Bunker Men­tal­ity

The match play for­mat has fallen out of favour with event or­gan­is­ers, spon­sors and es­pe­cially the me­dia in pref­er­ence for the more pre­dictable for­mat of stroke play.

HK Golfer - - Contents - By Mike Wil­son

De­spite con­sid­ered by many to be the purest form of com­pet­i­tive golf by re­cre­ational play­ers on golf courses around the world, as Mike Wil­son ar­gues, the match play for­mat has fallen out of favour with event or­gan­is­ers, spon­sors and es­pe­cially the me­dia in pref­er­ence for

the more pre­dictable for­mat of stroke play.

Match play is the near­est thing in golf to handto-hand com­bat, manoa-mano, head-to-head com­pe­ti­tion. But with 72-hole pro­fes­sional stroke play tour­na­ments over the world al­most ev­ery week of the year, this more tried-andtested for­mat has be­come tire­some, fore­see­able and te­dious. Even the Olympic Games golf tour­na­ment fol­lows suit, buck­ing the win­ner­takes-all knock-out trend of other Olympic sports such as ten­nis and box­ing.

Back in the day, other than the Open Cham­pi­onship, the high­light of the golfing year was the World Match Play Cham­pi­onship, which her­alded the ar­rival of au­tumn and sig­nalled the begin­ning of the end of the golf sea­son.

Staged at the world-fa­mous Went­worth Club near Lon­don, the World Match Play Cham­pi­onship, the brain­child of the late Mark H. McCor­mack, which he used - some might say ‘ex­ploited’ - as a ve­hi­cle for a small sta­ble of world-class play­ers, me­dia in­ter­ests, pre­mium spon­sors and event or­gan­is­ers. The early busi­ness model that is to­day In­ter­na­tional Man­age­ment Group (IMG), the most dom­i­nant force in the global sport.

Played in early Oc­to­ber on the in­fa­mous Burma Road, Went­worth’s renowned West Course, redo­lent with early-morn­ing mist, dew on the greens and a riot of au­tum­nal colours on the trees, McCor­mack’s World Match Play Cham­pi­onship was THE busi­ness. A sport­ing in­sti­tu­tion, an oc­ca­sion as much as an event, live on TV in the free-to-air era, com­pul­sive view­ing as the best in the busi­ness went head-to-head, win­ner-takes-all, no sec­ond chances.

Launched in 1964, the late, great Arnold Palmer lifted the in­au­gu­ral crown 2&1 against home favourite Neil Coles, earn­ing the £5,000 first prize out of a to­tal purse of £16,000. Arnie,

Gary Player and Jack Nick­laus - the BIG three - shar­ing seven of the first eight ti­tles. Spon­sors such as Rolex, Pi­cadilly, Toy­ota, Col­gate and even Ja­panese ‘Scotch’ whisky brand, Sun­tory queued-up, as did 10-000-plus galleries ev­ery day to wit­ness the un­fold­ing drama of raw, com­pet­i­tive match play golf.

Avoid­ing a self-in­dul­gent stroll down mem­ory lane, the World Match Play Cham­pi­onship was the best in the busi­ness, ap­peal­ing to - and be­ing won by - the best in the busi­ness. It’s roll-of-hon­our in­clud­ing Seve Balles­teros, Greg Nor­man, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Vi­jay Singh, Ian Woos­nam, all Ma­jor cham­pi­ons. One man, Ernie Els, a res­i­dent on the Went­worth es­tate tak­ing the ti­tle on no fewer than seven oc­ca­sions, a ver­i­ta­ble. ‘Who’s Who’ of men’s pro­fes­sional golf.

Not even a rank­ing event on the Euro­pean Tour or Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing (OWGR) un­til 2004, the stars still came out to play. But by the time HSBC took over as ti­tle spon­sor from tech gi­ant Cisco in 2003, the jewel in McCor­mack’s crown had be­gun to lose some of its lus­tre.

Much of the top tal­ent pre­ferred to re­main state­side, play­ing stroke play event af­ter stroke play event, all for the mega-bucks on of­fer on home U.S. soil. Eng­land’s Paul Casey be­came the win­ner of golf’s first-ever £1m first prize when he de­stroyed 2003 U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship win­ner Shaun Micheel 10&8.

And therein lay the begin­ning of the end of top-class match play golf. Broad­cast­ers left with hours of air­time to fill fol­low­ing an un­timely vic­tory just af­ter half-time. TV ex­ec­u­tives pre­fer­ring the near-cer­tainty of a timely con­clu­sion to each day’s play, not­with­stand­ing the ex­tended - and equally un­pre­dictable - air­time re­quired for a sud­den-death stroke play play­off.

Hav­ing ar­rived with a bang, McCor­mack’s match play, now in en­forced hi­ber­na­tion but still owned and man­aged by his IMG em­pire long af­ter his un­timely death in 2003, went out with a whim­per, fail­ing to take place at all in 2008 and 2010 un­der Volvo’s ti­tle spon­sor­ship. The event had Went­worth in its DNA shunted around un­likely destinatio­ns like Bul­garia. Less-than-stel­lar cham­pi­ons such as Ross Fisher, Nicholas Col­saerts and Mikko Ilo­nen claim­ing a crown once the ex­clu­sive pre­serve, not of capable jour­ney­men pro­fes­sion­als, but the world’s finest golfers, aris­toc­racy and roy­alty in­deed.

The event’s ul­ti­mate demise in 2014, by which time it had, iron­i­cally, re­turned to south-east Eng­land, to the Lon­don Club. But it was long over­due, over­shad­owed by the WGC Match Play on the PGA TOUR. The fact that Tiger Woods only played the Went­worth event once in his ca­reer, in 2006, and only then when of­fered an ap­pear­ance fee from his then IMG agents worth more than the first prize it­self, telling its tale on an event in ter­mi­nal de­cline.

McCor­mack’s match play wasn’t helped by the ar­rival of the WGC Match Play in 1999, one of four big-money WGC events. The prize fund for the in­au­gu­ral event was US$5m, of which the cham­pion Jeff Mag­gart

earned US$1m, and now of­fers a US$10m purse with 2018 cham­pion Bubba Wat­son win­ning US$1.7m. Even this ver­sion of golf’s hand-to-hand com­bat has failed to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of the play­ers, venues, of which it has had seven to date, in­clud­ing an Aus­tralian so­journ in 2001, TV ex­ec­u­tives and their au­di­ences.

Orig­i­nally a straight knock-out for­mat, where one bad day at the of­fice could see any one of the top 64 play­ers on the OWGR el­i­gi­ble to play head­ing home af­ter day one. More re­cent in­car­na­tions, since 2015 and in­clud­ing this year’s event in Austin, Texas, have seen round-robin groups cre­ated, pad­ding, to en­sure each player at least three matches. Mem­bers of the me­dia still un­happy given the num­ber of mean­ing­less fi­nal group games where one or both play­ers had failed to qual­ify for the knock-out stage.

As with most WGC events, Tiger Woods was the big­gest ben­e­fi­ciary, win­ning the event on three oc­ca­sions af­ter los­ing to Dar­ren Clarke on de­but in the event in 2000. But at least, un­like the later ver­sions of McCor­mack’s match play, the cream in­vari­ably came to the top. Matt Kuchar, Dustin John­son, Rory McIl­roy and Ja­son Day (twice) get­ting their name - and hands - on the dis­tinc­tive pale blue and gold ce­ramic tro­phy.

The LPGA Tour has flirted with match play tour­na­ments. The HSBC Women's World Match Play Cham­pi­onship lasted just three years, be­tween 2005 to 2007, re­placed by the Sy­base Match Play Cham­pi­onship, which con­tin­ued just three years also. Whilst the Asian Tour’s only flir­ta­tion with what many con­sider to be the purest form of the game be­ing the team-based Eura­sia Cup.

And that’s the idio­syn­crasy of pro­fes­sional golf’s re­la­tion­ship with the headto-head for­mat; it’s the for­mat of choice for some of the most thrilling and iconic events in world golf, such as the Ry­der Cup, the Pres­i­dent’s Cup and the Sol­heim Cup. All match play for­mats cre­ate high drama, raw emo­tion and elec­tri­fy­ing com­pe­ti­tion, without ex­cep­tion.

But when golf was ad­mit­ted back into the Olympic fam­ily for Rio 2016, and once again for Tokyo 2020, golf’s hi­er­ar­chy es­chewed the nat­u­ral for­mat of sports in the so-called, ‘Great­est show on earth,’ opt­ing in­stead for the stan­dard 72-stroke play for­mat, re­vert­ing to type with the sta­ple diet of pro­fes­sional cir­cuits all around the world.

But when other Olympic sports such as ten­nis and box­ing can cope with the de­feat of any of its mar­quee names, such as Roger Fed­erer and Amir Khan be­fore the fi­nal, why can’t golf, just once ev­ery four years and on the great­est global stage of all, repli­cate the drama of the Ry­der Cup with knockout com­pe­ti­tion? And in the tra­di­tion not only of the Olympic Games but the game of golf it­self?

Must match play golf al­ways be con­signed to the mar­gins, to suit play­ers, event or­gan­is­ers and mem­bers of the me­dia? Or does the view­ing pub­lic, on the course and TV de­serve some­thing more imag­i­na­tive?

Bubba Wat­son shakes hands with Justin Thomas af­ter de­feat­ing him 3&2 on the 16th green dur­ing the semi­fi­nal round of the World Golf Cham­pi­onship­sDell MatchPlay at Austin Coun­try Club

New Zealand's Ly­dia Ko com­petes in the fi­nal day of the Women's in­di­vid­ual stroke play at the 2016 Olympics

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