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February Madness

You can call it the best Wednesday in golf, which isn’t saying much, and if tournaments are supposed to get more compelling as the week goes on, the Match Play has suffered from competitive dyslexia numerous times during its 12-year existence. As World Golf Championships go, however, this one is the best  – certainly the WGC with the most vivid identity.

Since its ham-handed debut in 1999, when talk of a star-studded weekend was muted by a Faceless Final Four, Accenture has served as the Match Play’s only title sponsor, which is saying something. The two other WGCs have run through several commercial partners, undermining the notion that professional golf can support more than a half-dozen elite-field events. Television honchos may not like the Match Play’s exotic, cut-throat format or the possibility of a Jeff Maggert-Andrew Magee final, but different is what matters here, and this tournament definitely is unique.

WGC-Match Play TV Schedule
(All times Eastern)

Golf Channel_new
Wed: Noon-6 p.m.

Thurs: 2-6 p.m.
Fri: 2-6 p.m.
Sat: Noon-2 p.m.
Sun: 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

NBC Sports
Sat: 2-6 p.m.

Sun: 2-6 p.m.

Seven of the first eight Match Plays were held at La Costa, a nice resort north of San Diego that spends most of February underwater, which is great if you’re trying to grow rice paddies. If La Costa was the lift, clean and place capital of the world, the galleries were also improbably small, not just because of the sloppy grounds, but the PGA Tour event held up the road at Torrey Pines about a month earlier.

So the Match Play was moved to a mountain in the middle of the desert, where the ball is played down and the crowd sizes have gone up, at least a little bit. Those who might wonder why the Tour would ditch a major market (San Diego) for a significantly smaller one (Tucson) should consider a primary law of reality: there aren’t many places you can stage a golf tournament in the fourth week of February.

The Ryder Cup has shown us the value of having big crowds generating a hearty buzz at match-play events. The Accenture gathering has never produced anything close to that, so we live with what we’ve got – all of the world’s best players together for the first time this year, although half of the big names are likely to be gone by Thursday afternoon. I’ve always thought this format would work better at the end of the season. David Toms, a former member of the Tour’s policy board, has proposed a match-play finale at the Tour Championship, which would feature the top eight to 12 guys in the standings in head-to-head competition for that $10 million pot.

Don’t hold your breath. I turned blue in the face long ago.

Another veteran player with policy board experience conjured this sexy scenario: take the Match Play to Las Vegas and avail it to the gaming industry, which surely would draft odds on individual match-ups more favorably than at a stroke-play event. Again, the chances of that occurring anytime soon are, in Vegas parlance, about 1000-to-1. The Tour is simply too buttoned up to actually consider such a venture, especially with a loyal sponsor tagging along since the Match Play’s inception.

Besides, the bookies would make a killing. Twelve years ago, conventional wisdom suggested the superstars would advance through the bracket in routine fashion, then meet up on the weekend with the occasional Cinderella in tow, but something close to the opposite has happened. The Match Play has proven to be outrageously random in terms of who advances and who doesn’t – any comparisons to college basketball’s March Madness are utterly ludicrous.

It kind of makes sense when you really think about it. If the world’s top 40 golfers would all play to handicaps of plus-3 to plus-7, which is likely the case, the difference between No. 1 and No. 40 is, on any given day, basically negligible. Far more often than not, the eventual champion is a player of renown, but en route to the title, he will find plenty of deposed trillionaires on the side of the road.