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Match Play needs some sprucing up

2/21/2006 - Golf

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.

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.


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.