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Match Play has same issues at new venue

A change of scenery only helps so much.

There was a chill in the air Tuesday morning at The Gallery Golf Club, which beats a lake in the middle of the fairway at La Costa.

In the high desert north of Tucson, the Accenture Match Play Championship is a sellout for the first time in its nine-year history. In late February, north of San Diego, the only sellout was umbrellas in the merchandise tent.

Yes, the enthusiasm here is hard to ignore.

But no matter where this World Golf Championship goes, it has a hard time living up to its expectations.

Two longtime British writers were at a hotel bar in downtown Atlanta in 1998, a few months before the start of these WGC events. Match Play got their attention above the others, and one of them -- the late Bill Blighton -- thought it might be the best new tournament in golf since Bobby Jones invited top players to his new golf course called Augusta National in 1934.

Golf needed this format.

Ever since the PGA Championship went to stroke play in 1958, match play was mainly found in amateur golf.

The World Match Play Championship in England began two years later and has a roll call of champions that includes Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros. But it only had an eight-man field when IMG founder Mark McCormack created the event, and it later was perceived as the IMG Invitational until it came up with set criteria to get in.

The PGA Tour tried match play in Tucson from 1984 to 1986, but it didn't always get the best field.

That's what made the Accenture Match Play Championship so appealing when it began in 1999. It featured a 64-man field, taken exclusively from the world rankings, and players represented 17 countries. First prize was $1 million, back when $1 million meant something.

The stage was set. The curtain was drawn.

The winner was Jeff Maggert.

Never mind that his 38-hole victory over Andrew Magee remains the most exciting championship match in this tournament. Maggert knocked out Tiger Woods in the quarterfinals, and never had the lead in the final until chipping in for birdie on the second extra hole.

The problem wasn't the quality of the golf, but the Q-rating of the guys playing it.

"When we grew up playing amateur golf, that's what it was," Woods said of match play. "You have usually a 36-hole qualifier and then just straight into match play. That's what most of the big events were. Pro golf, I can understand they don't want that as much because of the unpredictability of who's going to get in the final. Obviously, TV drives everything out here."

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said that over time, the stars would reach the weekend, if not the final. He got his wish a year later when Woods, David Duval, Davis Love III and Darren Clarke were the final four remaining, and Clarke beat Woods in the final.

That was about as good as it got.

Finchem took the tournament to Australia a year later, and while Metropolitan is the best course to host a WGC event, none of the stars bothered going because it was too close to the holidays.

Then it came back to La Costa, and the world met Kevin Sutherland in another terrific final match that hardly anyone watched.

"If you have the right matchup in the final, then I think it could be wonderful for the ratings," Woods said. "But if you don't get the people who are household names, then the ratings won't be all that good."

Pencil in Woods, then fill in the blank, and it should do OK.

But the problem with match play is that even with Woods in the final -- he has done that three times, winning twice -- it's not nearly as exciting as Woods winning stroke play, whether it's the British Open or the Buick Open.

This is the only tournament where the most excitement comes in the first round, not in the final round. When it begins Wednesday, 32 guys will go home losers. And some of them will have to cross eight time zones to go home losers. There is only one game -- two players -- left on the course by Sunday.

That's not nearly as entertaining as a half-dozen guys battling for the lead, as happened last week at Riviera.

What might help is taking this tournament to golf courses that could add some sizzle, and not just from the desert sun. The Gallery Golf Club is a nice piece of property, a blend of lush green and desert brown. But it still begs an important question.

What are we doing here?

No doubt the tournament will help sell homes on Dove Mountain. But it won't do the fans much good. The course goes out some 3 miles before making a U-turn, with only about four holes in the middle where fans can hop around and watch more than one match. The only way to get from No. 5 to No. 11 is to follow the routing, or dodge rattlesnakes traversing the desert.

Given the interest in Woods, Wednesday at The Gallery might look like Sunday at La Costa -- most people will be watching one match, with a few others watching 31 consolation matches.

Then again, Woods might be the only guy who can make this compelling because he's going for his eighth straight PGA Tour victory. But that's assuming he's still around on the weekend.

Or on Thursday, for that matter.



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