Henrik Stenson announced this week he won’t play the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. He’s not a fan of the format, and the word around the PGA Tour is he won’t be the last to pass on golf’s version of March Madness.
“I was not that keen on the round robin,” the Swede said on Tuesday at the Valspar Championship. “To me, match play is do-or-die. Either I win or I lose. I kind of like that format.”
The move to pool play at the World Golf Championship was supposed to ease concerns about the one-and-done nature of the event, but – like many things in life – it’s not sitting well with some among the rank and file.
But then this isn’t about just a single event. Stenson’s issue with the round-robin format aside, the bigger problem is a schedule that’s become haphazard and disconnected.
This week’s field at the Valspar Championship is an example of what happens when players have to make tough choices. The field at Innisbrook took a bit of a hit because of a cut-and-paste schedule that bisected the Florida swing with the World Golf Championship’s move from Doral to Mexico City last week.
The Valspar field includes two top-10 players and five from the top 20; compared to three from the top 10 and six from the top 20 last year. It’s a subtle difference, based entirely on Jordan Spieth's decision to take the week off, but for an event wedged between a WGC and the Arnold Palmer Invitational even the smallest shift can be significant.
It’s even more surprising, however, that the field at Bay Hill next week may not be as deep as one would think following the passing of Palmer last September, with numerous high-profile players currently on the fence.
Now that’s madness.
But it’s also what happens when players are forced into a corner.
Consider the plight of Spieth. He won the Valspar Championship in 2015 and has played the event every year since turning pro, but isn’t playing this week or at Bay Hill. Before we start the second-guessing, consider that Spieth will play the Match Play in Austin, Texas, where he went to college, the Shell Houston Open and the Masters. That’s four events, counting last week’s WGC, in six weeks.
Something has to give.
It’s a similar story for many players who will likely miss next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Although the deadline to commit is Friday evening, there have been various reports that world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott and Justin Thomas are currently not committed to play the API.
“Look, every player is different and makes their schedule to play their best golf. You can’t play every event,” said Graeme McDowell, one of four players who will serve as host for this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.
McDowell’s role as “host” has largely focused on recruiting players to Bay Hill, but he understands as well as anyone the competing issues when making a schedule.
For Scott, it’s a change of course he made this year to play the week before every major with an eye toward swinging his competitive fortunes at the game’s most important events.
There will be plenty of handwringing in the next few weeks over decisions like these, but this isn’t a player issue as much as it is a planning problem.
Having a pair of WGCs within a four-week window will always create field imbalances and collateral damage. Factor in the unique demands of preparing for the year’s first major and you have a situation that’s going to lead to unpopular choices – like players skipping WGCs or other iconic stops.
Sliding the WGC-Mexico Championship to the end of the West Coast swing would help. Officials last week in Mexico said that would be their first option for the event and it would add a week between WGCs to help alleviate some of the scheduling concerns and return the historic flow to the Florida swing.
But that does little to address the broader scheduling questions, particularly if The Players, the Tour’s marquee event, returns to its old date in March, which is an option that’s being considered by the Tour.
Having the Match Play so close to the Masters is already an issue for some players. Trying to shoehorn the game’s “fifth major” into the neighborhood without a dramatic overhaul will only make things worse.
Stenson is one of the Tour’s most forthright players, and his issue with the Match Play format is certainly valid, but if the event were played, say, in February during a time of year when top players have a little more flexibility with their schedules would the Swede have made the same decision?
It’ll be the players who’ll be scrutinized over the next few weeks for their schedules, but it’s the planners who need to step up and do something about it.