Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 23, 2012

Carnage In The Desert As Match Play Opens

Under sunny skies at the Ritz-Carleton Golf Club in the Sonoran desert northwest of Tucson, the PGA Tour’s one annual match play event has gone through its first two rounds, reducing a starting field of 64 contestants down to 16. The Accenture Match Play Championship can be fun to watch because of its novel format. Match play is something that many weekend golfers are familiar with, since it’s often the format used at club championships and local amateur events. It’s also the format that every year’s final major event, the PGA Championship, used for more than four decades from the tournament’s inception in 1916 until the switch to the conventional four rounds of stroke play in 1958. That change was made by the PGA of America under pressure from television broadcasters, who didn’t like the idea of using their relatively new medium to present a weekend of semifinal and final matches possibly devoid of recognizable names.

Unlike stroke play, where each golfer is competing against the entire field and one bad round can often be atoned for the following day, in match play each game is a one-round tournament in miniature between two players; with the player winning the most holes continuing on to the next round while the loser heads to the airport. Because of that randomness and unpredictability, match play continues to be the bane of television broadcast executives, more than half a century after the PGA Championship’s switch. But for one week out of the year one network, in this case NBC, must live with the fact that by the time casual fans tune into Saturday’s and Sunday’s broadcasts, there is no guarantee they will see a remotely familiar face, much less one wearing a red shirt.

With two rounds of matches in the books this year’s tournament is well on its way to increasing the level of angst at NBC headquarters in New York. Of the 32 matches played on Wednesday, the barest majority of 17 were won by the higher seeded golfer, with the seedings based on the World Golf Rankings. Among the first round casualties were a number of fan favorites, including established stars and rising young guns alike, as six of the top sixteen golfers in the rankings were sent packing.

Resurgent Sergio Garcia, back up to #16 in the rankings after back-to-back victories on the European Tour last fall, fell behind early then rallied through the middle holes but ultimately couldn’t catch fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, losing 2&1. Twenty-nine year old Bill Haas, fresh off a victory last week at Riviera and winner of last year’s Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, was 3-up with five holes to play against Japanese teenager Ryo Ishikawa, only to watch as Ishikawa birdied four of the last five holes to steal a victory. Adam Scott lost to Robert Rock, an Englishman virtually unknown in the country, 1-up in a match in which neither player performed very well. World #3 Graeme McDowell continued his largely uninspired play since winning the 2010 U.S. Open, losing to Y.E. Yang 2&1. In a real stunner, Webb Simpson, who won twice last season while seemingly always in the hunt and who chased Luke Donald for the PGA Tour money title right through the final round of the season’s final event, was three down after just four holes and never caught up to Italian teenage sensation Matteo Manassero. But the most stunning upset of the day was world #1 Donald’s 5&4 thrashing at the hands of Ernie Els. Donald began his scorching run through the 2011 season at this tournament last year, when he never trailed in a single match on his way to victory. Wednesday he was all square with Els through seven before the South African reeled off victories at five of the next seven holes. On three of those holes Els was able to win with a par, as Donald stumbled to bogeys.

At least with Els NBC got a popular star in Donald’s spot in the bracket, albeit one who hasn’t won anywhere in more than a year or on the PGA Tour in almost two years due to an increasingly balky putter. Or the network did until Els was promptly crushed 5&4 by Sweden’s Peter Hanson in Thursday’s second round. Meanwhile someone at NBC surely thought to order up some quick features on the Tour’s rising youth movement in response to the opening wins by Ishikawa and Manassero; and just as quickly cancelled the order when both were beaten on Thursday.

With so many upsets on Wednesday, it was perhaps inevitable that form based on the world rankings would return on Thursday, when only three of the sixteen matches resulted in a lower seeded golfer defeating his higher seeded competitor. But that return to form still meant the dismissal of recognizable names and attractive stories. Along with Els and the two teenagers losing in what were technically not upsets, Thursday brought an end to the tournament for the likes of fan favorite Bubba Watson and young Kyle Stanley, who burst onto the collective consciousness of golf fans earlier this month when he went from a humiliating last hole collapse in San Diego one week to a thrilling final round charge to victory in Phoenix the next. Most depressingly for NBC, Thursday also brought the second round defeat of Tiger Woods.

It is a measure of how far Woods has fallen that he was seeded just fifth in his sixteen-player bracket, so that his 1-up loss to fourth seed Nick Watney was technically not an upset. But to fans on the course and those watching on the Golf Channel’s broadcast, it sure must have seemed like one. One down on the par-4 18th hole, Woods stood in the fairway and watched Watney hit his approach wide right of the hole, the ball stopping on the back fringe. From just over 180 yards Woods then lofted a 9-iron high into the desert sky, the ball landing softly on the green and rolling to a halt less than six feet from the cup. It was a moment that golf fans have grown so used to seeing over the Tiger Era that it is easy to forget what an accomplishment it is to strike a golf shot like that under pressure. After Watney chipped close to the hole for a certain par, Woods stood over his short putt that would win the hole and extend the match. The camera cut to Watney, pulling out his yardage book and looking at the layout for the 1st hole, where sudden death would begin. But we are in a new era in golf, and Woods confirmed that by blocking his putt to the right. A ball that once would have almost automatically fallen in the hole now just gave it a casual glance as it rolled past.

There are still plenty of well-known golfers left standing after the Match Play’s first two days, including three of the four #1 seeds. Perhaps all three will get through, and on Sunday morning we will watch Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood battle each other in a stirring semi-final, with the winner taking on German Martin Kaymer in Sunday afternoon’s final match. Or if not Kaymer then perhaps the opponent will be a popular American like Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, or Matt Kuchar. On the other hand, NBC’s Sunday afternoon broadcast may also wind up showing us Peter Hanson versus Korea’s Sang-Moon Bae. That’s the beauty of match play; though don’t try to convince television network executives of that.


  1. If you love golf I hope you know about the Mayakoba Golf Classic. It’s Mexico’s only PGA TOUR event and it airs on the Golf Channel from February 23-26! Like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter to stay in the loop of this exciting tournament.

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