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Accenture Match Play offers a different format

Bob Rotella was a busy man on the range at Dove Mountain, which made perfect sense.

Few tournaments are so baffling that they require the services of golf’s most famous psychologist. Half the players are losers after each of six rounds at the Accenture Match Play Championship, where skill isn’t nearly as important as luck and timing.

Phil Mickelson refers to it as “six final rounds.”

Stuart Appleby had a similar analogy, different day.

“The only uncertainty at the start of a regular tournament is if you make the cut, and that’s on a Friday,” he said. “Match play has the ability to make you feel like every round is Friday afternoon. You’re looking at moving forward — which you should never do—and then you’re booking a flight home. It makes you constantly feel like you’re trying to make the cut.”

This is the fickle format to which Tiger Woods makes his return.

Oddly enough, the last hole he played essentially was match play. After going 90 holes in the U.S. Open—four rounds and an 18-hole playoff—he still was tied with Rocco Mediate. They went to sudden death, and Woods won the next hole with a par.

Woods shot an even-par 71 in his final round at Torrey Pines.

If he can manage a score like that at Dove Mountain, it might be enough to beat Brendan Jones.

Or maybe not.

“Match play is a funny game,” Jones said. “Anything can happen.”

It can be maddening at times.

Scott Hoch once had the second-best score during the quarterfinals of Match Play. Just his luck, he happened to be playing Woods, who had the best score.

Stephen Ames recalls being 2-up with three holes to play against Charles Howell III and finishing birdie-par-par—only to lose.

Robert Karlsson, the No. 7 player in the world, has a unique distinction at Dove Mountain. He is the only player in the 64-man field who has played the Accenture Match Play Championship at least three times without ever winning a match. It’s not his fault. A year ago, he shot a 65 in the opening round and ran into a 64 by Paul Casey.

That’s why so many players can’t stomach match play more than once a year.

“If we had to play match play every single week, guys would retire by the age of 40,” Woods said five years ago. And that was after his most dominant victory in Match Play, when he set a tournament record by playing only 112 holes, with only one match going the distance.

And that’s why some players can’t get enough of it.

“Maybe it’s because I’m such a sports fanatic,” said Masters champion Trevor Immelman, who wants more of match play. “But 99.9 percent of the time, it’s man-on-man, team-on-team. That’s what sport is. In golf, you can win a tournament and not see 150 guys all week. I think match play is easier for the fans to relate to, and it’s a nice change. I would love to see this two times a year.”

Why not more?

Immelman thought about this for a minute.

“Three would be pushing it,” he said.

Golf has a long history of match play, and even one of the four majors (PGA Championship) used match play until 1958. It was abandoned because it was not a good fit for television, the gallery could only see two players on the course in the final match, and the format had this nasty habit of knocking the stars out early.

And that’s why once a year is probably ample.

This is the only golf tournament that gets less exciting the closer it gets to the trophy presentation. Even during the four years when Woods reached the championship round, Match Play lacked punch on the final day.

Consider what happened at the Northern Trust Open two days ago. Ten players had a chance to win in the final hour at Riviera. At this tournament, only two players have a chance over the final seven hours.

This year might be the exception considering no one has seen Woods compete since the U.S. Open, an eight-month break brought on by reconstructive surgery on his left knee. He has a 31-6 record in this event, but no guarantee he will get out of the first round.

Even when he was in the middle of one of his greatest runs last year, Woods was on the verge of a Wednesday departure until he went birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle to rally against J.B. Holmes. In 2002—that was the year he won the Masters and U.S. Open—Woods didn’t get out of the first round, losing to Peter O’Malley.

“Match play is not fair,” Appleby said in more of a statement than a complaint. “In the long term, it’s fair. But it’s like little snapshots of a tournament. One year at the World Match Play Championship (in England) against Lee Westwood, I was 9 under for my 36 holes, and I would have won every other match. Instead, I went home.”

Stephen Ames is in the record books of the Accenture Match Play Championship by playing the two shortest matches—in consecutive years, no less. One year he lost in 10 holes to Woods (9 and 8), the next year he beat Karlsson in 11 holes (8 and 7).

He is not a big fan of this format, although the more he thought about it, he came up with at least one upside.

“It’s the only time we get paid on a Wednesday,” he said.

Those who lose in the first round get $45,000. Not that Woods needs it to get by.


February 25, 2009

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