Match Play needs some sprucing up

Originally Published: February 21, 2006
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

The Match Play Championship immediately became the most interesting of the World Golf Championship events when the concept was introduced in 1999. And that remains the case today.

But seven years into the process, several things could be done to alter the format and perhaps make it better. In a 72-hole stroke-play event, not much can be done. But the Match Play offers all kinds of opportunities.

Each year, a few top players skip the tournament, with Sergio Garcia being the most notable no-show this year and Ernie Els having missed the previous two.

Perhaps it has something to do with the one-and-done nature of the event and the long travel for the possibility of playing just one day. Maybe it's the venue. Or it could be the format.

Match Play Challenge

Other than the four majors and the Ryder Cup, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is perhaps the most anticipated golf tournament of the year. Join ESPN.com's Match Play Challenge and fill out your bracket as the annual event begins Wednesday at La Costa. Join now!

Whatever the case may be, a few tweaks to the Match Play Championship should be considered.

Here are some suggestions.

1. Move the venue around

La Costa in Southern California has been the site for all but one Match Play Championship, and players have complained about sparse crowds and bumpy greens. Hence, a reported move next year to Tucson, Ariz. But that is not enough.

While playing in Tucson is a great idea, why not alternate the tournament between the West and East coasts each year? It is bad enough that the other two World Golf Championship events will be anchored to the same venue (Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, and the new CA Championship at Doral). Why can't the Match Play move around?

It would also quiet the cries that having the tournament in the West every year can hurt some of the Florida tournaments. If you move it back and forth, those arguments dissipate. Plus, the variety would be welcome.

2. Increase the field

Instead of the current 64-player field, double it to 128 and give more players a chance to cash in on the big purse. One of the complaints about the World Golf events is that the rank-and-file PGA Tour players do not have access to them. Sure, they could play better. But those who make the tournaments tend to benefit just from being there with the guaranteed money and the world rankings points that are available. More players would also negate the need to have an opposite event the same week. You could still go right off the Official World Golf Ranking.

3. Use stroke play qualifying

One of the biggest risks at the Match Play Championship is the very real possibility that all the top players could be gone after one or two days. Corporate sponsors don't much care for that, and nor does television. Fans probably don't like it much, either. What if they can't get to the tournament during the week? At least at a regular event, they know their favorite players will be there for at least two days.

So borrow a page from the U.S. Amateur and contest the first three days at stroke play. (The Amateur does this for two days.) Use the first two days of stroke play to cut the field to 64. Then use the third day of stroke play to get it down to 16 players. You'd be assured of having everyone around for at least two days, and many for three. And those fights for the last spots would be intense, with sudden death to determine the final players.

4. Make the reward greater for sticking around

In the current Match Play Championship, first-round losers still get a hefty payday. Last year it was equivalent to finishing in the top 15 in some events. With stroke-play qualifying, everyone who bows out after 36 holes would get paid the same, say $10,000. Throw in another $5,000 for those who make it to the third day. And save the big money for the Match Play participants.

5. And, finally, limit match play to the weekend

After 54 holes of stroke play, the field would be reduced to 16 players. That would mean eight matches on Saturday morning, followed by four on Saturday afternoon, reducing the field to four players for Sunday. And this would all but assure a good number of name players making it to the weekend.

Forget about a 36-hole final, it can prove to be anticlimactic. And forget a third-place match, too. Have the semifinals Sunday morning, with the final match on Sunday afternoon. For those who make it to the end, it's a lot of golf -- potentially 126 holes over the week. Is that too much? Perhaps. If that is too big of an issue, then make the stroke-play qualifying just 36 holes. But requiring the winner to claim four matches after enduring stroke-play qualifying would make for an impressive champion.

QUICK TAKE
Roberts
Roberts
Loren Roberts was a late bloomer in his PGA Tour career, needing 13 years to win his first tournament. As a senior, Roberts has decided not to waste any time. Roberts, who won eight times on the PGA Tour and lost to Ernie Els in a playoff for the 1994 U.S. Open, did not win his first tournament until he was 38 years old at the 1994 Bay Hill Invitational. He won the Texas Open four years ago and has remained competitive on the regular PGA Tour.

Although he played just six Champions Tour events last year, he still managed to finish 16th on the money list with $959,000. Then he started this year winning the first two tournaments, joining Don January (1981) and Larry Nelson (2001) as the only players to do so. When he won the ACE Group Classic on Sunday, Roberts, 50, became the first player ever to win the first three events of the season. And if he wins this week's Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, he'll join Chi Chi Rodriguez as the only Champions Tour players to win four straight tournaments.

Roberts was never a superstar on the regular tour, but he is proving just how big putting can be in senior golf. The Boss of the Moss is making the best of his second chance, now having won four of his nine tournaments since turning 50.

MAILBAG: ASK BOB HARIG
Bob HarigGot a question about the PGA Tour? Ask ESPN.com golf writer Bob Harig, who will answer your inquiries in his column each week.

Q. Is there any word yet on the new scoring system for the Fedex Cup? If not, what would be the likely weighting on majors and what other tournaments would be worth more?
Brett
Short Hills, N.J.

A. There has been nothing definite on how next year's point system will work. It is a complicated deal that needs careful consideration. The PGA Tour wants a system in place under which those who earn a lot of points throughout the year will be rewarded -- but not to the extent that they can skip any of the season-ending Championship Series events. As for the weighting of points, the tour should do it like NASCAR. Make it the same at every tournament. In golf, the majors and the World Golf events have enough prestige attached to them. Extra points are not necessary. If more points are given, it will give the top players another excuse to skip the rank-and-file tournaments.

Q. We see almost all of the great courses watching the PGA Tour, but are we ever going to see Pine Valley?
Larry Paul
Mason, Mich.

A. That is highly doubtful. Pine Valley is ultra private and its membership policies (male only) would prevent it from hosting a PGA Tour event.

Q. Will the PGA Tour ever require that a player must play every tournament within a 4-5 year period?
Reggie Petty
Houston

A. It certainly would not be a bad idea, although there is nothing in the works to implement such a plan. The LPGA Tour has a similar rule that requires players to attend every event at least once in four years. That means a tournament and its fans are assured of getting Annika Sorenstam and Grace Park and, when she becomes a member, Michelle Wie, at least once in four years. That is called helping out the sponsors and television partners. In the case of the PGA Tour, however, the players would likely balk, citing their independent contractor status. They feel they have a right to pick and choose when and where they want to play, as long as they meet the tour minimum of 15 events.


Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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