My favorite non-major championship has undergone a facelift. I’m not sure what to make of it yet.
The Cadillac Match Play, formerly known as the Accenture Match Play, has a new sponsor, a new venue — San Francisco’s Harding Park — and a new format. It’s never easy to embrace change and I liked the old Match Play format so much that I’m going to withhold my blessing on the latest edition until I see it in action this week.
Why do I like the Match Play so much? Remember, this is the event that brought us:
- Black Wednesday, in 2002, when Peter O’Malley eliminated top-ranked Tiger Woods in the first round.
- Black Thursday, in ’05, when Aussie Nick O’Hern defeated Tiger in the second round. (O’Hern went on to beat Tiger a second time a few years later.) In 2009, we got a rerun when Tim Clark knocked out Tiger, again in the second round.
- Black Friday, in ’06, when Tiger, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, the world’s top-ranked trio, were each ousted. Network execs needed to be kept away from sharp objects.
- Woods, also in ’06, delivering a 9-and-8 thrashing to a foolishly mouthy Stephen Ames. When Tiger was asked about Ames’s critical comments, he kept replying, “Nine and eight.”
- Darren Clarke, in 2000, slaying the then-unbeatable Tiger in a 36-hole finalé at La Costa. It may have been the finest golf the Northern Irishman has ever played.
- Jeff Maggert, in ’99, chipping in on the 38th hole to defeat Andrew Magee in what was the tournament’s most sudden and dramatic finish, even if it involved two players who were mostly unfamiliar to the public.“
- Davis Love III, in ’04, having a heckler tossed out during his match against Tiger because he thought the fan crossed the line with his vociferous anti-Love sentiments.“
My list of highlights could go on and on. The fact is, the best three days of golf during the year used to be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Match Play. Half of the field went home after the first day—how dramatic and traumatic is that? A match-play event was also a nice break for the Tour.“
Cue the facelift. The ’15 edition will be completely different. The single–elimination format is gone, replaced by a round-robin setup in which every player will play at least three matches before heading home.That guarantees that the superstars will be around for three days. The downside: The win-or-go home drama that used to be Wednesday through Friday will now be relegated to Friday, and only in some of the matches. Here’s how it will work:“Those NCAA basketball-like brackets are gone and replaced by pods. Not the pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” These pods are like four-man leagues. The 64-man field will split into 16 four-man pods. Each player tees it up against each of the other players in his pod. The player with the best record in each pod advances to the Sweet 16.“
If two players tie for first in their pod with 2-1 records, the player who won his head-to-head match will advance. If three players finish tied at 2-1 (with the fourth pod member at 0-3), a one-hole, sudden-death playoff will be held. No in-pod matches will end in ties. All will go extra holes until a winner is determined.“
“This is a very cool concept,” said Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 ranked player, when the revised tournament was announced. “The new group format is going to make for a very exciting three rounds.”
Not so fast, Rory. Wednesday’s matches are no longer do or die. Yes, players who lose will have their backs against the wall, but they can still make it to Saturday’s Sweet 16. Thursday’s second round will have more drama because a player who goes 0-2 has no chance to advance. Thursday should be a fun day to watch.
Friday is the day the survivors will be determined. Problem is, a portion of the pool will be playing dead-head golf—that is, playing with an 0-2 record and zero chance of advancing. It’ll be like playing in the consolation round.
There will be a slight money incentive. The 48 players who don’t make the second round will earn finishes based on their won-lost records. For example, all the players at 0-3 may tie for 55th, depending upon how many there are. The players at 1-2 may tie for 38th, and so on, with prize money and world ranking points awarded accordingly.
The 16 top-ranked players will be placed in 16 separate pods. Each pod will be filled out by a lottery drawing—one player each from rankings 17-32, 33-48 and 49-64. Naturally, this event will be turned into a TV show. Yawn.
Is this new Match Play system better than the old lose-and-go-home? My gut says no but, hey, I’m open to experimentation.
One possible glitch is time. What happens when a late match on Friday goes four, five or six extra holes and the winner ends up in a three-way tie in his pod and thus has to go back out in a three-man, sudden death playoff? It probably won’t finish before dark. There are two rounds of matches on Saturday and two more on Sunday—the winner and runner-up will play seven matches in five days. Even a tiny weather delay and this event is looking at a Monday finish.
Let’s hope this facelift is like a good fairy tale and has a happy ending. We’ll see.
This article appeared in the most recent issue of SI Golf+ Digital, our weekly e-magazine. Click here to read this week’s issue and sign up for a free subscription.