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Match play format a riddle wrapped in an enigma

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy
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Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods – the top two seeds at this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship – lost within minutes of each other in the opening round. And within minutes of that, social media was abuzz with attacks on the format and suggestions for change going forward.

This tournament is broken and needs to be fixed! No Tiger and no Rory means no interest! There should be fewer players! Double elimination! Something must be done!

Whoa. Slow down, people. I can only bust one myth at a time.

It’s easy to enough to explain away unpredictability in any match play format by intoning one of Woods’ favorite phrases: “It is what it is.” There is a strange paradox in that the very thing which makes it the favorite non-major tournament of so many fans – extreme volatility – also leaves those same people debating how it could be extracted from the event.

First things first: The tourney itself isn’t broken – and if it was, the sole reason that the game’s two top-ranked players didn’t reach the weekend shouldn’t be cause for such contempt. McIlroy and Woods weren’t in the mix together at any of last year’s four major championships, so by this logic would they be broken, too? I sure hope not.

(However, I will easily acquiesce that any event delayed by snow in two of the past three years isn’t without some need for fixing. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to contend that any World Golf Championship event – heavy on the “World” – contested annually in the desert north of Tucson, Ariz., is doing a severe disservice to the original intent of the series.)

This is a tournament that in a decade-and-a-half has never seen its two highest seeds reach the final. Perhaps the closest it came was two years ago, when Luke Donald bested Martin Kaymer after the latter had already locked up newfound status as No. 1 in the world. And guess what? It was hardly a ratings bonanza, which should erase any suspicion that having two of the world’s best will instantly translate into more eyeballs globally.

This week’s final featured a pair of big names – if not the biggest names – in winner Matt Kuchar and runner-up Hunter Mahan. Those still reciting past success for the likes of Kevin Sutherland and Pierre Fulke clearly haven’t been paying attention for the past 11 editions. On those occasions, the following players have teed it up at the Match Play on Sunday afternoon: Woods and Geoff Ogilvy (three times each); Mahan, David Toms, Davis Love III and Paul Casey (twice each); and Kuchar, McIlroy, Donald, Kaymer, Ian Poulter, Stewart Cink, Henrik Stenson and Chris DiMarco.

I dare you: Find one dog in that pack. They may have various levels of Q ratings, but clearly those Sutherland-Fulke days are a thing of the past.

Even so, some are suggesting the only way this event will be considered 'successful' is if the game's two biggest names meet in the final. You know what that's called? The Duel at Jinsha Lake.

I'm referring to last October's one-day money-grab between Woods and McIlroy that – for the right price – was available to spectators online.

That’s dangerous territory. File it under the category of: Careful What You Wish For. So, you want to see Rory and Tiger square off against each other? Unless it happens organically, that idea can feel more than a little unfulfilling. After all, what's the motivation for either to play in any non-major tournament when they can travel the world on a permanent brocation, competing against each other for seven-figure paydays in front of fawning fans?

Essentially, it would purport a two-man league, golf’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals, though theoretically each of these parties could share the winners circle.

If that’s what you’d like the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship to become, stand still while I launch an Arizona snowball in your direction to help knock some sense into you. The beauty of the game is that at the beginning of each week, every competitor in the field has an equal opportunity of winning.

We were reminded of that once again this past week. An event which pessimistically started in the snow and glumly continued with the two top seeds getting ousted early concluded with a pair of big names battling on Sunday afternoon, an image which has become commonplace at this event.

It all recalls an old saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This tournament showed once again that it ain’t broke.