Match Play might be entertaining, but it's a terrible way to determine a champion
Let’s hold off on Matt Kuchar’s pending induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame just because he won last week’s Accenture World Match Play Championship.
Media types, especially announcers, always fall into the trap of predicting greatness for that week’s winner and Kuchar is no exception.
You can make a compelling case for Kuchar’s rise to the top of American golf. He’s the new Mr. Consistent, quietly grinding out top-ten finishes the way Tom Kite used to. He held up to the pressure to win last year’s Players in impressive fashion. And now he appears poised to join the elite golfers of the world after his defeat of Hunter Mahan on the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field—I mean, in the chilly desert on a 7,700-yard resort course in the Arizona foothills where ski hats were the trending outerwear.
Not so fast. Nothing against Smiling Matt. I like him. Everyone likes him. He’s got game and he’s solid. But let’s not confuse the World Match Play Championship with a meaningful victory. And by meaningful victory, I mean stroke-play victory.
In stroke play, you have to beat the entire field for four days. In match play, you beat one player at a time over six rounds.
In stroke play, you have to beat Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson and the best players in the world. In match play, there’s a good chance you won’t face any of them. There’s a good chance you won’t face another player ranked in the world’s top 10.
Check out Kuchar’s trail of bodies. He beat Hiroyuki Fujita, somehow ranked 46th before the World Match Play. He took down Sergio Garcia, ranked 14th. His next three opponents weren’t ranked in the top 30—Nicholas Colsaerts, 39th; Robert Garrigus, 38th; and Jason Day, 43rd. In the final, he got the defending champion, Mahan, another guy seen to have superstar potential. Mahan was ranked 25th and, you may remember, couldn’t make last year’s Ryder Cup on points despite winning twice. This is not golf’s version of Murderer’s Row.
I don’t think the World Match Play Championship should count for world ranking points. It’s too funky.
And don’t get me wrong, I love this tournament. I’d rank it as my No. 5 favorite regular event in golf, behind the four majors. If you include the Ryder Cup, then it’s No. 6. Match play is the most entertaining and exciting form of golf to watch. Every hole has an outcome. Every hole is its own little tournament. Plus, match play always gets personal and generates hard feelings as soon as somebody doesn’t concede a two-footer. It’s great for the same reason the Ryder Cup is great. There is passion.
But match play is a terrible way to determine a champion. Kuchar beat one player ranked inside the top 20 to claim a so-called world championship. That’s a joke.
Think his was some kind of fluke? Mahan’s list of victims was equally average. He beat Mateo Manassero, 44th; Richard Sterne, 52nd; Martin Kaymer, 28th; Webb Simpson, 17th; and Ian Poulter, 13th. At last he faced two top-20 players, but again, no one inside the top 10.
This is another reason why the PGA of America left match play as the format for its championship years ago. These guys are good and in 18 holes, any of them can get hot and fire a 63. These matches are wind sprints in a sport where real tournaments should be marathons. Stroke-play winners are determined over 72 holes and define much better champions.
Just because Kuchar won this tournament doesn’t mean the floodgates are going to open, as the announcers usually predict, and Kuchar is going to get to double figures in the W column. I’d certainly expect him to win again this year at least once.
Let’s chill out for a sec and see how well the World Match Play predicted greatness in previous winners.
David Toms won in 2005. He’s won twice since.
Ian Poulter won three years ago. He has managed one more PGA Tour win since, a WGC event in China last fall. (Poulter has won elsewhere in the world.)
Luke Donald? Since his big match play win in ’11, he has corralled wins at Disney and Transitions.
How about Mahan? He won Houston last April and vanished until last week.
There’s Geoff Ogilvy, the ’06 champ. He won five more times, including a U.S. Open and a second World Match Play. He also padded his total with two victories in the small winners-only event that kicks off the year.
Of course, there’s always Tiger Woods, the man to whom no rules apply. And there’s Darren Clarke, Henrik Stenson and oh, let’s not forget Kevin Sutherland and Jeff Maggert. A couple of those guys are headed for the Hall of Fame but most of them are not.
I wouldn’t mind a second match-play event on tour. It’s great fun. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the results mean anything. Nice going, Kooch. Well done. Now go out and win a real tournament. Like the Masters.
The Short Game
Anchor-Gate just keeps getting better. Tim Finchem announced that the PGA Tour has notified the USGA and R&A that it opposes the anchored putting ban. As my SI colleague Michael Bamberger smartly observed over the weekend, “It’s bad for business” in the eyes of Finchem. So the two biggest organizations that matter in the United States -- the PGA of America and the PGA Tour -- oppose the ban. Who else is left? The European Tour and the Masters? It might be fun to see the USGA and R&A forge ahead anyway, and the only places where anchored putting might potentially be banned would be the two Opens and the Masters. That would be entertaining … Meanwhile, the PGA Tour extends its streak to two in courses that you never need to play, both coincidentally designed by Jack Nicklaus. Last week, it was the million-yard Dove Mountain track with roller-coaster greens. This week, it’s the PGA National track with the Bear Trap, the lamest group of holes that ever landed a nickname … FYI, one more item in my Johnny Miller Isn’t Wrong Very Often file was his call on Mahan’s shot from a desert bush on the final hole. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t get it out of the desert,” Johnny said. Mahan didn’t.
The Van Cynical Mailbag
(Send your cynical questions every Monday to Van Cynical's twitter account, @garyvansickle)
Gary, why not move the Match Play to the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course? I don’t think it would dilute the Players in May. It would be fun to watch those closing holes. —Michael O’Connor via Twitter
Brilliant idea, O-Man. Nearly as brilliant as my repeated suggest over the years to host a Ryder Cup or a Presidents Cup at the Stadium Course. Who wouldn’t love to see a close match come down to 16, 17 and 18? Tiger won a U.S. Amateur there in match play. By the way, it was in the 70s and 80s last week in Ponte Vedra Beach, in case anybody from Tucson is wondering while wearing their mittens.
Now that Hunter Mahan and Charles Howell have improved their short games, who’s going to win a major first? —Davey S. via email
I’ll say Tiger Woods. Or did you mean who’s going to win a major first, Mahan or Howell? I like the way these guys have worked to improve in areas where they needed to get better. I guess I’d give the edge to Mahan, who seems like a more natural putter. It’s nice to see Howell play his way back up in the rankings, though. I wouldn’t count him out yet.
Van Cynical, I saw on Twitter that you played Spanish Bay, Bayonet and Pebble Beach last weekend. What do you think is the second-best course in the Monterey Peninsula area? —The Greek via email
I’m not a fan of Spanish Bay and Bayonet’s greens were better before the big re-do. I’ll refer to a memorable story I wrote in another golf mag over 20 years ago that was headlined, “Monterey for $200, Alex,” in which I pointed out that the municipal course in Pacific Grove is the most fun per dollar of any course in America. It’s got a lighthouse, ice plant, sand dunes, a back nine along the ocean, a funky start with back-to-back par-3 holes, big trees, scrawny deer and flocks of coots. Pebble is awesome but for the same money, would you rather have 10 rounds at PG (as locals call it)? Yes.