Forward Press: PGA Championship should copy WGC-Accenture Match Play

February 22, 2012

This week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, which annually brings together the 64 best golfers on the planet for head-to-head competition, is my favorite non-major tournament. There are a few other match-play events out there, including the wonderful Volvo World Match Play Championship, but the Accenture is the best one. The PGA Championship should change its format to mirror it.
The biggest challenge facing the PGA Championship right now — aside from a date on the calendar that forces it to compete with the Olympics every four years — is a lack of identity.
The Masters has the aura of Bobby Jones, the mystique of Augusta National and the distinction of being the first major every year. The U.S. Open is our national championship and revels in its reputation as the toughest tournament in the world. The Open Championship is the oldest major and is played on unique links courses that often have the word "Royal" in their names (which is cool). It’s regularly contested at the home of golf, the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The PGA Championship is … glory's last shot? That's a Jim Nantz catch phrase, not something a major can hang its hat on.
More than any other major, the PGA Championship resembles a regular PGA Tour event. It has a stronger field and the courses are usually stouter, but honestly, the PGA Championship doesn't feel big enough, grand enough.
Reverting to match play, the tournament's format from 1916 until 1957, would change all that. From the first shot of the first match, as Rickie Fowler would say, it would be #GoTime. There would be a sense of urgency, a sense that something big could happen, even in the first few hours of the tournament. No other major could match it.
The biggest argument against switching to match play is that television ratings would drop if the big names lost early. Allow me to dispatch that argument with two facts.
1. No-name players almost never make it the semifinals or finals of big-time match play events. The WGC-Accenture Match Play has produced plenty of of high-quality, big-name semifinalists. There are certainly no chumps in this group of Match Play final fours (*Winners):
2011 – Luke Donald*, Martin Kaymer, Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson
2010 – Ian Poulter*, Paul Casey, Camilo Villegas, Sergio Garcia
2009 – Geoff Ogilvy*, Paul Casey, Stewart Cink, Ross Fisher
2008 – Tiger Woods*, Stewart Cink, Henrik Stenson, Justin Leonard
Some lesser-known players have made deep runs at the Match Play, but not many, and a Cinderella story can be a lot of fun. Wasn't it compelling to watch Butler reach the final against mighty Duke in the 2010 Final Four?
2. The television ratings for the PGA Championship are already too low. The final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which featured Tiger Woods paired with Phil Mickelson, got a 5.1 rating. That's a big number. In fact, as the chart below shows, that's as big, or bigger, than three of the last five final-round ratings for the PGA Championship.

Year Winner Venue Final Round Rating
2011 Keegan Bradley Atlanta Athletic Club 4.1
2010 Martin Kaymer Whistling Straits 4.3
2009 Y.E. Yang Hazeltine National 7.15
2008 Padraig Harrington Oakland Hills 3.0
2007 Tiger Woods Southern Hills 6.8

Only two recent PGA Championships, both of which involved Tiger Woods in the Sunday storyline, beat Pebble Beach's 5.1 rating. When the PGA Championship was played without Tiger in 2008 and Michael Phelps was swimming to glory in Beijing, ratings fell like a Phil Mickelson flop shot. A major championship should do better.
This year's summer Olympics end on Friday, Aug. 12, with the men's gold medal basketball game, the women's gymnastics competition and the closing ceremonies. The world is going to take a collective deep breath after that. Unless Woods, Mickelson or Rory McIlroy is leading the tournament going into Sunday, don't bet on CBS's rating beating Pebble Beach's.
One thing I wouldn't change about the PGA Championship is the participation of PGA professionals. In fact, I'd argue that reverting to match play could give them a chance to play a bigger role in the tournament.
If PGA professionals were automatically slotted to face each of the top two seeds in the opening round of the tournament, I bet a teaching pro would scare the daylights out of at least one of the game's top players. Anything can happen in an 18-hole match, just like Richmond, a 15 seed, found a way to beat Syracuse, a 2 seed, in the 1991 NCAA basketball tournament.
Even if the teaching pros got crushed, they wouldn't be lost in the shuffle of a stroke play field. The PGA professionals would be guaranteed a few hours in the spotlight. 
The 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol Country Club will almost assuredly have to be moved to a non-traditional date because golf will return as an Olympic sport in Rio, where the Games will run from Aug. 5-21. As long as the PGA of America is changing the tournament's date, I hope it takes the next step and changes the format too.
While I wait, I'll get back to filling out my office pool's Match Play bracket.