The New Match Play Format Still Needs Fixing

May 2, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO, Ca. — A dark mood moved in over TPC Harding Park this week as many players, especially the losers, questioned the new format of the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship even while they played it.

Keegan Bradley, Ian Poulter and others retreated into a furious silence as they trudged through their three guaranteed matches of “pool” play Wednesday through Friday. Bradley was slamming car doors after a tense second-round match against Bubba Watson on Thursday, when the two were observed arguing over a ruling on the 12th tee. Then came Friday’s standoff between 28-year-old Bradley and 51-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez, which didn’t quite reach the depths of Pedro Martinez pushing Don Zimmer to the turf at the 2003 ALCS, but seemed to come close.

How had it come to this?

Some of the discontent owed to the fact that most of these unhappy pros were playing poorly and would not advance into the weekend, but a lot of it had to do with the new format, which will need to be reconsidered.

Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, seemed to realize this when he met with a few reporters outside the clubhouse late Friday. Finchem, dressed casually, for him, in a pair of black golf shoes, some gray flannel pants and a sweater—no blazer—had been watching the Bill Haas-Henrik Stenson match, and said the players seemed to be having fun.

You can choose to believe that or not. The match was meaningless, since under the new format both were eliminated Thursday—John Senden, the 60th seed, clinched the pool win at 2-0—and Haas beat Stenson 2 and 1 in what Stenson predicted would be “a glorified practice round.”

No one wins a practice round.

Finchem went on to say the Tour will take input from players, fans, TV partners and others and meet to refine and improve the Match Play.

That’s a good start, because the new format has some problems that go beyond fans missing the drama of the bygone win-or-go-home rules.

First, it laid the groundwork for the bizarre scene in which Bradley and Jimenez and Bradley’s caddie, Steve Hale, went all Jerry Springer at one another in front of the world. Bradley was running hot all week, and Friday he finally snapped. Why? Because it’s stressful to play bad; it’s potentially insulting for players who simply don’t have it, like Bradley, Jason Day, Jimmy Walker and others who went 0-2 and then 0-3, to be required to stick around for three days and be exposed in front of the world, even when they can’t win. The greatest golfers on earth don’t like to be embarrassed. 

Of course not all of the 0-3s felt that way. Ryan Palmer was in a fine mood as he walked to his courtesy car in the players’ parking lot. He had played well in his first match (losing 4 and 2 to Anirban Lahiri), terribly in his second (falling to Marc Leishman 4 and 3), and well again in his third (losing 2 and 1 to Justin Rose despite being 2 under par through 17 holes). 

LEADERBOARD: Full Bracket For The WGC-Match Play

“There were still FedEx points to play for, and money,” Palmer said. “The new format is good. I mean, it needs some tweaks, but it worked.” 

Alas, Palmer’s sanguine take on the new format, though admirable, was something other than the company line among the 0-3s, whose ranks also included Brandt Snedeker, Matt Every, Brendon Todd, Victor Dubuisson, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell, Stephen Gallacher, Ryan Moore and Alexander Levy. 

Here’s why: 

Imagine a regular stroke play event in which a player can’t find any semblance of game on Thursday or Friday and misses the cut by a mile. Now suppose he is told he needs to come back and hack it around a third day, even though he can’t get back into contention even if by some miracle he suddenly remembers how to play golf and shoots 59 or even 54. 

How do you think that would go over? 

Poulter tweeted before his battle of the 0-2s with Walker on Friday that their match should be billed as, “Go home or go home.” That’s about right. With a relatively small amount of money and FedEx Cup points in the balance, Poulter won what he predicted would be the most meaningless match he’d ever played, 4 and 2. He finished 1-2; Walker wound up 0-3. None of it mattered. 

The embarrassment factor begins to explain how the hapless Bradley sunk into such a funk, but it’s not even the new format’s biggest problem. 

If the Tour does nothing else—Jordan Spieth tweeted after his loss on Friday that it could make the first three rounds stroke play and the rest match play, a bit like the U.S. Amateur—it will need to abandon the idea that head-to-head matchups should take the place of a sudden-death playoff. 

From a purely competitive standpoint, that was the tragic flaw of this new format. It’s what allowed Rickie Fowler and Senden to win their respective pools even before dinnertime Thursday, the equivalent of Vijay Singh clinching the 2008 FedEx Cup before the Tour Championship. 

With Fowler and Senden having already clinched, the other unlucky players in groups 13 and 3—namely Harris English and Shane Lowry in 13, and Haas and Stenson in 3—had no hope of advancing to this weekend’s knockout rounds despite going 1-1 in their first two matches. 

Fowler and Senden, meanwhile, could have skipped out and gone to the movies. (Instead both won again Friday, beating McDowell and Todd, respectively.) “It’s all come out a bit flat,” Stenson said. He was right. 

One of the unofficial goals of the new format was to give the stars a chance to hang around into the weekend even if they lose a match, and that happened, sort of. J.B. Holmes got through despite losing his first match to Marc Warren on Wednesday, and Jim Furyk advanced despite losing his second to a red-hot Thongchai Jaidee on Thursday. The other two pool winners with 2-1 records were lesser-known Branden Grace and Tommy Fleetwood, each of whom took a loss right out of the gate Wednesday. 

Grace, though, was the only one of these who had to survive an actual sudden-death playoff, beating Charley Hoffman and Zach Johnson with a birdie on the third extra hole in what was arguably the best drama of the first three rounds. Brooks Koepka missed out on a playoff in his group because there were only two players at 2-1, and he had already lost to the other one, Holmes. Ditto for George Coetzee and Furyk. 

It was a missed opportunity not just for Koepka and Coetzee, but also for the Tour and its TV partners and fans. More drama is always good, at least when it doesn’t involve shouting matches just off the fairway. 

After 96 matches, 16 players had survived to play the weekend at the new-look Match Play. Were they playing the best of anyone in the field? In some cases (Fowler, Senden, Lee Westwood) they were. In other cases it was debatable. 

In its first iteration, the tournament’s new format expanded the role of luck while minimizing the idea of golf as a strict meritocracy. It also bruised a few egos. I suspect both of these were unintended consequences. 

The Tour has a lot to figure out.

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