The Match Play bids farewell to Austin, Sam Burns and Cameron Young impress, Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy peak for Augusta, and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:
Three weeks ago, before Austin Country Club held the Match Play for the final time, before world Nos. 1 and 3 nearly faced off in the final match, before we were reminded over and over again that 18-hole match play is one of the most fun and fickle formats available, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said that the Match Play “didn’t work” in the 2024 Tour schedule.
In fact, Monahan said only that it’ll be a “consideration” as the Tour maps out its scheduling moving forward.
And that’s a problem.
It can’t just be a consideration.
It has to be a priority.
Yes, the World Golf Championships had run their course on the Tour schedule. They were no longer worldly, and the 70-player model is essentially what we’re going to see in the Tour's designated-event era, with top fields and huge purses.
But one of the things we’ve learned so far about the new elevated events is that they’re difficult to distinguish from each other – they feature virtually the same players, a few weeks apart, with similar or identical purses. It’s like a play on that old cliché: If they're ALL big events, are any of them?
But as the only match-play event on the entire Tour schedule, that obviously isn’t the case. Anything that differs from the established norm – group play, knockout stage, win-or-go-home drama! – shouldn’t just be protected by the Tour but emphasized. It breaks up what can feel like a monotonous slate. Even if the championship matches are often letdowns – to be expected, perhaps, after 100-plus holes played – the tournament still produces a series of memorable moments throughout the week.
What didn’t work about the Match Play wasn’t the course; Austin CC is an incredible match-play venue that produces funky, fun TV and will be dearly missed.
It wasn’t the format; top players might not love the round-robin start, but they weren’t a fan of the one-and-done nature of the knockout style, either.
No, what didn’t work was the timing – two weeks before the Masters, and on the back end of a frenzied start to the year with premier events already at Kapalua, Phoenix, Riviera, Bay Hill and The Players.
With the strength of the Tour schedule taking a nosedive in the summer, it could be a home run in between the two summer Opens; incorporated into the larger FedExCup playoff structure as a qualifier/match-play finale; or, worse case, played as a bonus bonanza in the fall.
If the Match Play “didn’t work” in the 2024 schedule, well, then make it work. There appears to be a disconnect here between what the Tour wants ... and what golf fans want.
In what was an anticlimactic end to an otherwise thrilling week, Sam Burns thumped Cameron Young, 6 and 5, to win the final Match Play at Austin Country Club and claim the biggest title of his young career.
After a three-win season a year ago, Burns had fallen off a bit with his ball-striking and actually had swing coach Brad Pullin drive 15 hours from Louisiana to try and get him squared away during the Florida swing. The result was an absolute clinic, especially in the knockout stage, when Burns ran through Patrick Cantlay, Mackenzie Hughes and one of his best friends, Scottie Scheffler.
Less than an hour after that emotional victory against the world No. 1 and defending champion, and having already played more than 100 holes, Burns summoned his best golf of the week by ripping off eight birdies in a 10-hole span that never gave Young a chance.
Here are three other takeaways from the week’s action:
• The week began with the end of one of the longest-running player-caddie relationships, with the announcement from Webb Simpson that he and Paul Tesori had decided to part ways after a dozen years. Tesori wasn’t about to be relegated to the couch, of course – he’d already hooked up with Young, one of the game’s most promising up-and-comers. It was a move that was eerily reminiscent of what happened in late 2021, when Scottie Scheffler (still winless despite playing in the Ryder Cup and being named the Tour Rookie of the Year) hired Ted Scott. Scheffler has been a world-beater ever since, and at least some credit is due to having Scott’s expert hand on the bag. Young – also winless, also a Presidents Cupper, also a Rookie of the Year – is hoping for a similar bump with the highly regarded Tesori. Week 1 was as auspicious as it gets: Including the usual match-play concessions, Young made 41 birdies against just four bogeys. Young has all of the tools, physically, to go on a Scottie-like run, and Tesori might just be able to unlock that greatness.
• If there’s a big event, you just know Scheffler is showing up. In his past 10 events dating to last fall, Scheffler hasn’t finished worse than a tie for 12th. With his Masters title defense next week, he appears to be peaking in all facets of his game. After a sensational run through the Florida swing, in which he came within a couple of swings of sweeping the whole thing, he... misfired into the final green at Bay Hill to cost himself a shot at a win, and he shockingly missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole that would have put away Burns, the eventual winner. It’s not a matter of if Scheffler will contend at Augusta; it’s a matter if he’ll win again and become the first player since Tiger Woods (2001-02) to go back-to-back at the year’s first major.
• So much for any lingering concern about McIlroy’s game. Fresh off a missed cut at The Players, there was at least some discussion about whether he could get it together in time for the Masters and yet another shot at completing the career Grand Slam. With a week off to tinker, he arrived at the Match Play with two important equipment changes: He shortened his driver, allowing him to feel as though the club is more in front of him throughout the swing, and he changed to a blade-style putter. Good moves, both of them: He led the field in driving distance at Austin Country Club (including this instant classic to close out Denny McCarthy) and filled it up on the greens, at least for most of the week. Though he was disappointed he lost three of the last four holes to Young and dropped the semifinal match, McIlroy refocused for the consolation bout and denied Scheffler. Just like that, he’s all-systems go for the major he covets most.
In an interview last week with No Laying Up, McIlroy became the rare PGA Tour star to support the governing bodies’ proposal to roll back distance beginning with the 2026 season.
While Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas criticized the USGA and R&A for their distance crackdown, McIlroy said that the proposed rules change – which, if adopted by the tours, would shorten drives by about 15 to 20 yards for the longest hitters – would more easily identify the best players and reaffirm that the PGA Tour is the place for the highest level of competition by keeping it in line with the majors.
(Those are two of the reasons we highlighted in this space a week ago, when we suggested that the Tour actually has little choice but to accept the rule change.)
At least two majors will use the slower ball beginning in 2026, and we should get a better understanding of Augusta National’s plans in nine days during chairman Fred Ridley’s annual address.
Overall, McIlroy sees the move as beneficial for not just the future of the game, but also the current product.
“I think you’re gonna see people with more well-rounded games succeed easier than what the game has become,” McIlroy told NLU, “which is a bit bomb-and-gouge over these last few years.”
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
All’s Well That Ends Well: Matt Wallace. A week after his testy exchange with his caddie went viral at the Valspar Championship (where he eventually slid to T-7), the Englishman bounced back and claimed the Puntacana event for his first Tour title, nipping promising DP World Tour player Nicolai Hojgaard by a shot. Afterward, in a move that immediately recalled Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar’s cringy makeup video following their Match Play dustup, Wallace and looper Sam Bernard hopped on the Tour social channels for this clip. Hey, whatever works.
Win-and-In: Texas Open. The San Antonio stop is the final chance for those not already qualified to punch their tickets to the Masters, and that includes Rickie Fowler, who fell just shy of the OWGR top 50 cutoff following the Match Play. Fowler’s best career finish at TPC San Antonio is a T-17 (twice) but this will be one of the weakest fields he plays against all year, as much of the top 50 will be preparing at home for Augusta. Hideki Matsuyama (questionable, because of a dodgy neck), Keith Mitchell, Akshay Bhatia and Pierceson Coody are a few of the other notable names in the Valero field.
Fuel for the Fire: Justin Thomas’ OWGR run. JT doesn’t usually need any more motivation, for he’s plenty hard on himself already, but for the first time since August 2017 he has dropped outside the top 10 in the world ranking, ending a streak of 293 consecutive weeks in that rarefied air. Ironically, his top-10 streak began with his breakthrough major win at the PGA at Quail Hollow. He and Justin Rose were the only two eligible players who skipped last week's Match Play.
Final Test Run: LIV golfers. Those Masters-bound like Dustin Johnson, Cam Smith and Brooks Koepka will have one last opportunity to get right, with the rival circuit’s trip to Orange County National this week. (Hey, shoutout OCN, which is for some reason elevating in stature this week considering we used to play it for $19 on the old Golf Channel Drivers’ Club card. But we digress.) It’s been a quiet start to 2023 for all three of those headliners, particularly DJ, last year’s LIV leader who doesn’t have a top-10 in two limited-field starts and also missed the Saudi event because of a bum back. After two claustrophobic layouts to start the LIV schedule, the friendlier confines of OCN should allow those players to open it up and see where their games really are ahead of the year’s first major.
All Eyes On: Rose Zhang. The Stanford star, who is racking up college titles at a historic clip, has done just about everything at the amateur level besides win at Augusta National, and she’ll likely have her final attempt at an ANWA trophy this week beginning Wednesday. For the first time, the first two qualifying rounds at Champions Retreat will be live on Golf Channel, and now the top 30 AND ties will get to play in the final round at the home of the Masters. Ingrid Lindblad, Amari Avery, Saki Baba, Rachel Kuehn and – of course – defending champion Anna Davis all should factor prominently once again.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Jon Rahm. Much can change in the course of a month, huh? Leaving the West Coast, it seemed impossible that the burly Spaniard wouldn’t be atop our Masters favorites, but it’s been an unusual three-start stretch ever since: He plummeted down the leaderboard after taking the early lead at Bay Hill; withdrew from The Players because of a nasty stomach virus; and then failed to advance out of group play at the Match Play with a 1-2 record. Cause for concern? Not at all. But needless to say, Big Mo' definitely isn’t on Rahmbo’s side right now. Sigh.