Match Play trying to find a format that works

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2017, 9:10 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Early last year, European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley offhandedly referred to his circuit’s match-play event as a “bastardized” version of the format.

It was neither apology nor epilogue for the event, just the way of the world.

The ancient format may be the purest form of competition in some golf circles, but at the professional level match play just doesn’t work, at least not on an individual basis.

For all the excitement that the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup generate each fall, the one-and-done finality of individual match play is a square peg in the round hole that is professional golf, which is how the PGA Tour ended up with the round-robin format that will be used at this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

Group play neatly cured two of match play’s biggest ills – Tour types who weren’t keen to be packing up on Wednesday afternoon and corporate officials who were even less keen when one of those one-and-done victims was a star.

But for everything the new format – which features three days of group play that cuts the field to 16 followed by single-elimination matches on Saturday and Sunday – fixed, there are just as many reasons to be disgruntled.

Henrik Stenson, one of five players who skipped this week’s event at Austin Country Club, specifically mentioned the round-robin format, which began in 2015, as one of the reasons for his no-show.

“I was not that keen on the round robin,” Stenson said earlier this month. “To me, match play is do or die. Either I win or I lose. I kind of like that format.”


WGC-Dell Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

WGC-Dell Match Play: Articles, photos and videos


Adrift in the irony of the new format is the fact that the Tour took the best Wednesday in golf and watered it down to three semi-entertaining days of group play. Lost in the new format is the central theme that every match brought with it the intensity of a Sunday in contention.

Instead, for three days players jockey for position within their groups, buoyed by the notion that a loss may hurt their chances of advancing to the Sweet 16 but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee their fate.

Consider Jason Day the authority on the distinctions between the old and new formats.

In 2013, the Australian survived a 22-hole shootout on Day 2 against Billy Horschel on his way to the championship, which he won in 23 holes.

Although Day went undefeated last year on his way to his second WGC-Match Play victory, the intensity, at least for the first three days, just wasn’t the same.

“I like the other way where it's just you either win or you go home, because it forces you to go out and play,” said Day, who conceded the first year of the new format took some adjusting to. “I need to play well here. If I don't play well then I'm going home. I'm going to watch these guys on the weekend, because I really want to be here. I'll take either way, but I like the kind of format before.”

Gone under the new format are the types of upsets that made Day 1 at the Match Play a must-watch for many fans. Unlike the NCAA Tournament, there really aren’t true Cinderella stories at the Match Play, but that didn’t make the early upset any less entertaining. Just ask Charles Howell III, who “upset” then overall second-seeded Tiger Woods in Round 1 at the ’13 Match Play, 2 and 1.

“There was definitely a lot of pressure with the one-and-done format,” Howell said. “I understand why they went to this format, but there is something about a do-or-die that was appealing. You knew 32 guys were packing up and leaving on Wednesday. That Wednesday was probably more exciting than this Wednesday, that’s the fairest way I can say it.”

Not every player misses the old format, particularly considering the event’s move to late March which would make an early exit just two weeks before the year’s first major championship a scheduling non-starter for some.

“You have a better sense of who is playing good or not; it’s a more fair system to find out, OK these guys are playing the best,” Brandt Snedeker said. “So when you do get to the knock-out stage, you know the 16 best guys are in there. It’s better for TV, it’s better for us, gives us a chance to learn the golf course.”

According to various sources, Tour officials aren’t doubling-down on the round-robin format just yet. Stenson told reporters earlier this month at the Valspar Championship that he’s proposed a modified format similar to that used at the U.S. Amateur, where the field plays 36 holes of stroke play with only the top players advancing to match play.

“You could potentially even put another couple of guys in the field if you wanted to, to start with,” Stenson said. “Then you get to make sure that everyone is around for a little bit.”

At least under Stenson’s model the spirit, if not the letter, of match play is maintained, but it still doesn’t return the event to the glory years when Wednesday at the Match Play was a reason to call in sick to work and pay attention because for half the field it was going to be a short week.

Now that was intense.

Getty Images

Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.

Getty Images

Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

Getty Images

Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.


CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos


Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

Getty Images

Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.

@tommyfleetwood_1

A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.