Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 22, 2010


On Sunday afternoon in the Sonoran desert north of Tucson, Ian Poulter sunk a ten foot putt on the thirty-fourth hole of the championship match to defeat Paul Casey by 4&2 and win the 2010 Accenture Match Play Championship. The tournament is the only regular PGA Tour event that is played under the match play format. Which is really too bad, though I know that I will be invited to play in a PGA Tour event before that fact changes.

The standard tour event is of course 72 holes of stroke play. Four eighteen hole rounds of golf, and whoever completes the event with the fewest total strokes takes home the trophy and a big check. It’s been that way forever, it’s what even a casual fan is familiar with and, most important, it ensures the television networks that some well-known players will be around for our viewing pleasure on the weekend. Never was this truer than at last year’s Masters, when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were paired together on Sunday. With the exception of one eighteen inch tap-in for Phil, CBS showed every single stroke that the two superstars struck on that Sunday. The only problem with that was that but for a brief front nine run by Mickelson, neither of them was really in contention. Meanwhile, much of the golf played by Angel Cabrera, Chad Campbell and Kenny Perry, who wound up in a three-way playoff for the green jacket, was ignored. A broadcasting decision that was undoubtedly good for ratings was not so great for anyone interested in the actual outcome of the golf tournament.

Match play, on the other hand, is single-elimination golf, which networks understandably hate. Sixty-four players teed it up last Wednesday, and by the end of the first day half of them were headed home. While neither Woods nor Mickelson competed (the former remains in his self-imposed exile for conduct unbecoming a husband, and the latter was on a family vacation that had been scheduled for an earlier time but delayed by his wife’s breast cancer treatment), there were plenty of familiar names and fan favorites in the original field. But when the CBS broadcast started on Sunday afternoon, the only player on the course who the casual fan might recognize was Sergio Garcia, who was playing in (and ultimately losing) the consolation match for third place. Ian Poulter? If the name registered at all with a casual fan, it would likely be as the guy in the loud outfits. And while his all-pink ensemble on Sunday did not disappoint in that regard, I can well imagine remote controls all across the country turning televisions to other channels. From its inception in 1916 through 1957, the PGA Championship, the final major of every golf season, was match play. The switch to stroke play coincided with the advent of televised golf, hardly a coincidence. Which is why, as I wrote earlier, I’ll be on the tour before we see more than this one annual match play event.

But for millions of amateur golfers, match play is a familiar and exciting format. At both exclusive private clubs and hardscrabble municipal courses, Tuesday evening leagues and club championships alike are decided by match play. It’s a different game. In stroke play, I’m going to ignore my playing partner, who is no more or less important than everyone else in the field. In match play, his game directly affects mine. He hit a bad approach? Fine, I’ll just aim for the center of the green. He’s got a three-foot putt to tie this hole? I’ll give it to him now, early in the match, but not later, when the pressure’s on. Within the course of the match, momentum often swings back and forth, sometimes with a single shot. As it did on Sunday, when on the par five 15th with both players needing to chip onto the green with their third shots Poulter hit a perfect lob wedge from a swale below and short of the green (with a mud-caked ball to boot), to six inches. A seemingly impossible shot, executed beyond any reasonable definition of possibility. With the conceded birdie, a two-up lead went to three-up when Casey’s own birdie putt lipped out of the cup. That came after a long string of holes in which Casey was slowly but steadily coming back from having been four down. One hole later, it was over.

Match play is the hand-to-hand combat of a traditionally genteel game. After all, where but on a golf course could one witness hand-to-hand combat with one of the warriors dressed all in pink? For the six or seven of us who were tuned in, Sunday’s play was genuinely exciting. Would it really be so bad to change things up a bit another two or three times a year? Unfortunately, since the PGA Tour pays a lot more attention to the wishes of TV networks than the wishes of weekend golfers, the answer is yes.

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