SAN FRANCISCO – The new-look WGC-Cadillac Match Play clung to an old modus operandi on Wednesday.
For all the tinkering – new format, new venue, new sponsor – the basic blueprint was unchanged on Day 1, which is to say the status quo remains irrelevant at the PGA Tour’s only individual match-play outing.
Put another way, betting chalk at the Match Play can be costly.
Consider that seven of the day’s first nine matches went to the lower-ranked player and that when the final putt dropped past 10 p.m. on the East Coast things had only gotten slightly better for the favored, with 13 of 32 matches going to the lower seed on Day 1.
It’s always been the axiom at the Match Play, which defies the pathological desire in sports to clearly define favorite and underdog. This, however, is no NCAA tournament, where Cinderella stories are the stock in trade.
In golf, parity isn’t measured by ranking points, not when it comes to the big league’s only head-to-head tilt.
The best example of this came when Henrik Stenson became the highest-ranked player (No. 3) to drop his Day 1 match, a 19-hole bout that went to John Senden; while No. 67 Ben Martin, the lowest-ranked player in the field, edged Matt Kuchar, 1 up, thanks to a timely hole-in-one at the 17th hole.
“When you’re playing the best 64 players in the world it’s not like you’ll have an easy match,” Martin said.
Even Jason Day, No. 7 in the world and this week’s defending champion, wasn’t immune to match play’s capricious ways, dropping his opening game to No. 50 Charley Hoffman, 4 and 3.
“There were a ton of upsets already from what I’ve seen,” Day said. “Again, no one’s a favorite here in formats like this. You really have to go out and win that match and try and get through to the next round. There’s obviously favorites, but you have to be cautious about it.”
What was supposed to be different this year was the urgency that comes with the old one-and-done format previously used at the World Golf Championship.
Officials changed the format this year to allow for three days of round-robin play, similar to the World Cup, which would assure at least three days of play for all 64.
But as players began doing the math and figuring the various permutations, the liberation of round-robin play began to clear like the marine layer that blanketed Harding Park earlier this week.
Etched into the faces of many of those who ended up on the wrong side of the win/loss column on Wednesday was a much different reality. Although they weren’t packing for a flight out of town, as has been the case for the last 16 years, first-round losers now face two days of diminishing returns.
Consider Justin Rose’s plight. The Englishman dropped a 3-and-2 decision to Marc Leishman on Wednesday and will likely need to win his next two group matches – on Thursday he plays Anirban Lahiri, who won, and Ryan Palmer, who lost to Lahiri, on Day 3 – and will need some help from Leishman if he’s going to make it to Saturday’s Sweet 16.
“You're definitely swimming upstream if you lose that first match,” said Rory McIlroy, who easily defeated Jason Dufner, 5 and 4. “You lose that first one, and it is tough because all of a sudden you're not in control of your own destiny. You're looking at the other guys in your pool and seeing what they're doing, and you're not fully focused on yourself.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Friday’s round will be perfunctory. McIlroy’s victory combined with Billy Horschel’s 5-and-4 triumph over Brandt Snedeker sets the stage for a potential Day 3 showdown between the world No. 1 and the reigning FedEx Cup champion. If both players make it to Friday undefeated it would be a compelling match to decide who advances.
But then it seems just as likely that there will be more than a few players who will have already booked a tee time on Saturday at Harding Park before Day 3 play begins.
Martin, for instance, on Thursday will play Hunter Mahan, who easily beat Stephen Gallacher (7 and 6). If Martin, who would be the NCAA equivalent of Weber State in this tournament, beats Mahan he’s assured a spot in the Sweet 16, making Friday’s match a glorified practice round.
But as this tournament proves on an annual basis there are no upsets in professional golf at this level, regardless of the name on the standard or his status in the world ranking.
The new lesson on Wednesday that players and fans were quickly learning was that round-robin play is not the forgiving mulligan many may have thought.