The most exciting thing to watch in golf is the back nine on a Sunday afternoon, with both members of the final group trading shot for shot, and a championship on the line. Whether at Augusta, an Open Championship venue, or at a regular tour stop, there’s a terrible tension born of the knowledge that each shot could be the one that wins or loses the Championship.
It’s that tension—that excitement—that explains why I love match play events. In match play, evey hole of every match is the equivalent of the back nine at Augusta on a Sunday.
Geoff Ogilvy said this past weekend that in the course of an entire PGA Tour season, he might face two or three “must make” shots, but would face eighteen of those a round at the Match Play championship.
In medal play, players know that if they lose a shot on one hole—or even a series of holes—they can make it up later. Announcers designate certain holes as birdie opportunities where players can get back up the leaderboard, as in: Bob Jones has fallen three behind, but that was the toughest part of the coure … now he’ll have an easy stretch where he can regain some of that lost ground.
Shots just can’t be “made up” in Match Play. A bad shot can cost a hole, and even winning the next does not erase the finality of that score. There’s also no way to take advantage of an easy stretch. Your sole opponent is playing the same holes at the same time.
Match Play is about interaction, and thus totally changes the calculus. Players must be keenly aware of what their opponents are doing. They can’t just “play their own game,” waiting to go low on holes that favor their shot peculiarities. Instead, they are forced to respond to the fine play—or miscues—of their opponents.
Pulling off a high risk – high reward shot forces an opponent to attempt the same. Conversely, a serious error gives an opponent an opening with a variety of ways to take advantage.
Even the post-round interviews are different in a match play event. Regular tournament interviews are rather boring affairs, with players recounting their thought processes on various holes, describing course conditions and thanking sponsors.
Post match play interviews are all about the competition. Players describe how their opponent’s putting put them on the defensive, or how their own long drives put pressure on the other guy. They talk about the hole where the momentum swung, and of giving up an unforced error. They talk strategy.
It’s too bad that the professional golf tours don’t offer more match play events. But television hates Match play and this weekend was a perfect example of why: the biggest names were all out before the final round on Sunday. Ogilvy and Casey are fine players—and Ogilvy is a superstar in the making—but the casual audience wants Tiger and Phil. In a medal play event, even if Tiger isn’t at the top of the board, the producers still can give him the lion’s share of the camera time. In the Match Play Championship, losers are nowhere to be found.
Television also hates Match Play’s unpredictable time clock. If the matches end early, the producers are stuck trying to find things to fill up empty television minutes.
One solution might be to create a winner’s and loser’s bracket after the Saturday round. There’s no practical reason for having just two matches on Sunday. Having four more players would offer much more variety. A loser’s bracket wouldn’t have kept Tiger around, but Phil, Ernie and other stars would have had matches on Sunday that the television could have used as filler.
As it is, I can’t wait for the President’s Cup this fall, when match play makes its return.