Tour Confidential: The final Match Play, LIV ratings, Masters Champions Dinner
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Sam Burns beat Cam Young to win the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club on Sunday, which was the Tour’s last annual match-play event until/if anything gets added in the future. The match-play format has been scrutinized in the past, much of which has been due to sponsors wanting top talent to stick around to attract fans and TV viewers. If the match play returns, should a new format come with it? And what kind of course/location might be a good fit?
Zephyr Melton, Assistant Editor (@zephyrmelton): I dig the format as is. Pods allow every player at least 54 holes, and then the knockout rounds are always exciting. As an Austin transplant, I’m sad to see the tournament leaving ACC, and I’d love to see it return to the shores of Lake Austin someday.
Jack Hirsh, Assistant Editor (@JR_HIRSHey): I agree with Z. I think this is the format that makes the most stakeholders happy. Would I love to see a true 64-man knockout bracket? Yes, but there has to be a balance between volatility, entertainment and satisfying the sponsors. Austin Country Club has been a great host. Jon Rahm mentioned earlier in the week how it’s great for match play and maybe not the best for stroke play since there are so many risk-reward holes. Match Play allows some more creative setups since there’s no par or field to protect. That allows a course like, say Bandon Dunes, that could be used. Would love to see a more out-of-the-box course, but I would definitely not be upset for Austin to return.
Jessica Marksbury, Senior Editor (@Jess_Marksbury): Well said, guys. I don’t think anyone can argue with the big-name talent that was showcased from the Round of 16 onward. This was a great sign-off from Austin (at least, for now). As Jack said, nothing really matches the drama of a 64-man knockout, but this format feels like the right balance.
Jason Day advanced to the Round of 16 of the Match Play, and although he lost 2 and 1 to Scottie Scheffler, the surge into the weekend improved his OWGR and punched his ticket to the Masters, which he failed to qualify for last year. The former No. 1 has battled vertigo, injuries and swing changes and just last year was 175th in the World Ranking. Now he’s finished top 20 in eight of his last events. How impressive has his turnaround been; what’s been the key?
Melton: Health seems to be a big factor in his return to relevance. Plus, golf is a hard game. It’s easy to lose your swag, and sometimes for years at a time. He looks to be regaining confidence in his game, and he’ll be a dark horse to contend at Augusta.
Hirsh: Super impressive. It’s actually a good model for Spieth to look at. Day was the best putter on Tour in 2016, and No. 2 in strokes gained: putting. By 2021 he was 95th in the stat. So far in 2023, he’s 12th on Tour. He’s also had a big resurgence in his ball striking, which is probably all credited to his health and subsequent swing changes. He went from 145th in strokes gained: approach last year to 23rd this season.
Marksbury: It’s great to see Day playing well again. There are few things harder than rebuilding your swing, and like Spieth, Day has been open about his struggles, which makes him an easy guy to root for. In February, Day opened up about what a difficult journey it’s been for him recently: physical and mental struggles, the loss of his mom. And with all that going on, then you have to try and play your best golf? It’s so hard. But he’s finally seeing the fruit of all his efforts with Chris Como, and hopefully, that will snowball into the confidence he’s been missing.
Masters week is creeping closer, meaning we’re also nearing what could be one of the most awkward Masters Champions Dinners in recent memory when PGA Tour and LIV golfers break bread together. Fred Couples has pulled no punches expressing some of his grievances, and just last week Ben Crenshaw said while he doesn’t anticipate much animosity, “it’s going to be difficult” at times and expects a few tense moments. How do you think golf’s most famous dinner will go down, and should some of the longest-tenured champs feel any pressure to make sure things go smoothly?
Melton: I would imagine the dinner will go smoothly, but with some awkward moments. I’d imagine the vibe will be similar to an awkward holiday dinner. Fireworks seem unlikely — no one wants to embarrass the green jackets.
Hirsh: I’m just waiting to hear what Tiger’s awkward joke is that everyone will be forced to laugh at.
Marksbury: I don’t think there’s any reason to believe things won’t go smoothly — this is Augusta National, after all! There are mini-groups of buddies who sit together every year. I don’t think any of those relationships have been irreparably damaged over the last year. My guess is players will gravitate toward their familiar comfort zones, and all will be well.
LIV Golf released preliminary TV numbers for its Tucson event March 18-19 — its second as part of its broadcast deal with the CW — and ratings dropped 24 percent when compared with its first event of the season. LIV sources told GOLF.com some drop-off was expected due to competition with the NCAA basketball tournament, but that said, what’s your takeaway here? Surprised?
Melton: LIV is obsessed with trying to control the narrative, so it’s not surprising to hear them having an excuse ready (no matter how legitimate it might be). As far as the lackluster numbers go — is anyone really surprised? The product thus far has been pretty uninspiring, and with the big-name stars near the bottom of the leaderboard, there isn’t much reason to tune in.
Hirsh: No, not surprised at all. LIV is running a propaganda campaign to make you think more people care about their product than really do. Their first event is always going to do better just on the sheer novelty factor. After that, people lose interest, especially when marquee names (Looking at you Bryson) are finishing 44th out of 48 while guys who haven’t won on the PGA Tour in nearly a decade are winning.
Marksbury: In order to be invested in an outcome, the viewer needs to be invested in what’s at stake. The PGA Tour has the advantage of offering major championship exemptions and Tour membership in addition to the award of big-time money to its winners. LIV is working with big money alone, so the “aspiration” factor is lacking since the team format has yet to draw eyeballs. But in fairness, this is only tournament No. 2 on the CW. Things could very well change.
The Augusta National Women’s Amateur is back for its fourth playing this week, and this year all three rounds — not just the final one at Augusta National — will be broadcast on TV. What’s a storyline those tuning in at home need to be aware of?
Melton: It’s gotta be Rose Zhang. She’s been the most dominant amateur on the planet the last few years, and adding a title at Augusta National would only bolster her resume. She was dominating a few years ago before a triple on 13 sunk her chances. Can she overcome that scar tissue amongst the azaleas?
Hirsh: The extra coverage is awesome. While I wanted to mention Rose here as well, I’ll go with Anna Davis coming back for her title defense. She just won the Junior Invitational across the border in South Carolina at Sage Valley. Now she’s got the first chance of any of the previous champions to defend her title at Augusta. Not to mention, she’s still just 17, depending on what she chooses to do for college (she is committed to Auburn), we could be seeing her for a few more years at the ANWA.
Marksbury: Great suggestions, guys. On Tuesday, I had the chance to chat with Maria Fassi at this week’s LPGA Drive On Championship, and she acknowledged what a huge deal the ANWA was in launching her pro career. Obviously, a lot has changed in only four years: Players can now enjoy lucrative NIL deals as collegiate athletes, which alleviates some of the pressure they might feel to turn pro right away. But you can’t overstate what a big deal it is to perform well as an up-and-comer at Augusta. From sponsor dollars to obtaining a built-in fan base, there are so many eyeballs — and incentives! — to play for. It’s awesome, and I can’t wait to tune in to all of it.