Match Play Surprises: a young talent who finally kicked down the door, a ringing endorsement of the venue, and a reminder how fun the format really is
"I'd keep it here," Rory McIlroy said last week. "I think this is perfect."
By it he meant the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- won by an awesomely persistent Jason Day on Sunday -- and by this he meant the mountain-hugging, cactus-covered Golf Club of Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz.
To be sure, McIlroy issued this unqualified endorsement on the eve of the tournament, roughly 48 hours before losing a 19-hole nail-biter to fellow 24-year-old Harris English. But it was a reminder that the PGA Tour's only match-play event, held in this outpost just north of Tucson since 2007 but now in limbo, is more popular with Tour players than the absence last week of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott would suggest.
"It's a good match-play course," McIlroy explained. "You're right on site, good facilities, the climate is good most of the time." He grinned in deference to last year's two-inch snowfall and bone-chilling winds. "I've really enjoyed it here. I wouldn't move it."
He shrugged. "But obviously people see it differently."
By people the young Northern Irishman presumably meant certain international players who hate flying halfway around the world only to lose in the first round; a few superstars, such as three-time champion Woods, who don't see desert golf as good preparation for the Masters; and most television executives, who can't abide a format that eliminates all of the No. 1 seeds by Thursday -- as happened last week -- and culminates in a 60 Minutes--encroaching overtime match between an Australian (wrong time zone) and a Frenchman (no golf culture).
Or maybe McIlroy was referring to Accenture, the multinational management consulting firm, which hadn't renewed its title sponsorship by the end of play on Sunday.
"We're looking at a lot of different options, talking to a lot of different potential sponsors," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem told reporters at the event, "including Accenture." But Finchem's casual dress and his vague phraseology ("We haven't moved in any one direction.... I wouldn't rule anything out.... We'll just see what develops") suggested that the Match Play has achieved white-elephant status.
This is unfortunate for several reasons, not the least of which is the misperception that most pros dislike Dove Mountain's Jack Nicklaus -- designed course, don't appreciate the tournament's placement on the Tour calendar and/or simply hate match play. The truth is, many players value Tucson above all the other stops on the West Coast swing.
"This tournament -- yes, it's very volatile and very brutal, and you could be going home on Wednesday afternoon," former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said last week. "But I like it because you can put your game under Sunday-afternoon pressure on a Wednesday. There's a huge amount of finality to match play, and you've got to summon something a little different inside you."
McDowell's remark underscored the fact that stroke-play tournaments are four days of disciplined plodding for most of the field, with only a few final-round contenders experiencing the butterflies, racing heartbeat and impaired thinking that must be overcome to claim victory. "Match play is just different," McDowell said. "It asks different questions."
Questions such as:
Are you feeling lucky today? Rickie Fowler, 2 down after six holes of his third-round match, was offered a half by Sergio García on the 7th green, where Fowler faced a 17-footer for par. García, it was later revealed, felt "guilty" because he had required two time-consuming drops on the previous hole to get relief from a sprinkler head and swarming bees -- a delay no one considered out of line. "I'd be stupid not to take a half," a puzzled Fowler said later. "I was outside of him, and he had a good look for par." Fowler, after going 3 down on the next hole, went on a birdie binge and stole the match on the final hole.
Can you win with your C game? Yes, said four-time major champion Ernie Els. The Big Easy trundled through three long matches, making more bogeys than birdies, then watched in wonder as a previously red-hot Jordan Spieth carded six 5s in a 4-and-2 loss to the veteran. Els lost twice on Sunday -- 1 down to the Frenchman Victor Dubuisson in the semis and to Fowler in 19 holes in the third-place match -- but the fourth-place finish equaled his best in 14 tries.
How much more of this can you take? McDowell himself answered this one, winning his first three matches (Gary Woodland, Hideki Matsuyama, Hunter Mahan) despite being as much as 3 down with three to play and never hitting a tee shot while leading. "I really don't know what to say," an apologetic McDowell offered on Friday, after toying with Mahan for 21 holes. "I'm not embarrassed, but I just feel like I'm robbing these guys." Proving that crime pays, McDowell pocketed $280,000 despite his 1-down quarterfinals loss to Dubuisson.
Here's another reason why many pros like the Match Play: It's a Ryder Cup audition. The U.S. and European players at Dove Mountain know that their respective captains, Tom Watson and Paul McGinley, will review video of the matches when making their captain's picks later this year. Watson won't be able to ignore English's dismissal of No. 1 seed McIlroy in the second round, which followed his English-beats-Englishman 5-and-3 romp over Lee Westwood. The captain will be equally impressed by the 20-year-old Spieth, who demolished Thomas Bjorn 5 and 4 before beating defending champ Matt Kuchar 2 and 1 in the third round. He'll also like Spieth's attitude. "You have to take every match like you have to shoot seven or eight under to win," the kid said after holding off Kuchar, "because typically you do."
Spieth added, "I wish we played more match play at the pro level. It's fun."
The American who benefited most from the audition had to be Fowler. Rickie was a captain's pick for the 2010 Ryder Cup, but he has since managed his lone PGA Tour victory. Playing without his usual waterfall of brown hair below an oversized cap, Fowler drained a slew of pressure putts to take out two of Europe's best (García and Ian Poulter) and the game's hottest player (Jimmy Walker) before beating his former Ryder Cup partner Jim Furyk in the quarterfinals. "Yeah, it's great prep," Fowler said before taking a sunset hike up the mountain behind his resort hotel. "It's nice to be able to show what I can do in match play."
Sunday exposed Fowler's frailties -- he bogeyed 15 and 16 to hand Day a 3-and-2 win in the morning -- but also his resilience. He beat Els in the afternoon third-place match with a birdie on the first extra hole.
McGinley, meanwhile, must have been bug-eyed over the lightly regarded Dubuisson, a 23-year-old who lit up the final with the greatest scrambling-for-par display in tournament history. Two down to Day with two to play, Dubuisson made birdie at 17 from out of a fairway bunker to keep the match alive and then got up and down from a greenside trap at 18, while Day three-putted. In the playoff Dubuisson missed every green but got up and down three straight times, highlighted by a desperate slash from a cactus-covered lie on the first extra hole and a similar miracle hack from beneath a desert bush on the next. Day, an infrequent winner on Tour with an incongruous record of three runner-up finishes in majors, could only smile in disbelief -- and salvaged halves -- until the 23rd hole, when he rolled in a short birdie putt after his seemingly insouciant opponent failed to convert from the collar.
"Vic coming down the stretch was unbelievable," the winner said at sunset, pondering his first World Golf Championship and second PGA Tour win. "I kept shaking my head because ... I thought he was absolutely dead. The tournament was mine."
And right there you had another reason why most Tour players like the Match Play -- and the prickly landscape on which it's played -- a whole lot more than they let on.
Because it's flat-out fun.