MARANA, Ariz. – Welcome to blowout Friday where every pin offered a birdie opportunity, nearly every match failed to go the distance and almost every American seemed like an endangered species.
But then that’s nothing new, not here at the Accenture Match Play Championship, the event that put the “W” (world) in WGC and where the home team is a weak-hitting 1-for-6 since 2006.
Tiger Woods was the last American flag to hoist a Match Play trophy in 2008, which was also the last time there was an American in the championship match.
By comparison to that harsh history Friday’s performance by the red, white and blue was nothing short of progress. Of the seven Americans who advanced to the Sweet 16 three will be around for Saturday’s action.
Matt Kuchar rolled over last year’s runner-up Martin Kaymer, 4 and 3; while Hunter Mahan bounced Steve Stricker and Mark Wilson clipped Dustin Johnson with the same score.
Bracketology guarantees there will be at least one American in the semifinal round for the first time since 2009 thanks to Saturday’s Kuchar vs. Mahan match, but that’s not exactly a resounding improvement in the USA’s fortunes at the Match Play.
Armchair analysts likely attribute America’s pedestrian pedigree at the event to the match-play format, as foreign to most U.S. players as many of the names that have dotted the WGC leaderboard in recent years, but that ignores the United States’ record in the Presidents Cup (7-1-1) not to mention the U.S. side’s six victories in the first seven Match Plays.
“I enjoy it,” Kuchar said. “I find it a lot more intense. With so much on the line at every hole it brings out the best in you.”
More than likely America’s Match Play swoon has more to do with the growth of golf globally than the alien format.
“International golf has gotten a lot better,” said Mahan, who has beaten Zach Johnson, Y.E. Yang and Stricker to advance to the Elite Eight. “I mean, we’re outnumbered. We’re not the majority here. I don’t think the odds are in our favor for us to win. It’s 23 out of 64 this year.”
Actually, 22 Americans began the week at Dove Mountain, and that’s not even a Match Play record. In 2009 just 17 players from the U.S. were in the field and in ’08 and ’10 there were 20 members from the home team at pro golf’s version of March Madness, but Mahan’s point is valid.
The World Golf Ranking more resembles a United Nations directory than a game once dominated by American players. Just four of the top 10 players in the ranking are from the United States.
It’s a point made mathematically clear given this week’s ranking scenarios. Both Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood can unseat Luke Donald atop the World Ranking with victories this week. It was a similar scenario last year between Donald and Kaymer.
America’s troubles have less to do with match play than it is simply a reality of the modern game. Tour officials are regularly asked about the possibility of a world tour, but in form if not function a worldwide circuit already exists.
“I don’t think of it as golfers with their flags next to their head,” Wilson said. “I think of it as all golfers. We’re just golfers around the world. That’s what’s great in these World Golf Championships. I don’t really think of it as USA, way to go. It’s more like they happen to be the golfers that won.”
For players, such high-minded, inclusive attitudes are refreshing. But as Westwood approached the over-served crowd ringing Dove Mountain’s 13th green on Saturday whether America’s struggles in this event was a question of format or rapidly changing fortunes didn’t seem to register.
“USA, USA,” they chanted moments before the Englishman rolled in an 11-footer for birdie. Three holes later the match, and Watney, was finished.
At least the rowdies at the 13th had an American to cheer. Given the United States’ recent history at the Match Play that might not be the case by the time Sunday’s championship match arrives.
Watch live coverage of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Golf Channel, Saturday noon-2PM ET; Sunday 8AM-1PM ET. NBC coverage can be seen live Saturday/Sunday, 2-6PM ET.