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Day 1 loss will put players in deep hole at Match Play

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SAN FRANCISCO – The biggest story Wednesday won’t be which players won their opening match at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play.

It’ll be those who lost and now can’t afford another miscue if they want to reach the knockout stage at Harding Park.

That there even is a possible safety net for the world’s best is what makes this week’s event one of the most intriguing tournaments on the schedule.

Since its inception, the Match Play has peaked on Wednesday, when the top seeds squared off against guys with nothing to lose. Upsets ruled the day, and it only got less interesting from there. 

That win-or-go-home mantra is a hit in college basketball, but only because there is a greater disparity between the Nos. 1 and 16 seeds. Golf is a star-driven sport, and it doesn’t benefit anyone – particularly the fans – when the best players are sent packing early.

Remember 2013? Both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had skipped town by sundown Wednesday. Last year, three of the top four players in the world didn’t even bother to show up at Dove Mountain, ranked near the bottom of everyone’s list of favorite venues.

Now everyone gets at least three cracks, for better or worse. 

“I can see why we’re doing it – there’s been some big upsets and disappointments over the years,” Henrik Stenson said. “But for me, match play is do or die. You lose, you go home. When you’re done, you’re done. Whoever is the strongest and playing the best and having the best breaks for the week, he’s the one who wins it.”

This new system may be less Darwinian, but it at least promises three days of exposure for the world’s best while keeping the thrill of single elimination when the stakes are the highest.

This pleases the international players, because they won’t fly across the world just to play one lousy round. This pleases the Tour’s stars, because it means that one bad day – or one buzzsaw opponent – won’t necessarily be enough to end their stay. And this most certainly pleases the big-pocketed sponsors, because all 64 players stick around until Friday night.

“If you go out and shoot 67 or 66, and you get beaten on the first day, it still gives you an opportunity,” McIlroy said.

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Any of the 64 players assembled here are good enough to win seven consecutive matches, but the format change would seem to favor the better player. The best individuals and teams tend to rise to the top the longer they play. That’s why tennis majors are five sets as opposed to three, and why NBA playoff series are seven games instead of five.

That said, it’s not as though the world’s top player got lucky this week. In the traditional 1-vs.-64 bracket, McIlroy would have, statistically, the easiest route to the finals. Because of the lottery draw, however, he has to face reigning FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel (world No. 19), Pebble Beach winner Brandt Snedeker (36) and former PGA champion Jason Dufner (56) over the first three days.

McIlroy’s has the lowest combined world ranking of any group (112). On paper, at least, he has the most difficult road to traverse.

“But if you are playing well,” he reasoned, “that’s able to show in a round-robin format like this.”

So what would an opening loss here mean? Two things: A player would likely have to win his next two matches and get some help to advance. Since few will go 3-0 in group play, a two-way tie would be settled by the players’ head-to-head match.

“You certainly have a chance to get lucky if you lose one, but our mindset can’t be like that,” Jordan Spieth said. “In my mind, it’s win or go home.”

The opening day here won’t have quite the same intensity, but only because it’s all building up to Friday. That’s when the A and B players from each group go head-to-head in what could essentially be a play-in game. Even better is the potential for a series of sudden-death playoffs, which would occur if three players in the group had the same record after group play.

“There could be a couple of fun scenarios,” Stenson said.  

The European Tour’s Volvo Match Play Championship switched to the round-robin format a few years ago. Though that event hosts only 16 players and there’s more pressure here – a boatload of prize money and world-ranking points are at stake, after all – the goal remains the same.

“You don’t want to lose that first match,” Justin Rose said, “because then it’s an uphill struggle.”

Which is why the losers, not the winners, will be the story on Day 1.