Golf’s version of March Madness returns this week with the WGC-Match Play. Unlike it’s basketball counterpart, however, a defeat won’t necessarily send a competitor packing.
For the first 16 years of its existence, the Match Play mirrored the bracket format of the NCAA Tournament: 64 entrants broken up into quadrants, with each match-up carrying a loser-leaves-town finality. But this layout was restructured in 2015 to round-robin pods. Each player in the group faces the other three in an 18-hole match, with the round-robin winner advancing to the Sweet 16.
From the PGA Tour’s perspective, what facilitated the change was two-fold. That each player now gets a minimum three rounds makes the investment, in the field’s collective eyes, worthwhile. Moreover, a round-robin format increases the odds of marquee names reaching the weekend, thus making the event more marketable to television audiences.
Conversely, critics now maintain that the pod system detracts from true match play spirit, and a handful of players still grumble about the format. “I understand why they’ve done it,” Henrik Stenson, a former Match Play winner, said in 2016. “They want more players to stay longer. Match play is always more intense. A match is like Sunday in contention. Three rounds of that and not advancing takes a lot out of you.”
Should the tour revert to the one-and-done format, or press forward with this hybrid configuration? Two of Golf Digest’s own, digital editor Sam Weinman and staff writer Joel Beall, speak for each side of the debate.
Bring back the chaos
One of the worst things you can say about the golf calendar is that tournament weeks have a tendency to blend together, but the old WGC Match Play was at least a deviation from the norm. On Wednesday of that week, it was 32 matches between the 64 best players in the world, half of whom would shake hands with their opponent and check out of their hotels before they even could make a dent in the mini-bar.
It was chaotic, unpredictable, and utterly impractical. It was also one of the best days of the year.
The argument against the single-elimination format, which the tour abandoned in favor of pool play in 2015, was that the Match Play risked becoming progressively less interesting as the weeks went on. Which is true if you believed the tournament’s fortunes hinged solely on having name brands in contention. But in hedging against upsets that would jettison marquee stars early in the week, the tour also sacrificed the event’s distinguishing feature. It made Wednesday, now just the first of three days of play pool, decidedly less compelling. And it only nominally increased the chances of your favorite player getting to stick around for the weekend.
Match play is a wild beast in which the best player doesn’t always win. That’s true after one round, but it can be just as true after six. At least in the old days, the Match Play was willing to embrace that reality head on.— Sam Weinman
Stick with the round robin
Golf has no heart for the underdog. Fans enjoy a fiery run from a longshot, but ultimately, they want a household name to triumph.
The tour is a business, and being in business means knowing your audience. The winners since the round robin’s implementation—Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Bubba Watson—indicates the tour’s been successful on this front.
Win-or-go-home is an alluring prospect, yet one that works better as a concept rather than methodology. The old Wednesdays were exciting but also overwhelming; it was tough to keep track of what was going on. Worse, the competition would lose its mojo by Friday. Yes, due to the lack of big names involved; aside from the Masters and maybe the U.S. and British Opens, what golf tournament’s marketability—or any sporting event for that matter—isn’t predicated off star power? The pod system keeps everyone in the proceedings—fans included—for at least two days, and the last few years showed there aren’t as many meaningless Friday matches as feared.
At this level, 18 holes are too arbitrary. That’s why the U.S. Amateur and old PGA Championships, two of the more prestigious match-play tournaments, have or had stroke play and cuts to narrow the fields.
At its core, a tournament should determine who played the best that week. Inherently, match play will always fall short of stroke competition, but the round robin at least improves the aim.— Joel Beall