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The Perfect Match

The WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, which begins Wednesday in Tucson, Ariz., is one of the most fun events on the PGA Tour.

In fact, the case can be made that, outside the majors, it is the most fun event on Tour. From the start there’s suspense: top seeds are frequently knocked out on the first day and again on the second day. There is more happening on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday than on most other weekdays during the long golf season.

Some have been suggesting for a while that The Tour Championship be turned into a match play event. Instead of sending 30 players to Atlanta, send 32 and tee it up on Wednesday. The last two players go 36 holes on Sunday for all the marbles – and the millions.

That isn’t going to happen because network TV won’t stand for it. Even if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson tee off in the first group on Sunday, that’s better than not having them around at all. TV does a wonderful job of convincing people that the stars can make a run from way behind. If Jim Furyk had a dollar for every time Johnny Miller talked about the possibility of Woods shooting 62 on the last day of the 2003 U.S. Open that Furyk won (Woods shot 75 that day) he wouldn’t have needed the $10 million he made for winning the Whatchamacallit Cup last October.

So there won’t be match play anytime soon – or ever – at the Tour Championship. That’s a shame. But how about the Tournament of Champions? No event on Tour could use an infusion of new excitement like the season-opener. The tournament has become such a snooze that it’s a wonder the players don’t fall asleep wandering around the Plantation Course for four days.

The decline of what was once a big event on the golf calendar has been the subject of lengthy conversations during meetings of both the Players Advisory Committee and the Tour Policy Board – more so the PAC because that’s where most new ideas come from. There have been sponsorship problems: Mercedes bailed two years ago, then SAS came on board for one year. Now, Hyundai has the sponsorship.

Commissioner Tim Finchem has suggested the possibility of strengthening the field by inviting champions from the last two years rather than just one year. That’s still not going to get Woods and Mickelson to show up. In fairness, a format change may not do it either.

But how about this? Make the tournament match play. Usually the field is about 30 players. If you have more than 32 in a given year, make the bottom players play into the field of 32 a day early ala the NCAA basketball tournament. There are plenty of ways to deal with an odd number of qualifiers. The seeds would be based on the previous year’s money list – not the world rankings –  because if you use money maybe a few more top players will want to play Fall Series events.

The commissioner could also tell players who qualify that if they fail to show up, their first application for an ‘opposite event,’ exemption – as in Mickelson going to Abu Dhabi instead of the Bob Hope or Woods going to Dubai instead of Pebble Beach – will be turned down. They’ll scream and yell about it but let them yell.

So now, if you follow my instructions to the letter here’s what you have: the golf season starting with an event people are going to want to turn on from Day 1 because of potential upsets. TV should love that. You’ll have something different, not just 30 guys knocking it around with nearly six figures guaranteed if you can make your tee time four days in a row. And, if Finchem is willing to play a little hard ball with his stars, you could conceivably have that Tiger-Phil final people have been fantasizing about since the WGC Match Play began back in 1999. Even if you don’t get Tiger and Phil – and you probably won’t – you’re going to get two good players who are, at the very least, familiar names.

If the Plantation Course has nothing else, it has a lot of good match play holes, especially the 18th where one would expect a lot of the matches to be decided.

Make the Match Play’s opposite-field tournament in Mexico a full-fledged event, complete with a Masters exemption to the winner. Obviously that field will be strengthened because in this case there wouldn’t be a Match Play, and you can bet the field at the Honda Classic – the first Florida stop – will also be strengthened because some players will take the previous week off and opt to play at PGA National, one of the better courses on Tour. The fact that Honda has been a title sponsor longer than anyone (30 years next month) should make Finchem feel good about strengthening that field.

There is no downside. Sure, you’d lose a WGC event but there are too many anyway. If 64 is the magic number, invite European Tour winners too and make the TOC more international.

It would be a cool way to start the golf season. And it would give a much-needed boost to an event in need of new life.