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Hawk's Nest: Tiger-Phil failure hurt Sutton

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Lydia Ko (R) of New Zealand walks down the 3rd hole with Brittany Lincicome of the United States during the First Round of the Ricoh Women's British Open at Turnberry Golf Club on July 30, 2015 in Turnberry, Scotland. (Photo by Richard Martin-Roberts/Getty Images)  - 

Match play is the preferred game for a vast majority of recreational golfers. It has been known to cause widespread outbreaks of male bonding, and with the aid of a dependable partner, can serve as a damn good reason not to go look for your cart path-scarred Pro-V1.

No question, the format has played a huge role in the popularity of the Ryder Cup. Heroes and villains often emerge in a hotly contested four-ball, and the singles matches, if not always as sexy, can play a predominant role in the outcome. Only at the Presidents Cup do the individual bouts not seem to matter.

This week, of course, the PGA Tour embarks on its lone diversion from stroke-play calisthenics to stage the 16th version of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Not only is it the lone Tour event where they still keep score on Wednesday, those Wednesdays are usually more exciting than anything you’ll find on the weekend.

Match play is a lot more fun to watch when it includes the team element. Partnerships make the duels more strategic, which leads to greater character development and stronger rooting interests, which is another way of saying the Ryder Cup has spoiled us. Only the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has proven more reliable at providing intense athletic drama.

We’ll never know how much this week’s gathering will be affected by the absence of the game’s top three players. Tiger Woods hasn’t made it past the second round in six years. Phil Mickelson hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals since 2004 and has skipped three of the last four Match Plays. Adam Scott has lost four of his last five first-round matches. The one time he advanced, he was beaten the next day.

It has become passe to pick on this event for its lack of thrilling finishes. Let’s just say a fresh start next year – a new title sponsor should mean a new venue – won’t hurt the cause. The shortage of compelling Sunday showdowns throughout the Match Play’s history defies logic, and it isn’t because a bunch of lesser knowns keep making it to the finals.

Plenty of big names get bounced early, however, and that will always be the case. The 54-hole leaderboard at Riviera was stacked with guys few were familiar with, but come Sunday, there was Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson, duking it out late. They say the cream rises, and that’s usually the case, but at Dove Mountain, the cream can quickly turn to snow.

HAL SUTTON’S MILD heart attack sent me straight to the treadmill, where boredom, not the battle with middle age, can be a man’s most relentless foe. Although it sounds like a strong warning signal more than a serious health issue, I find it interesting that heart attacks are now referred to as “mild” instead of “minor,” as any such incident should be taken ultra-seriously.

I did a lengthy Q&A with Sutton for Golf Digest at the height of his second coming – his re-emergence in the late 1990s made him one of the game’s best players for about four years. From phenom to forgotten to ferocious, Sutton is probably best remembered for knocking off Tiger Woods in a head-to-head battle at the 2000 Players Championship.

What few people know is that Sutton’s career basically ended on a very sour note. As captain of the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team that was crushed by the Europeans at Oakland Hills, the loss devastated Sutton, who walked away from the experience bitter and disillusioned by the perception that he didn’t own the people skills to pilot such a fragile bunch.

You could probably throw a little betrayal in there, too. “It’s ridiculous, how I became the fall guy,” Sutton told me on the Innisbrook practice range about a month later. “I didn’t hit a [bad] shot, I didn’t miss a putt – and I get thrown under the bus?”

I felt a bit uncomfortable as he seethed, wishing I’d never broached the subject. During the Golf Digest interview a couple of years earlier, I’d asked Sutton a sensitive personal question – he slammed his fist on the table before the words were barely out of my mouth. I thought he was going to wring my neck, but he cooled off quickly.

His temperature didn’t drop so fast on matters involving the ’04 Ryder Cup, if it has dropped at all. Sutton was vilified largely for pairing Tiger Woods with Phil Mickelson in both first-day matches, which not only led to a pair of losses, but seemed to fracture whatever camaraderie and chemistry existed on a somewhat dysfunctional roster.

“Nobody booed when I announced it,” Sutton said of the Woods-Mickelson pairing.

He’s absolutely right. The crowd that gathered at Oakland Hills that Thursday afternoon to hear the starting lineups reacted in boisterous approval when the U.S. skipper delivered his dynamic duo. I’ll go to my grave thinking Sutton didn’t inform Woods or Mickelson beforehand that he wanted them to play together, so they were as shocked as anyone when the pairing went public.

At that point, the relationship between the two superstars was tenuous. Mickelson had won the Masters (his first major title) 5 ½ months earlier, then left Titleist to sign a huge contract with Callaway a week before the Ryder Cup. He would be playing an entirely new set of clubs at Oakland Hills – a switch that generated more than a little controversy.

Woods, meanwhile, was about to get married. He would seem a bit distracted for much of 2004, but he was still the Dude in the Red Shirt, capable of greatness at any point and for any length of time. It certainly didn’t happen at Oakland Hills, and Sutton would end up bearing the brunt of the criticism.

Some wounds heal faster than others.

WHEN GOLFCHANNEL.COM unveils its own match-play bracket in three weeks, the competition will focus on the greatest major championships of all-time. I was among those asked to submit a list of 16, which was pretty easy until I got to No. 4 or 5. At that point, I I had to come up with some criteria.

That certainly didn’t make it any easier, but here’s my top 10.

1986 Masters. Jack Nicklaus’ remarkable triumph at age 46 is one of the greatest sporting events ever. The basic storyline is almost untouchable, but the fact that Jack rallied to beat three of the game’s best players – Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Seve Ballesteros – with a flurry of brilliance down the stretch ranks somewhere between magical and surreal.

1997 Masters. He won his first major as a professional by 12 shots, turning words like “hype” and “race” into disposable, four-letter words. A young man of color, the most celebrated phenom in golf history, Tiger Woods restructured golf’s universe in a mere four days that April. A landmark performance from both a competitive and cultural standpoint.

1913 U.S. Open. Francis Ouimet’s stunning playoff victory over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray is forever embedded as the birth of golf in the United States. Ouimet would go on to win U.S. Amateurs 17 years apart (1914, 1931), but his earth-shaking triumph at Brookline CC took the game public. Made for a pretty good movie, too.

1975 Masters. Home of the greatest three-way battle in golf history, as Nicklaus holed the monster birdie putt at the par-3 16th and held on to beat Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf by a shot. Too much drama for one Sunday afternoon, but then, Augusta National specializes in spine-tingling.

1930 U.S. Amateur. Bobby Jones’ completion of the Grand Slam is probably the closest golf will ever come to Beatlemania. Giant crowds turned out at Merion GC to watch history unfold. Jones not only delivered, he battered his opponents, winning the final over Eugene Homans, 8 and 7. Anyone got a few tons of ticker tape?

1962 U.S. Open. Nicklaus over Arnold Palmer and all of western Pennsylvania at Oakmont, which served as the ultimate new-kid-in-town notice until Woods ambushed Augusta National 35 years later. Jack was longer than anyone who made putts – and made more putts than anyone who was long. Palmer would recover, but in retrospect, he was never quite the same.

2000 PGA Championship. David vs. Goliath with a can of spinach thrown into the mix. Bob May’s heroic charge at Woods nearly ended Tiger’s bid for a third consecutive major on several occasions, but in the summer of the greatest golf a man has ever played, Red Shirt holed a slew of must-make putts to prevail. Only after his drive on the final playoff hole took a mysterious carom – and out of harm’s way.

1950 U.S. Open. Ben Hogan got hit by a bus, and then won the national championship 16 months later. Think about that for a minute.

2000 U.S. Open. Tiger wins the U.S. Open by 15. With a triple-bogey on the third hole of the third round, no less. And with just one ball left in his bag after hooking his drive into the Pacific Ocean at the end of his second round. “I’ve never seen anyone putt like that,” said Jesper Parnveik, who spent the first 36 holes watching Woods dunk 20-footers on ruddy, poa-annua grass. Neither has anyone else, Jesper.

1960 U.S. Open. If the Palmer legend wasn’t laid in concrete before his remarkable, final-round rally at Cherry Hills, the cement mixer was getting ready to pour. All great players have their defining moments, and this was Arnie’s. He was friendly. He was handsome. And from June 18, 1960 onward, he was a U.S. Open champion.