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Match Play Is Unmatched

MARANA, ARIZONA | It’s evil, match play is, and wonderful, sport at its essence, where reputations mean nothing and seedings even less, where you’re playing the course – as always – and your opponent. And no less significantly, yourself. Match play is full of vagaries and absurdities, imbalanced, delightful, and as Charles Howell III proclaimed after knocking out Tiger Woods in the first round – the first round – of the Accenture, “Match play is crazy.” Match play is when golf is the same as boxing, basketball or tennis, except golf never is the same because you can’t play defense in golf. You can’t hold your gloves high, go into a zone, throw inside at a batter, serve away from his forehand. You just have to endure. “Stroke play is a better test of golf,” said the Irishman Joe Carr, “but match play is a better test of character.” A better test of resilience. Of persistence. Of making the next shot the most important you’ve ever hit after the shot by your opponent hit the bottom of the cup and figuratively hit you right in the gut. Your swing means less than your attitude. How do you react when your foe holes a birdie out of a bunker to beat on a hole you were a cinch to win but missed the six-footer? Do you sulk or survive? “It comes down to that one moment where you need to make something happen,” said Justin Rose, who in the second round against Nicolas Colsaerts couldn’t make enough happen and lost. The word so often used in reference to match play is “unfair,” because the day after someone beats you by sinking putts from everywhere he can’t make a thing. Except he sure made a mess of the TV ratings for the weekend. Rory McIlroy and Woods, respectively No. 1 and 2 in the world rankings, gone from the Accenture after the first round. Luke Donald, No. 3 and Louis Oosthuizen, No. 5, gone after the second round. “It’s the nature of the beast,” said Donald, who won the Accenture a couple years back. “I think over 18 holes everyone has a chance.” And therein lies both the pleasure of match play and the pain. And the reason the PGA of America in 1958 switched the format of its championship from match to stroke play. Those “Who’s He?” finals – check out Walt Burkemo against Felice Torza — weren’t the stuff of that electronic medium just being introduced in America. The interest in golf, as tennis, depends on recognition. When Tiger’s in a tournament, ESPN cares. He’s always mentioned first, even when he’s not in first. He’s their man. He’s the man. We know Tiger and Rory, Serena Williams and maybe Novak Djokovic. Otherwise … That Tiger-Rory final never had a chance at the Accenture. “It would have been nice to get through and just get another day here,” was the McIlroy observation. But he was beaten by the player seeded 65th, Shane Lowry, who at least made it one more round. Unlike Charles Howell, who was crushed by Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño, your basic unknown bracket buster. “It’s potluck in these 18-hole sprints,” was a Tiger Woods comment. Tough dining when you’re in charge of the NBC weekend telecast. But that’s the way it goes, and the way Ian Poulter and Matt Kuchar went. “The beauty of this format,” said Kuchar, “is that there’s no luck of the draw, as far as tee times are concerned. You’re dealing with the same elements as your competitor.” The wind in your face is the wind in his face. The Golf Club at Dove Mountain, site of the Accenture, is perfect for match play. A ball into the desert means only a hole lost, not a tournament ruined. Match play rewards aggressiveness. “I like the fact the fact you’re trying to hole every shot pretty much,” said Colsaerts. “It’s pretty cool.” Tiger won three U.S. Amateurs and three Junior Amateurs at match play. There’s nothing quite as dramatic and urgent as match play. “You win,” said Woods, “or you’re finished.” Inconsistency is rewarded. Courage is rewarded. Match play is about finding a way, about hanging in and hanging on – sort of like life. To borrow that very explanatory cliché about golf, it ain’t how, it’s how many. “When you go out in a (stroke play tournament), generally you’re trying to position yourself on the leaderboard to try to have a chance to win,” said Graeme McDowell. “You come out in this format, you could shoot 66 and go home. It’s the ultimate penalty. “You go out and face a guy who makes eight, nine, 10 birdies, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re packing your bags, and you’re going home. I’ve been on the wrong side of that a few times. It’s a tough format. Could be said (the Accenture) is the easiest tournament in the world to win. Could also be said it’s one of the toughest because you’ve got to go out and play six great rounds of golf.” Match play? Match that. Sorry, Rory.


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