The golf always overcomes all at the Cadillac Match Play. Why? Because match play is the most entertaining, dramatic and personal form of golf.
You saw how personal it can get when Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez had a dustup over a questionable drop by Bradley. Match play, even in you local YMCA league, is always personal by the end of the match.
You saw how entertaining and dramatic match play can be, too. Rory McIlroy’s darkness-delayed dogfight with Paul Casey was worth the price of admission. McIlroy had another thriller with Jim Furyk, needing an ocean liner of a putt to do it. And even the final, with McIlroy against big-hitter Gary Woodland was a good show when Woodland threatened to put a Mongolian Reversal on Rors on the back nine and made a quick charge that fell short.
It’s not often that the Match Play isn’t a good show on the weekend. This year was no exception despite the early week glitches.
Yes, the new format with the round-robin matches at last week’s Match Play was a disaster. Everything I said would go wrong did, from the public’s lack of interest on Wednesday and Thursday to the dead-head, no-win matches on Friday and to the issue of daylight—the Casey-McIlroy match Saturday didn’t finish before dark because the PGA Tour wanted to squeeze it into prime time. Bad call.
Eleven of Friday’s 32 matches drew dead. That is, no matter who won, they weren’t going to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. I can’t think of a better word for that than stupid.
The difference between finishing 0-3 and 1-2 in the round-robin pods was about $14,000 in prize money. The players with 0-3 records took home $49,384; the 1-2 players earned $63,500 and the 2-1 guys made $85,823. Plus there were the miscellaneous world ranking points and the FedEx Cup points.
Other glitches in the new format: The winner could possibly finish with a 6-1 mark although McIlroy was unbeaten. The loser of the consolation match could finish fourth with a 4-3 record. Thirty-two matches a day were too many to follow and focus on—the best days of the old win-or-go-home format were Thursday and Friday, when there were 16 and eight matches, respectively.
Even Jordan Spieth, who never has a bad word to say about anything, was critical of the confusing new format. The fact that nobody was more under par after three pod rounds than him and he didn’t advance may have been a contributing factor.
The problem with the Match Play is the same problem the PGA Tour has with the FedEx Cup. The Tour wants a playoff system but it doesn’t want real playoffs because some of the marquee players (Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were pretty much the only marquee players of the past 15 years) might lose in an actual playoff. Thus, the pointless season-long scoring system that nobody cares about, in part because the points reset at the end. The FedEx Cup doesn’t have the guts to be a real playoff system.
Apparently, the same is true for the Match Play. Any of these guys can shoot 61 the next round and win an 18-hole match against anyone else. Thus the marquee names (Phil and Tiger) were frequently eliminated before the weekend.
Hey, that’s match play. There’s no way around that even with pods, Mr. Commissioner. See Spieth for details.
The pods format should not return. It was a failed experiment.
I offer three possible solutions, none of which includes a portion of stroke play (ala the U.S. Amateur) because commissioner Tim Finchem said on NBC that he wouldn’t consider such and wanted to keep this all match play. I agree, Commish, so consider this:
The Big Bye Theory. Let’s go back to the single-elimination format, dog-eat-dog, with one difference. The No. 1 seed in each of the four brackets gets a first-round bye. This would necessitate cutting the field to the top 60 players in the world because you have to throw out the opponents the No. 1 players would have faced.
The pros: All the No. 1s make it to Thursday and they get the slight advantage of having to win only three matches to reach the semifinal, five to win the title.
The cons: None of the No. 1s are seen on TV on Wednesday and lower-ranked players may feel it is not a level playing field due to the byes.
The Super Sixteen Theory. We’re still going back to single-elimination, because that’s the heart of this tournament. This time, we’re expanding the field to the world’s top 80 players. The players ranked 1 through 16 in the world get two byes. The players ranked 17 through 80 play 32 matches on Wednesday, reducing their numbers to 32, then 16 matches on Thursday, reducing their size to 16 players. The remaining 16 players square off Friday with the 16 exempt players and finish off the weekend in the traditional do-or-die matches.
The pros: More players get a shot at the big money and the title. The biggest names must only win one match Friday to make it to the weekend—you’re welcome, NBC. More lower-ranked players mean more potential Cinderella stories like Danny Willett. The top-ranked players have to win only five matches for the title, not six or seven.
The cons: The most glamorous players aren’t playing Wednesday and Thursday—sorry about that, Golf Channel. Those top players probably wouldn’t be able to get out for a practice round on Wednesday, although there would be time Thursday, which might prove to be a disadvantage when they play Friday against players who already have two competitive rounds in at the course.
The Original Match Play. Sorry but what’s more fair than 64 players going at it, one on one, with the losers going home after each round? It’s the meritocracy of golf at its finest.
So you lose some big names. So what? Have you checked out the list of Match Play champions over the last 10 years? Jason Day, Matt Kuchar, Luke Donald, Hunter Mahan, Ian Poulter, Geoff Ogilvy, Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson and David Toms. There’s nothing wrong with that list, people, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Players don’t like going home after just one round? Too bad. They’re being well paid (that $49k is effectively an appearance fee) and if they don’t want the money or the chance to cherry-pick the low-hanging world ranking points, they can stay home.
The pros: Do-or-die drama from the start.
The cons: Some big names make early exits.
Optional wrinkle: The traditional No. 1 vs. No. 64 draw was pretty boring but at least it was better than the laughable lottery balls in this year’s show. How about something a little more creative?
Wrinkle Option A: Put the odd-numbered world rankings in one hat, the even-numbered rankings in the other and draw them out randomly for their respective halves of the brackets. Yes, you may get No. 1 vs. No. 3 in the first or second round but so what? Those guys almost never make to the final to meet then, anyway, so why not spice up the early round action?
Wrinkle Option B: Hold an NFL-style draft. The No. 1 player gets to pick his position on the bracket board and select his first-round opponent. No. 2 does likewise, and so on, and so on until the No. 32 player fills in the bracket with the last selection.
Not only would this create some pre-match rivalries, but maybe the No. 2 or No. 3 player in the world wants a piece of No. 1 and sets it up so that if he wins, he gets to face No. 1 in the second or third round. How cool would that be? There would be strategy in selecting opponents plus in choosing where in the brackets a player wanted to position himself for optimal success. Yeah, this could get personal. And that would be good.
Or you could just do the same old boring 1 versus 64 draw.
No need to thank me, Commissioner. Just throw down those pods and come out with your hands up and nobody gets hurt.