Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 31, 2019

PGA Tour’s Unique Week Thrives And Survives, For Now

A case can be made that the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship should be one of the least favorite PGA Tour stops here at On Sports and Life. The technology company that is the title sponsor is headquartered in the Austin area, and made the relocation of the tournament from the Arizona desert to Austin Country Club a condition for writing fat checks to the Tour to have its name tied to the third of four World Golf Championship events on the annual schedule. But a 2016 merger made Massachusetts-based EMC Corporation part of the Dell family shortly after EMC had signed on as chief sponsor of the Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff event hosted at TPC Boston every Labor Day weekend. With Dell committed to its hometown tournament the company sought relief from its newly acquired second sponsorship, making the New England stop the obvious casualty when the Tour looked to reduce the playoffs from four events to three.

Despite the role that the current version of the company Michael Dell founded in a college dorm room thirty-five years ago played in taking a day trip to watch the pros play off the September calendar for thousands of golf fans in this part of the country, the Match Play remains a personal favorite because of its format. As familiar as match play is to amateurs at golf clubs across the country, where every foursome playing a weekend Nassau is focused on which pairing wins every hole and not the total number of strokes, and to fans at home, who tune in to the drama of match play at either the Ryder or Presidents Cup every September, the WGC-Dell is the only time the format appears on the Tour’s regular schedule.

That uniqueness reflects the antipathy with which sponsors like Dell, television networks like NBC, and thus the PGA Tour share toward a format that ends with just the championship and consolation matches on Sunday afternoon, quite possibly involving four little known contestants. The fear of such a result is why only golf fans pushing seventy have any personal recollection of the PGA Championship as a match play event. From its inception in 1916 through 1957, the PGA stood out among the majors for its format. But as television networks began to broadcast golf the pressure to switch to stroke play, with its guarantee of more action and the likelihood of big names somewhere on the course, was too great for the PGA of America to resist.

Somehow the Dell Match Play lives on, and remarkably the PGA Tour as we know it doesn’t dry up and blow away this one week out of the year. In 2015 the format was changed, with the original 64-man single elimination tournament, mirroring the NCAA Division I basketball tournament taking place at the same time, scrapped to end the possibility of a crowd favorite going home after just one day. Now the field is divided into sixteen groups of four golfer each, and with a Wednesday start the first three days the players in each group play a round robin against one another. At the end of Friday’s play, the top golfer from each of the sixteen groups advances to the knockout stage. The final field is reduced to eight after Saturday morning, then to four that afternoon. The Dell now concludes with the semifinal matches on Sunday morning, and the championship and consolation eighteen following.

The dangers of match play, at least from a corporate perspective, became apparent this year during Saturday afternoon’s quarterfinals. That was when the two best known names in the field both came up short. Sergio Garcia fell behind Matt Kuchar midway through the front nine, and never managed to even the match.

That result wasn’t nearly as surprising as the outcome of the quarterfinal between Tiger Woods and Lucas Bjerregaard, a 27-year-old from Denmark who was seeded fiftieth in the field of sixty-four. Woods took the lead with a birdie on the 4th hole and extended his advantage to 2-up one hole later. Bjerregaard, who like so many young golfers, grew up idolizing Woods in his prime, rallied to square the match just after the turn, but after both players found trouble on the watery par-3 11th, Woods won the hole with a bogey to reclaim the lead. Knowing they were watching one of the best closers in the game, most fans understandably had penciled Woods into the Sunday morning semifinals when he was still 1-up with three to play. But after both players found the green on the par-5 16th hole in two, Bjerregaard rolled in a thirty-footer for eagle to win the hole and square the match. After both players birdied the short 17th, Woods dumped his short approach at the home hole into a greenside bunker, as Bjerregaard pulled off the stunning upset with a par. All of Denmark cheered, though the jubilant racket wasn’t quite enough to drown out the anguished wails of NBC executives.

By the time most fans turned on NBC’s coverage Sunday afternoon, the most recognizable face was Matt Kuchar, who was facing Kevin Kisner in the championship match. Up ahead of that twosome Francisco Molinari and Bjerregaard were tangling for third place. Long a crowd favorite, Kuchar’s image took a self-inflicted hit earlier this year when fans learned he gave a local fill-in caddie just $5,000 after winning the $1.3 million first prize at last fall’s Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. While he eventually upped the payout to ten times the original amount, the damage was done.

Despite that serious misstep, the next time fans fail to see Kuchar smiling during a round will be the first. Even on Sunday, when he clearly lacked his best game, sending several shots to the right and missing key putts, Kuchar remained his affable self. In contrast, the next time anyone sees the 35-year-old Kisner smile during competition will also be a first. But while he had previously won just two Tour events, Kisner’s intensity is probably an asset in match play. Unlike a stroke play event during which players have no idea what’s going on around the course beyond the occasional glance at a scoreboard, in match play what matters is at hand – the hole being played and the shots of one’s competitor. The format requires equal measures of physical ability and mental toughness.

Kisner won the very first hole with a birdie, got a break when Kuchar failed to pull even by three-putting from fifteen feet at the second, and from there never looked back. One year after reaching the final, only to be blown away 7&6 by Bubba Watson, the South Carolina native notched the biggest win of his career, 3&2 over Kuchar.

As interesting as this event always is, this format for even one week on the Tour is always under siege. As play was starting Wednesday word came that the Tour had proposed changes for next year’s event at the request of the title sponsor. The suggestion was that twice the number of players would advance out of the round robin phase, and then those thirty-two would play two rounds of stroke play on the weekend. Happily, the Player Advisory Council rejected the plan, with PAC member Paul Casey laughingly wondering “what would you call it?” It surely wouldn’t still be the Match Play.

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