Once upon a time, or two years ago, the World Match Play Championship was the best nonmajor on the PGA Tour. Match play is golf’s most exciting and watchable format, with every hole offering an outcome—win, lose or draw. Plus there is a certain perverse pleasure in seeing some lightly regarded player (let’s say, Nick O’Hern) knock off a highly regarded player (let’s say, top-ranked Tiger Woods). Twice!
In the WMPC’s original, single-elimination format, the thrill of the stunning upset, whether it was Tiger, Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson getting bounced in the opening round, probably didn’t offset the fallout of losing the event’s biggest names. But let’s be honest: Those upsets were as compelling as hell.
So then came last spring’s new-and-improved event at venerable Harding Park in San Francisco. The single-elimination format was replaced by a round-robin setup that featured 16 four-man pods and thus guaranteed each player three matches. The players with the best records advanced to the weekend’s Sweet 16.
New and improved? Well, even Jordan Spieth was a hater, and you know nice, squeaky-clean, polite Jordan: He likes everything. “If change in format was wanted/needed,” Spieth tweeted, “makes sense to do stroke play first 3 rounds, then top 16 into bracket. Agree?”
No, but it’s easy to sympathize with Spieth. He was 15 under par, had a 2–1 record and did not advance to the weekend. You can write off Spieth’s comments as sour grapes that fall under the event’s oft-repeated, all-purpose explanation: Well, that’s match play.
So the revised World Match Play wasn’t an instant hit. But its winner—McIlroy—brought validation. Even Tour commissioner Tim Finchem offered an uncharacteristic non-lawyer-speak reaction: “The new format is accomplishing what we want it to do, which is give our fans three days of the top 64 players instead of losing half of them on Wednesday.”
Now here comes the new-and-improved-again Dell World Match Play Championship. It moves to Austin Country Club on the scenic shores of Lake Austin. My informal survey of a few Tour players produced mixed reactions to the format change.
“Now that I’m a spectator, I think the round-robin format is better,” says Padraig Harrington, who’s not in this week’s field. “As a player, I’d want straightforward match play. That’s the real thing, what I grew up with—none of this getting-a-second-chance stuff. As a spectator, though, why not keep the big names around as long as possible?”
The revamped format eliminated the sense of urgency and finality and led to too many meaningless Friday matches—seven of 32 to be exact. Unfortunately, that scenario still exists. The one major change does away with sudden death. Matches tied after 18 holes will go in the book as a tie. Players get one point for a win, half a point for a tie. The player with the most points in each pod advances. (Head-to-head result is the first tiebreaker; otherwise, players will go to sudden-death stroke play.)
“I still like the idea of playoff holes,” says Harrington. “Guys have to sweat those out. The nasty thing is when you’re 1 up and playing the last and you think, If I lose this hole, I can still lose the match. So that’s missing. I’d favor a winner in every match.”
While I love Harrington’s competitiveness, I’m willing to roll with the times (TV, in other words). If it’s really about the golf, with a round robin you get 96 matches over three days versus 56 with single elimination. Those Wednesdays and Thursdays used to be fun, but an additional 40 matches? Sold!
Ties may keep more players mathematically alive until Friday’s action, so that’s a plus. I applied this system to last year’s matches and found a few possible result changes. In Group 1, McIlroy would have faced Billy Horschel in a playoff. (Rory prevailed in 20 holes; otherwise, each would have been 2-0-1.) Five other pods would have had playoffs too, including a four-way shootout because Brooks Koepka, J.B. Holmes, Russell Henley and Marc Warren would have had 1-1-1 records. It might be enough to turn Freaky Friday into a tournament mainstay.
Then there’s the venue, a Pete Dye design that’s so cozy, ticket sales will be limited to 10,000 per day. “This is a great match-play course,” says Tour player Bob Estes, an Austin CC member who lives adjacent to the course. “It’s a little short for stroke play, but there are all kinds of dramatic holes and shots.”
The nines will be reversed so that every match will see the original 18th hole; it’s too good not to play. The 476-yard par-4 has a stunning elevation drop, and aggressive players can risk going long down the right side, missing trees and bunkers, in hopes of catching a downslope and having a tee shot carom within sand-wedge range. Conservative players who lay up to the top of the hill will have to hit a mid-iron.
The 12th and 13th are beautiful, potentially pivotal holes. The former is a downhill, reachable par-5 whose green is tucked next to the water. The latter is a par-4 that may be drivable. There’s water left.
“Somebody could go eagle-eagle at 12 and 13 and flip a match,” Estes says, “or a guy may get too aggressive and go double-double and flip his match the wrong way.”
One more thing: The shots from the blimp will be spectacular. Lots of water, cliffs, hills and a postcard view of the arch-style Pennybacker Bridge.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth,” Estes says. “So many people are going to want to move to Austin and join the club when they see this on TV.” With a laugh, he adds, “I don’t think we really want that. It’s already getting crowded here.”