4 reasons this edition of The Match will be very different (and better!)

max homa, rose zhang, rory mcilroy and lexi thompson

The ninth edition of The Match will feature Max Homa, Rose Zhang, Rory McIlroy and Lexi Thompson.

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Rose Zhang was in the trenches. Those were her words at least. The 20-year-old phenom had called in to media availability for next week’s ninth edition of The Match from Palo Alto and the campus of Stanford University. What were those trenches? Just a stats exam, taken the night prior. We’ve all been there. 

On the other end of that call were maybe a dozen media members and three other pro golfers, all of them quite a bit older than Zhang: Lexi Thompson, Rory McIlroy and Max Homa — the starting cast for Monday’s made-for-TV golf match (TNT, MAX — 6:30 p.m. ET). You didn’t have to look hard to see the differences there. McIlroy (34), Homa (33) and Thompson (29) were all calling in from their very adult homes. And then there was Zhang, wearing her over-ear headphones, shuffling from one room to an outdoor seating area where there would be a better wifi connection.

Golf has had no shortage of made-for-TV matches in recent years, but it has been clamoring for something like this — one that pits men and women competing on the same stage. And, if we’re being greedy, one that shines new light on characters who sports fans deserve to hear about. In fact, there are a handful of reasons why this edition of The Match will be more interesting than any of the others we’ve seen before. 

The Gen Z-er

“I mean, I represent Gen Z a little bit,” Zhang said with a laugh. She was off to her next class in just a few minutes, pursuing what remains of her degree at Stanford during winter quarter, which she called a “grind oriented” time on campus. Yes, Monday’s match is a bit of a field trip across the country, and one of her more strict professors is keen to see her back in class when she’s done starring on television.

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What’s refreshing about Zhang — beyond her off-course pursuits — is we’re still learning things about her. McIlroy and Thompson — we’ve been watching them for 15 years. But Zhang is still so new, her entire career laid out ahead of her on an undefined trajectory. This time last year, she was amping up for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. (Which she won.) But now, she’s a champion on the LPGA Tour and made her Solheim Cup debut. Her ascent continues and, as she acknowledged Thursday, she’ll be competing against people she grew up watching on television. 

During the call, she was asked what it’ll be like showing off her personality to a new set of viewers. Her first thought was to acknowledge she has a bit of “an RBF” in competition. That’s short for Resting B—-h Face or, in one word, a scowl. We may not see a ton of that during the good-natured TV comp, but we should see plenty of her personality on full display. Especially with Charles Barkley and Christina Kim on the broadcast.

The Course

Unlike past iterations of The Match — many of which have been hosted by private clubs or Las Vegas resort courses — the host of this match is The Park in West Palm Beach. Though it’s located around a hotbed of private golf courses, it’s about as far as you can get from exclusivity. 

“That facility, The Park in West Palm, is already growing the game in some way,” McIlroy said. “I’ve witnessed it first-hand. I’ve been down there and I’ve played golf a couple times. If you go there on a weeknight, 6 p.m., the place is filled with kids playing golf, boys and girls. I think that’s what was really exciting about this opportunity was the fact that we’re using a facility that is completely open to the public.”

What the owners of The Park have created is a truly modern golf establishment. Which is to say, they’ve got all the amenities golfers could want in one place — a TopGolf driving range, a putting course, a 9-hole par-3 track you can play under the lights. All of that in addition to the 18-hole course designed by Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and Dirk Ziff. When the professionals play Monday, it’ll be under the lights. Otherwise, it’s simply just a proper golf hang for all types of golfers.

“I had a great time at The Match with Tiger and Justin and Jordan,” McIlroy continued. “Whenever that was, like a year and a bit ago. But I would like to think that this match will hopefully be more impactful for the game of golf going forward than that one.”

The Obvious 

The most glaring difference between this match and past versions is easy to see. It will feature two of the best male golfers on the planet against two of the best female golfers. A battle of the sexes? If you’d like to call it that, go ahead. But the format is 1 v 1 v 1 v 1, so everyone is playing for themselves. Most importantly, they’ll be playing many of the same shots into the same greens, allowing viewers to understand the nuanced differences between the skillsets of each player. All players will play from the same tee boxes on the par-3s, while the women will play from a set of tees farther up on the par-4s and par-5s to help make the approach shots of each player as similar in distance as possible. 

There has been a recent push to display the best male and female golfers on the same playing field, with the creation of the Grant Thornton Invitational — which pairs an LPGA pro with a PGA Tour counterpart — or the Vic Open in Australia, which hosts a men’s and women’s tournament on the same courses at the same time. But what can we hopefully learn from this broadcast? Hopefully something about swing speeds. Male pros tend to swing with faster speeds than their female counterparts, but the women play a much more accurate game. You can count the fairways and greens hit, sure, or you can watch the accuracy that, say, Zhang displays with a hybrid in hand. We’ll let Max Homa explain: 

“The elegance that they [hit hybrids and woods] and the skills that they have to do that are something to learn from, more so than ‘How does Rory hit it 360?’ My friends will never be able to do that. I will never be able to do that. So I feel like it’s actually quite fascinating to watch. They’re completely different skill sets, I feel like, in the men’s and women’s game. But that doesn’t make one better than the other. And I feel like if people can be more exposed to that and tune into it, they would find a beauty in both the uniquenesses of the kind of differences in the games. The women are incredibly accurate and make shots with certain clubs seems so easy. You know, I’m not sure I’ve hit many greens with my 7-wood in the last year. And when I watch women’s golf, it just seems like it’s target practice.”

The Format

While it may seem somewhat disappointing that we’re not getting a Homa/McIlroy vs. Thompson/Zhang match, or even a Zhang/Homa vs. Thompson/McIlroy fourball, the format of this event might be the ideal setup for these made-for-TV matches. 

It’s simple: 1 v 1 v 1 v 1, 12-hole skins game, where you win skins by beating everyone else on that hole. If there’s a two-way tie at the top, then the skin on that hole is rolled over to the next. The main reason this matters is that it tends to keep the match undecided until the final few holes, especially if the skins vary in value. If Homa wins the 2nd hole, claiming two skins, he has to continue to defend his turf against, say, three skins rolled over to the 5th hole. Generally, you’ll reach the 10th, 11th or 12th holes with some deciding skins having rolled over, and it’s winner-take-all.

Only the hardest of golf hardos would remember that we’ve done 1 v 1 v 1 v 1 skins before. It was called The Challenge: Japan Skins, and it took place in the middle of the night in America, when Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama played a skins match during the week of the ZoZo Championship back in 2019. There were closest-to-the-pin challenges and holes played with just one club. It was a little goofy, very golfy, but mostly just something to watch. And since there were a bunch of skins on the line late, it went down to the last hole, where Day prospered. If The Match No. 9 ends up anything like the Japan Skins, we’re in for a treat. 

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.