AUSTIN, Texas – Oakland Raiders legend Al Davis built a franchise around the concept – just win, baby.
In sports, style points are often overrated and moral victories are the athletic equivalent of the outrageously backhanded comment, “Bless his heart.”
Golf is certainly not immune to the concept. Sometimes you win “ugly,” but that doesn’t make the hardware shine any less and no one has ever lamented their poor play during a victory speech.
But as Monday’s action unfolded at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the concept of a bad win and a good loss had a slightly less ridiculous hue.
Consider Charl Schwartzel’s 6-and-5 thumping of Byeong Hun An on Day 1 at Austin Country Club. To the casual observer, the South African was dominant, but a closer inspection reveals that he was just 1 under par through 13 holes and offset two early bogeys with a pair of clutch late birdie putts.
It’s the nature of match play, a format that sometimes identifies the fortunate as much as it does the in-form. In Schwartzel’s case, An struggled mightily on Wednesday with seven bogeys and not a single birdie.
“That's the thing. I didn't play that well in the beginning but afterwards I made the shots I needed to hit,” Schwartzel said. “I was backing off and just hitting shots in the fairway, on the green and applying a lot of pressure, because it made him force the issue. And he sort of kept making mistakes.”
On the other side of that capricious reality was Rory McIlroy, the second-seeded player this week who ran into a 5-foot-8 Danish buzz saw named Soren Kjeldsen.
Kjeldsen did everything right: a birdie at the first for an early lead, just a single bogey for 17 holes and a torrid finish that included four birdies over his last four holes for a 2-and-1 victory.
“I played well. If I had played anyone else I might have won,” said McIlroy, who was 4 under for 17 holes. “Soren played great. I think I have to give him credit. He played really, really well, from the first hole.”
It should have been no surprise that McIlroy, who won this event in 2015, didn’t seem utterly crushed by his loss to the 68th-ranked player in the world. This wasn’t Mt. St. Mary’s upsetting Villanova on Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament and McIlroy still has two more days to make it right thanks to the transition to the round-robin format in ’15.
And McIlroy, who is every bit as competitive as the next guy, also understands the nature of match play, which in golf can create a unique gray area when it comes to hashing out the relative winners and losers.
“I was thinking about it last night, would you rather lose at 5 under or win at level par?” Kjeldsen said. “Obviously, you would like to win. At the end of the day when you go away from this tournament you want to feel like you've played well and you've got some momentum in the game.”
It’s an interesting concept, whether losing with style and substance can somehow rival winning with grit and good timing. Paul Casey, who beat Joost Luiten, 2 and 1, quickly smiled when asked which option he’d prefer.
“I’d rather play poorly and win. A win is a win,” Casey said. “I’d rather take the wins and 1-under [rounds] if I can see light at the end of the tunnel. But if you are in desperation and you're trending in the wrong direction and shooting the 1-unders and winning, you are going to be thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m lucky to be winning.”
We get it, you are what your record says you are, and winning is the objective, or, as Tiger Woods famously maintained, second sucks. But pressed further, Casey’s point becomes a bit more vague.
Asked if he can recall ever winning with something less than his best stuff in any of the 34 matches he’s played at the Match Play, the Englishman’s answer was telling.
“I don’t remember many of those,” Casey admitted. “I do remember the year it was straight knock out , I played Robert Karlsson and I think he shot something like 64 and lost to me. He went through every other match, all the other 31 matches on the course and figured out he would have beaten every other player in the field except me. He wasn’t happy.
“Those I remember. I have a selective memory. I erase the other ones. I don’t remember the ugly stuff.”
But isn’t that the point, the less-then-stellar rounds – be they clutch victories or crushing defeats – fade to memory, but the days when everything is clicking, regardless of outcome, endure?
“Yeah OK, you’re right,” Casey allowed.
Davis’ simple premise remains true, in sports it’s always about winning, but at the Match Play there are always varying shades of success and failure.