AUSTIN, Texas – It’s curious, the amount of pearl clutching around the swansong WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. While many argue that the format is a refreshing change of pace from the week-to-week stroke-play grind on the PGA Tour, they seem to conveniently forget that this event has never been right.
Social media, of course, was the preferred outlet for virtual handwringing in the waning days of the Match Play, fueled by inspired play Saturday by Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler, and clutch performances by Sam Burns and Cameron Young during Sunday’s semifinals.
How could the Tour allow such a jewel to fade like the other World Golf Championships? What is the circuit thinking, getting rid of this format? When will it come to its senses?
Matches and scoring from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship
While genuine, the “Save the Match Play” thinking is as short-sighted as it is misplaced. Forgotten by all those who took to Twitter to complain, is a format that has never really worked, despite the circuit’s best efforts, a string of unmemorable venues and a decidedly poor record of delivering the matchups that matter.
It's not as though the Tour didn’t try to get it right, yet for each “fix” it only seemed to create different problems.
In the earliest days, straight knockout match play made television and corporate executives anxious that the vagaries of the format would rob the event of its stars far too early. Officials would spend Match Play Wednesday praying to the golf gods that top-seeded players wouldn’t get bounced on Day 1. It happened to Tiger Woods three times, which, if we’re counting, is three times too many for those who pay the bills.
The answer was group play the first three days, which only annoyed players, watered down Wednesday and Thursday, and created far too many complicated scenarios for fans to figure out. It also created uncomfortable Fridays for those who had been mathematically eliminated the first two days. Twenty players began this Friday’s matches with little to prove and likely wishing they were already home.
And then there was the format. While fans will profess an affinity for match play, the capriciousness of it all led to far too many uninspired Sundays. FAU advancing to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament might be a good headline, but given the option, how many fans would trade the Owls for Purdue, Kansas, Houston or Alabama, this year’s four No. 1 seeds that didn’t make it?
Instead, the tournament had a tendency to deliver Jeff Maggert, Andrew Magee, John Huston and Steve Pate, the final four at the first Match Play in 1999. Although all four were fine players, they were the 24th, 50th, 27th and 61st seeded players that week, respectively.
In fact, just once in the 24-year odyssey of the Match Play did we get chalk, way back in 2004 when top-seeded Woods defeated third-seeded Davis Love III in a final that wasn’t particularly close, 3 and 2.
More often than not, the tournament produced a Burns-Young final, which wasn’t helped by Burns’ lopsided 6-and-5 rout. Both are great players facing limitless futures but not exactly the headliners most would hope for, as evidenced by a gallery that seemed to have more interest in the consolation match between Scheffler and McIlroy.
And then there were the courses. La Costa Resort in Southern California hosted seven of the first eight Match Plays and was regularly challenged by poor weather, while Dove Mountain in Arizona hosted the next eight championships and was isolated and unimaginative.
Austin Country Club, which first hosted the event in 2016, was the best of the bunch with an abundance of risk-reward holes and a rabid fan base - and according to various sources, LIV Golf is considering filling the void left by the Tour - but few are lamenting its loss from the Tour schedule. It's noted as a good "match-play course," which isn't exactly a compliment.
Fans on social media, however, aren’t the only ones with short memories. Even some players lamented the passing of the Match Play, while conveniently overlooking its warts.
“I would love to have it back,” said Scottie Scheffler, who beat No. 29 seed Kevin Kisner in last year's final and lost to McIlroy in Sunday's consolation match. “I think match play is a good change of pace. Commercially, I don't know how well it works when it comes to TV and only having so many guys on the golf course on the weekend.”
But then the commercial viability of the Match Play doesn’t seem to have been the problem. According to various accounts, Dell Technologies didn’t want out and the Austin stop has proven to be one of the most financially successful WGC events. But the Match Play, and the World Golf Championships, are going away because the Tour is moving in a different direction, to use corporate jargon.
“We all enjoy it, some more than others. Some enjoy the old format better than this format,” Billy Horschel said. “But if you look at the game of golf, we want things that are different. I’m sad to see it go.”
Fine, be sad that the Match Play has joined two of the three other World Golf Championships in the heap of abandoned Tour stops, but don’t rewrite history to match the narrative.
If the Match Play was such a gift, why had it become a scheduling victim in recent years? Last year, McIlroy skipped the event to play the follow week's Texas Open and this year both Justin Thomas and Justin Rose opted out. With the Masters looming in two weeks, it was becoming increasingly easy for some players to skip what can be a grueling week.
You can even miss the concept of the event, but don’t make this out to be a tragedy for the ages. The Tour is in the entertainment business and if the Match Play was as entertaining as everyone seems to think, it would still be on the schedule.
In theory, a match-play event slotted amid the clutter of stroke-play stops makes perfect sense, and perhaps the event’s future hasn’t fully been written yet, but in practice, it’s impossible to ignore 24 years of evidence to the contrary.