AUSTIN, TEXAS | Could the format of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play event change?
Should it change?
There have been discussions among the PGA Tour, its players and the title sponsor about tweaking the format but it’s uncertain if the tournament will abandon the round-robin pod system that has been in place since 2015.
Ideally, the 64-player field would play a pure single-elimination tournament the way it was for many years. The current format is underwhelming, at least at the outset. Under the old format, Wednesday, with 32 win-or-go-home matches, was one of the most compelling days of the season.
“Wearing my player’s hat, I would love to see straight knockout again,” said Paul Casey, a member of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council, which was recently asked to consider an alternate format.
“Lose and go home. But I understand it from trying to sell this from a corporate sponsor’s point of view, from an entertainment point of view, you want as much golf as possible on the weekend.”
The way the event is currently structured, all 64 players are guaranteed to play at least three rounds with 16 advancing to a knockout round on the weekend. However, one loss in the three-match round-robin play almost assures a player will not advance.
Last year, only two of the 16 players who advanced lost a round-robin match and the numbers in previous years have been similar.
Since round-robin play was introduced in 2015, the four champions – Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson – have all been unbeaten through the event and only eight players have lost their first match and advanced to the knockout round.
Keeping the stars around is important for television and the sponsor.
“I played it in 2014 when we were in Arizona and it was just knockout, and I liked that more, but I also understand the change. Guys would come over from Europe and be knocked out on a Wednesday and have to go home.” – Jordan Spieth
“If you wanted to go to the purest version of a match-play tournament, then it would be straight knockout, but that’s not feasible in today’s age,” said McIlroy, another PAC member. “You’ve got someone like Dell Technologies putting in tens of millions of dollars into this event, and you want to make sure that the marquee guys are around until at least Friday. I totally get that. I think it’s a good thing for the tour, a good thing for the sponsors, the partners. Obviously not so great for the players if they’re going out on Friday with nothing to play for. But I think it works well.”
The PAC rejected a possible format change that would involve round-robin pod play the first three days with the winners there advancing to a two-day stroke-play event on the weekend. That wouldn’t be a true match-play event, though. The idea of 36 holes of stroke play followed by a match-play bracket has been floated along with other ideas.
There has also been discussion about rerouting the Austin Country Club layout so more golf is played on the holes along the water, where the majority of the hospitality venues are located.
“I played it in 2014 when we were in Arizona and it was just knockout, and I liked that more, but I also understand the change. Guys would come over from Europe and be knocked out on a Wednesday and have to go home,” Jordan Spieth said.
“It’s also better for TV coverage and fans to see more of their players, favorite players play more matches, so I get it. But personally I like just the knockout.”
He’s not alone.
• Will Luke Donald be the last short hitter to become the No. 1 player in the world?
It seems likely.
Donald was a marvelous player for a time and his 56-week run at No. 1 still ranks as the sixth-longest ever, trailing only Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, McIlroy, Johnson and Nick Faldo.
When Donald was ranked No. 1 in 2011, he averaged 284 yards off the tee, which ranked 147th in driving distance. That formula doesn’t work anymore.
As short games go, Donald’s is among the most underappreciated of his generation. Like Gary Player, Donald made bunker play an art form.
At the top of the world, Donald decided to chase distance and it backfired, a sadly familiar story. A back injury made matters worse but his appearance on the leaderboard at the Valspar Championship last week put a smile on a lot of faces.
• It will be interesting to see if the PGA Tour will consider taking marijuana off its list of banned substances, given the increasing momentum surrounding its legalization.
The Robert Garrigus suspension brought it back into the conversation last week and while Garrigus admits to fighting his own battles with addiction, the attitude about marijuana use is changing.
That’s not to suggest players would be lighting up during tournaments but it’s no secret that some players weren’t always drinking water when they were playing. As society changes so might the tour.
• Looking for someone beyond the obvious picks at the Masters?
Casey could be the guy. He’s a very good player who has struggled to finish at times, at least on the PGA Tour, but his win at the Valspar tournament was another indication that he’s getting more comfortable in those moments.
His major championship record is solid but unspectacular, though Casey’s last four finishes at the Masters have been T6, T4, sixth and T15.
Can he chip it and putt it well enough? That’s the question for every player at the Masters. He’s 27th on tour in strokes gained around the green but he’s 183rd in strokes gained putting.
• It’s over now but the Florida swing felt right. Four weeks, four tournaments, four stops in one state with some sunshine thrown in. It’s not without its challenges – the Honda Classic and the Valspar Championship bookending the run struggled in terms of star power – but it is a good change on the tour schedule.
Paul Casey, a member of the PGA Tour’s Player’s Advisory Council, says he would love to see the straight knockout format at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. And, Casey, by the way, just might be a good dark-horse pick at the Masters. Photo: Ben Solomon, Copyright USGA
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