AUSTIN, Texas — The end of the World Golf Championships was a matter of time, especially with the arrival next year of smaller fields and enormous prize money for the elite players.
What stings is losing the Match Play.
The tournament began in 1999 at La Costa in California. If that seems like a long time ago, consider that Tiger Woods had only one major when he beat six-time major champion Nick Faldo in the opening round. “I’m not going to feel sorry for him. He’s had his chances to win tournaments,” Woods said. He was 23 and already ruthless.
The final version takes place this week at Austin Country Club. It has moved to five other courses and the format has switched from single elimination to group play. What hasn’t changed are memories that have left a mark on the most fickle event in golf.
Gene Sarazen was 97 and watching from his home in Florida when Jeff Maggert won the inaugural event in 38 holes. It reminded Sarazen of his 1923 PGA Championship win over Walter Hagen.
“I went 38 holes with Hagen, just like Jeff Maggert went 38 holes with ... what was the name of the player he beat?” he asked.
The Squire could remember details from a match 76 years earlier, but he couldn’t remember the previous day’s runner-up. That was Andrew Magee. And it was the first indication the Match Play rarely went according to plan.
The seeds of the first four champions sounded like a lottery drawing: 24, 19, 55, 62.
Stephen Ames had his clubs shipped to Tucson, Arizona, for an opposite-field event in 2006, but then he got into the Match Play when Thomas Bjorn withdrew. He was on the range at La Costa with a set of backup clubs when two reporters approached and asked him about having to play Woods, the No. 1 seed, in the opening round.
“Anything can happen, especially where he’s hitting the ball,” Ames said with a smile. He quickly pointed at the reporters to make clear he was joking, yet sensing this was not going to be received very well.
Ames was on the receiving end two days later. Woods beat him, 9 and 8.
Match Play moved to Dove Mountain in the high desert of Arizona the following year. Ames, the No. 39 seed in 2007, played Robert Karlsson in the first round. He beat the Swede so badly that Ames didn’t realize the match was over when he chipped in for birdie on the 11th.
One year after losing in 10 holes, Ames won 8 and 7. Funny game.
Most telling was the phone call to his wife. She was surprised to hear from him so soon and wanted to know if he was able to catch a flight home that night.
“I won’t be coming home tonight,” he told her.
Match Play went Down Under in 2001 to Metropolitan Golf Club in Melbourne, a course Stuart Appleby referred to as “Augusta without the makeup.” The trouble was the timing.
It started Jan. 3 and with single elimination, not everyone was keen to fly 20-plus hours for the possibility of one match. The 64-man field had to go to No. 104 in the world ranking to fill the field.
The biggest star was Ernie Els, and he didn’t show up until the sun began to set on the eve of the first round. Wearing shorts and beach sandals, Els popped open a Heineken and drove a few holes in a cart. The next morning, he played 16 holes, a practice round ahead of the first match (that’s allowed in match play). Maybe the Big Easy knew something. He beat Greg Kraft in 16 holes, and eventually made it all the way to the semifinals.
Of the 34 Americans in the field, only a dozen survived the first round. The others faced a long trip home.
The bracket in the single elimination era, and the time of the year, made Match Play feel like March Madness with one big exception. This level of golf, over 18 holes, there’s really no such thing as an upset. That’s not to suggest players aren’t upset.
Pat Perez comes to mind, a player whose emotions can run hot. He made his debut in 2008 and lost in the first round to Phil Mickelson. Scott Crockett, an esteemed media official for the European Tour, offered to get a quick word from Perez on his experience.
He returned a very short time later and recorded only three words from Perez.
“And I can’t use two of them,” he said.
Woods holds the record for most titles (3) and most matches won (36). The best winning percentage belongs to Geoff Ogilvy, who was 20-5 in seven appearances.
It didn’t start out that easily. Ogilvy won in his debut at La Costa in 2006, but not before having to watch 10 times as an opponent had a putt to win the match. “No one made one, which is pretty fortunate,” he said.
Rory McIlroy was hopeful of a quick knockout in his quarterfinal match at Harding Park in 2015 against Paul Casey. Why the rush? He had arrangements for a quick flight to Las Vegas to watch the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight at the MGM.
Instead, darkness kept them from finishing.
The fight was shown in the press center, and only when reporters looked up from their laptops did they realize McIlroy was sitting there with them.
He finished off Casey the next morning, beat Jim Furyk in the semifinals and then won his only Match Play by taking down Gary Woodland.
Woods has left his prints all over the Match Play. He will not be around for the finale, denying this format what would have been the most curious sight of all.
Woods has lost in the first, second and third rounds. He has lost in the quarterfinals. He lost in the championship match to Darren Clarke in 2000. But he never lost in the semifinals, meaning he never had to play a consolation match.
One can only imagine the size of the gallery watching him in the consolation match instead of the final match, much less how television would have handled it.
For all the amazing shots in Match Play, the best came from the guy who didn’t win.
Victor Dubuisson of France was in extra holes with Jason Day at Dove Mountain in 2014 when he somehow slashed his golf ball out of a cactus and a desert bush — not just once, but twice — to stay in the match before losing on the 23rd hole.
He went 2-0-1 in the Ryder Cup later that year. He now is No. 433 in the world. But he will always be linked with the Match Play, even when it is no longer around.