As the PGA Tour deserts match play, the LPGA strikes gold with the format
On Thursday, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan finally delivered the news: the PGA Tour will not have a match play event in 2024.
“I’ve heard that commentary, and it’s something that we’re well aware of and it’s helpful. But I think as we transition out of the WGC Dell Match Play and we think about ‘24, I think it’s unlikely that we’ll have a match play event in ‘24,” Monahan told SiriusXM PGA Tour radio. “Do I see match play returning to the PGA Tour? Absolutely. I hope that’s the case.”
The information hardly rang as a surprise. The demise of a regular match play presence on Tour had been predicted from the moment the news emerged the event wouldn’t return to Austin in 2024. Given the overall upheaval to the Tour schedule, quickly finding a new partner for the Tour’s only annual match play event seemed unlikely. There would still be the Presidents Cup, which was more than enough in the meantime.
Match play is an inherently difficult business proposition in professional golf. For television partners, the dwindling field sizes and risk of big-name departures lead to limited patience. For tournament hosts, the same factors work against ticket sales and attendance intrigue.
But it was telling, at least, that on the same day Monahan gave a grim outlook for the near future of match play on the PGA Tour, its siblings on the LPGA Tour were reviving a match play event of their own.
It’d been five years since the International Crown — a biennial match play event pitting national teams against one another — was contested on the LPGA, a function of both the pandemic and the ensuing financial and logistical difficulties it brought about.
But in 2023, the International Crown reentered the fold with renewed juice. The 32 players in the field represented some of the very best the game had to offer, from South Korean stars Jin Young Ko and Ingee Chun to Americans like Nelly Korda, Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson and Europeans like Magdelene Sagstrom and Anna Nordqvist. In all, six of the top 10 players in the world were in attendance for the event; a star-studded clash of both former major-winners and rising stars. Unlike in years past, the event would be held on a public golf course (TPC Harding Park) in the heart of a major metropolitan area (San Francisco). That Harding Park had hosted the PGA Championship just three years prior only added to the buzz.
The format for the International Crown was simple. Four-player teams from eight countries (the U.S., Sweden, China, England, Thailand, Australia, Japan and South Korea) would be divided into two pools and compete in two days of four-ball. From there, the top four finishers would advance to the weekend. On Saturday and Sunday, the top four teams would pair off and face each other in two singles matches and one alternate-shot match. The two semis winners would advance to the finals, where they’d repeat the process all over again, until a winner was … crowned.
As the weekend progressed, so did the excitement. The U.S. and Sweden, two expected stalwarts, escaped easily from one side of the eight-team pool-play bracket. While on the other side, an early upset sent shockwaves through the event when Thailand and Australia toppled the heavily favored Koreans on consecutive days.
The upset frenzy only grew on the weekend when Australia and Thailand dispatched the U.S. and Sweden in the semis, setting the stage for a Group B rematch between the Southern Pacific nations in the finals. In the end, team Thailand — led by the Jutanugarn sisters, World No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul and No. 57 Patty Tavatanakit — proved a juggernaut, sweeping the underdog Australians in the final round to claim the title and going 11-1-0 during the whole of tournament play.
It was a momentous victory for Team Thailand, who claimed their first title at the event, but it was an even bigger win for the tournament format, which won over both players and far-away fans over the course of the weekend.
“I would say when I’m growing up, when I’m turning pro, I always want to inspire the kids back home,” Ariya Jutanugarn said afterward. “Right now I feel even better because not only me right now, I have Patty, Atthaya and Mo, and we’re just going to keep doing the same thing.”
This, it seems, is the benefit of an event like the International Crown — the sort of team-based, high-drama competition one can rarely find outside of match play in the world of professional golf. It’s why so many fans lust for the Solheim, Presidents and Ryder Cups, and why so many more were disappointed when the Tour announced the impending demise of the Dell Technologies (even if Austin was more solo-focused than the above team-first competitions).
Of course, the men’s game will have plenty of match play opportunities in the future. The Ryder Cup is just months away and, who knows, maybe another match play event will find its way onto the PGA Tour schedule in 2025. In the meantime, though, we’d recommend Tour brass take a long look at the competition that concluded at Harding Park on Sunday afternoon. As golf’s global profile grows, the International Crown proved high-level, high-fun entertainment … and not only for the fans.
“We had more good vibes, and I think we just had fun,” Thitikul said. “We really had fun out there, especially in the practice round and tournament rounds.
“I think it’s good memories for us forever.”