjoys much admiration for its new better-ball format this May, other sponsors may be looking to alternative formats. Here are the five I could come up, though I'm sure there are others.
--Four ball. Imagine the fun of two-player teams, only at match play. The players pick their partners ala the new Zurich Classic format. I'm suggesting best ball instead of some combination including foursomes play because...yep, it's for the stymie!
Imagine the intrigue of teammates nursing a putt up to stymie the opposition! The strategic and dramatic possibilities would make this must see TV, and it would be good to see players play the ball down again on the green. Shoot, we'll let you clean your golf ball even, but then you must replace so that the fun can begin.
--9-hole round-robin and 9-hole matches. Why not just cut the entire thing in half? Shorter matches with more urgency legitimizing the 9-hole round.
--Stroke play, followed by knockout. This is a solution suggested to remedy the WGC Match Play when it was under fire would give players two rounds of stroke play qualifying that determine seeding. Matches are then played in a traditional single elimination bracket.
--Corporate or nationality. Team match play is beloved, so why not have an event that is a miniature version of the major international events or the NCAA team format? The European Tour's GolfSixes is using two-person teams by country. How about three or five person teams by corporate affiliation of some kind? Team RBS, Team Titleist, Team Mercedes, etc...
--PGA Championship. What if the top 32 players are exempt from two rounds of qualifying? Perhaps as with the Ryder Cup, there is a PGA Championship points race that determines the exemptees and helps build excitement for the event. Once the matches start, every now and then a club pro might qualify and face a top player in round one. Better yet, the PGA would have an epic identity.
Ok, vote away!