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Changes made to Match Play; more change to come

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The WGC-Match Play Championship needed a tune-up, a little nip/tuck around the frayed edges to go along with its new digs at TPC Harding Park. Instead, PGA Tour officials have opted for an extreme makeover of professional golf’s most unique event.

As was first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, officials announced Wednesday afternoon the Match Play’s move to Harding Park from the rugged and isolated confines of Dove Mountain in Tucson, Ariz., where the event has been played since 2007.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem also revealed at the news conference held at San Francisco’s City Hall that the event will undergo a dramatic format change, adopting World Cup-like group play for the first three days followed by “knockout” play on Saturday and Sunday.

 The field of 64 will be divided into 16 four-player “groups” with three days of round-robin match play with the winner of each group advancing to Saturday’s Sweet 16, addressing the elephant in the Match Play room that made the event such a difficult sell to sponsors.

The one-and-done nature of the event may be the essence of match play but it is also why potential title sponsors have shied away from the hefty price tag.

Consider that Tiger Woods hasn’t advanced past the second round at the Match Play since 2008 and has headed out of town on Wednesday afternoon twice in the last four years; while Phil Mickelson has made it to Friday just once since 2007.

“Over time, the best players rise to the top, so we think that'll be positive as it goes into the weekend,” Finchem said on Wednesday. “We think it's a new direction for the Match Play for sure but one that's going to create a lot more enthusiasm and excitement.”



Under the new format, the folks who are paying the bills – and those deep pockets remain a mystery – are assured a full marquee for at least three days, although given the event’s interim spot on the calendar it remains to be seen what kind of field will gather next spring in San Francisco.

For all the positive steps the event took on Wednesday – and make no mistake a move to Harding Park is an inspired choice in a golf-starved market – news that the WGC will be played April 29-May 3 is curious.

The new date, which according to various sources is a one-year arrangement, would shoehorn the event between the Zurich Classic in New Orleans and The Players, which is not exactly the most geographically conducive spot.

The awkward date is at least partially the byproduct of a European Tour regulation that requires members of that circuit to play in their country’s open, and the Spanish Open is scheduled for May 14-17, which would have been the first available spot on next year’s schedule.

Traditionally, many of Europe’s top players would participate in the Wells Fargo Championship, which has been played the week before The Players, and then travel to TPC Sawgrass.

Perhaps the Continent’s best and brightest will simply do the same thing next year with the Match Play, but a permanent solution for all of the WGC’s woes continues to be elusive.

The 2016 Olympics will wreak havoc on all tour schedules in two years, with the understanding that no “major” golf events would be played during the Games, but beyond that the PGA Tour continues to be searching for a long-term home for the Match Play.

Changing the format is a solid start as is the temporary move to Harding Park – but then any stop that wasn’t Dove Mountain, one of the circuit’s most unpopular venues for years, was going to be an improvement.

But Harding Park will not be a final stop for the event considering the public course is also scheduled to host the 2020 PGA Championship and 2025 Presidents Cup. Tour officials aren’t keen on sharing venues.

Rotating the event between different venues, like officials do for The Barclays, is an option but would likely require a date that would allow a wider variety of courses in the summer, and when Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was pressed on a possible move earlier this year he indicated a desire to remain on the West Coast.

In fact, the only thing that seems certain is that the Match Play proved to be a particularly challenging piece of the scheduling puzzle that is always a delicate balancing act between sponsors, players and venues.

The Tour has responded to those challenges with a top-down overhaul. What also seems certain is that Finchem & Co. aren’t finished tinkering.