SAN FRANCISCO – During a week of title bouts – Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao, Keegan Bradley vs. Miguel Angel Jimenez – Sunday’s finale at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play felt more like an undercard.
It wasn’t the names, what with world No. 1 Rory McIlroy squared off with cult favorite Gary Woodland in the 18-hole championship match, so much as it was an utter lack of buzz, both on and off the winding Harding Park track.
Maybe it was the new format, three days of round-robin group play that left fans and players equally confused. Maybe it was a gloomy Sunday that produced few cheers.
Or maybe – as is normally the case at golf’s version of March madness – building to a crescendo isn’t exactly match play’s stock in trade.
Consider that your two finalists played a combined 206 holes before reaching the title bout and provided plenty of fireworks along the way.
McIlroy trailed going to the 16th tee in three of his four matches leading up to the final, going a combined 9 under par on those closing holes; while Woodland’s best likely came on Day 1 when he played his last four holes in 2 under par to beat Jimmy Walker in 19 holes on his way to winning what some argued was the week’s “group of death.”
By comparison, Sunday’s matinee was flat.
After trading birdies at the par-5 first, the would-be champions combined to play the next three holes in 5 over par. Things began to go McIlroy’s way when Woodland’s tee shots stopped going the proper way.
The slugger missed his drive left on No. 3 and advanced his next shot exactly 1 yard after trying to weave a Hail Mary through a forest. For all his adventures, however, Woodland halved the hole with a bogey.
At the fifth he hit not one, but two cart paths with a drive that sailed right and the downward spiral had begun. By the turn, Woodland was 2 over par and 4 down to McIlroy.
“I think sometimes finals might not have the quality of some of the previous rounds, whether that's to do with a little bit of fatigue kicking in or maybe just the occasion or whatever,” McIlroy said. “I felt like Gary and I didn't get off to the best of starts. There was a bit of an ebb and flow in the match, but thankfully I was on the better side of it at the end.”
Maintaining a winning pace for five days and seven matches, particularly when it’s the world No. 1 waiting just short of the finish line, is a statistical unicorn. The trick is avoiding an untimely swoon.
“You've got to get lucky in match play. If you have your bad round, you've got to hope the guy you're playing with has a bad round, as well,” Woodland said.
“I was fortunate to get away with a bad round on Wednesday against Jimmy [Walker]. But when you're playing the No. 1 player in the world, you can't have a bad round.”
Late Sunday, Woodland ran out of luck and ran into his bad round.
Although he cut McIlroy’s lead in half with birdies at the 10th and 12th holes, he followed that with two bogeys to put the finishing touches on a largely anti-climactic Sunday with a 4-and-2 loss.
The truth is the most exciting matches occurred well before Sunday dawned with duels like McIlroy vs. Billy Horschel in a sequel to last year’s Tour Championship finish on Friday; McIlroy vs. Paul Casey which spanned two days, 22 holes and multiple trips to the bathroom for the Englishman who came down with a particularly nasty case of food poisoning Saturday night; and Jordan Spieth vs. Lee Westwood, who chipped in for par at No. 16 and rolled in a crucial birdie putt at the 17th to stun arguably the week’s top performer.
Spieth was 16 under par for three days and at one point led the field by seven shots. “That’s a little messed up,” the Masters champion said when asked to evaluate the event’s new format.
That’s match play, for all its warts and reworked formats.
It was a measure of this Match Play’s moxie that the two hottest topics during a bone-chilling week had to do with two bouts that had no bearing on the outcome – the Mayweather/Pacquiao title bout in Las Vegas on Saturday and a heated exchange between Bradley and Jimenez on Friday as the two were wrapping up a virtually meaningless match.
The two players, who’d lost their first two matches in the round-robin format and were assured of only a trip home on Friday, disagreed over a drop Bradley was taking and the dispute spilled over into the locker room after the Spaniard closed out the match a 2-up winner.
“This is getting awkward,” observed Russell Henley on Friday, a reference to the horde of reporters that had assembled in the locker room to interview Jimenez after his run-in with Bradley.
Henley was trying to take a post-match shower when the media melee broke out, but the same could be said for this WGC-Match Play. While entertainment demands you always save the best for last, sport rarely follows a script, particularly when match play is the choice of format.
To be fair, at a marathon all 26.2 miles can’t be must-watch, just as all 121 holes McIlroy played at Harding Park weren’t going directly to the highlight reel.
“In the positions that I found myself in, you have to dig a little bit deeper. You have to try and find things from places you don't know if they're there or not,” said McIlroy, who has won two of the last three World Golf Championships he’s played. “I was able to produce a couple of key shots when I needed to this week. As a mental test, I don't think we face anything tougher.”
Put another way, sometimes you win ugly, and as McIlroy eyed the Walter Hagen Trophy in the interview room one day shy of his 26th birthday it was the win (his 10th on the PGA Tour), not the style points, he savored.
It was the same interview room he said he wanted to avoid on Saturday with a private plane waiting and a ticket to the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight burning a hole in his pocket.
Thanks to his delayed quarterfinal match against Casey, however, that ticket went to a friend and instead McIlroy watched the title bout, which was equally anti-climactic, in the same interview room he’d hoped to avoid.
“I am a big believer in karma,” he smiled. “I think I gave myself a much better chance of winning by watching it in there than trying to make it to Vegas, that's for sure.”