By Iain Carter.
Format and schedule are the two buzzwords dominating professional golf and in the case of the WGC Matchplay Championship the game has it wrong on both counts.
Sitting here in Austin, Texas my head is hurting. Not because I’m struggling to work out who might qualify for the knockout stages but why the process of round robin groups is being used in the first place? And while we are at it, why are the world’s best players being asked to play matchplay so close to the Masters, the first major of the year?
Let’s first take issue with the group stage format that is employed at this event. There are sixteen groups of four players, the best performer in each group goes through to the head to head stages over the weekend. The idea is to guarantee each player at least three matches. Previously when it was straight knockout they could be one and done. Sponsors would pile in their millions in the hope that a Tiger or Phil would plough their way through to the latter stages. They’d attract big television audiences and plenty of exposure. But this being golf there are no guarantees. If Woods and Mickelson fell early there would be a stardust vacuum and the event would fall flat.So that’s why we now sit through three days of group matches before we get to the cut and thrust of knockout matchplay. The problem is very little gets sorted on those first two days. And if a player withdraws the groups are skewed dramatically.
Rory McIlroy fell victim to this when Gary Woodland pulled out ahead of their pool match on the second day. Although that gave the world number two a walkover it also played into the hands of Soren Kjeldsen who had beaten McIlroy on the opening day. The Dane would get his walkover the following day meaning victory over Emiliano Grillo took Kjeldsen through regardless of what McIlroy might have done in the final qualifying match. The Northern Irishman’s game against Grillo was rendered meaningless and as a consequence McIlroy was left with just one genuinely competitive outing in what was supposed to be his final event before the Masters.
Which brings us to the scheduling issue.
How can it be fair or appropriate to so dramatically alter the mode of play so close to the opening major of the year? Since August last year players have been looking forward to Augusta and looking to peak for their April arrival in Georgia. It is little wonder that the likes of Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler decided to give the Matchplay a miss. But that meant a tournament supposed to be the exclusive domain of the world’s top 64 players took place without the Olympic champion (Rose), the Open winner (Stenson) and one of the form players of the year to date (Fowler). It is hardly a satisfactory scenario.
Don’t get me wrong, I love matchplay and think there should be more of it on the professional calendar. It is golf in its most exciting form and it is the way we amateurs play most regularly. There is also scope to run men’s and women’s knockout events simultaneously providing plenty of action to be shown at the weekends when the number of matches has been whittled down to finals and third place contests. There are times in the year when it is appropriate to shake up the schedule, but not in the couple of weeks prior to a major. And don’t do it in a way that can be unfair on players, as McIlroy found to his cost in Austin. Perhaps the most sensible solution is 36 holes of strokeplay on Thursday and Friday with the top sixteen qualifying for the knockout stages over the weekend. That’s what we used to do at my first golf club and it worked a treat.
Overall it would be easier to understand, no one departs after only one round and it is fairer on the players. It makes total sense. It’ll never catch on.