SAN FRANCISCO – Consider it the wrong execution of the right idea.
Sponsors spooked by too many bracket-busting, early-round exits in recent years at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play wanted a tad less volatility at golf’s most capricious tournament and the PGA Tour responded with a chainsaw, introducing round-robin group play the first three days for this year’s event.
But as well intentioned as the changes may have been the fix doesn’t fit. Players suggested it, confused fans confirmed it and the commissioner all but conceded the Tour will continue to tinker.
“I’ve heard some of that. It’s like when we did the FedEx Cup we learned a lot, we made some changes. We like this but we’ll evaluate it,” commissioner Tim Finchem said on Friday. “We’ll talk to all the players and see how we can make it better.”
The Tour took the best Wednesday in golf, diluted it down to three days of lukewarm excitement and multiplied the least compelling element of the WGC-Match Play, Sunday’s runner-up match, into a Friday filled with consolation matches.
All told, 22 players set out on Friday competing for nothing more then pride, a purse and points, be they world ranking or FedEx Cup. Eight matches were meaningless thanks to the new round-robin format that although well intentioned is still in need of a few nip/tucks.
Indifference among those assured nothing more than a trip home on Friday led Tour officials to warn at least one player that he would be fined for unprofessional conduct if he were to concede his match on the first hole on Day 3, an option that is allowed under the Rules of Golf.
While purists balk at the notion that something is wrong with match play, in the modern media era one-and-done formats are about as appealing as an automatic press, and group play would seem to be no answer.
Where things got sideways was when the Tour attempted to reinvent the wheel. Instead of following the format used at the Volvo World Match Play Championship on the European Tour, the PGA Tour used a record-based system that didn’t allow for ties instead of a points-based model (two points for a win, one point for a tie) that allows for halved matches.
Henrik Stenson, unaware of the differences between the formats, walked off the 18th green on Wednesday thinking he’d just halved his match with John Senden only to have the Australian explain that they still had some work to do.
“I wasn’t keen for the format to change and finding out after I walked off the 18th heading for the clubhouse with a half-game [point] that we had to keep on going, that didn’t put me in a more favorable position for the format,” Stenson said on Wednesday after losing the match in 19 holes.
Had the European format been used this week, Stenson would have begun Friday with three points and tied with Senden, who along with Rickie Fowler locked up his spot in Saturday’s Sweet 16 on Thursday thanks to complicated and confusing math.
In fact, had the frat brothers played for points and ties, only 16 players would have been eliminated before Friday’s play, which is still not a best-case scenario but better than the alternative (22).
It is telling that with few exceptions, Martin Kaymer in Group 5 being the most notable, the results from the group-play portion of the event would have been the same using the European format, the crucial difference being that more players had something more meaningful to play for than world ranking percentage points.
An inherent American aversion to ties aside, the European model would be a good starting point as Tour officials go back to the drawing board.
“I think a tie should mean something,” Justin Rose said. “If you’re going to call it a World Cup-style format a point means something, a half-point means something which makes a tie mean something. If the half-points are in play guys like Stenson would have had a chance today.”
Of course, the Tour’s primary motivation to revisit the format may have more to do with who isn’t in the field on Saturday. Contrary to conventional wisdom that suggested the new format would yield better weekend fields the Match Play maintained its giant-killer persona.
Just five of the 16 top-seeded players from each group advanced to the knockout rounds, a body blow that sent the likes of world No. 2 Jordan Spieth and No. 3 Stenson packing.
With that kind of diminishing returns it’s safe to say the Match Play is still a work in progress.