Match Play would be better in autumn
The calendar says the PGA Tour season ends on Nov. 7, but the brain says it's all over after the PGA Championship in mid August, unless it's a Ryder Cup year and interest carries on for another month.
Even in a year in which there is a real race for the tour's money title or Player of the Year honors (Vijay Singh has those pretty much wrapped up already this year), it is difficult to maintain interest once football starts and certainly it is hard to even find coverage once October brings the baseball playoffs. But just because the chill of fall cools the air in the northern half of the nation and daylight grows short, there is no need for the tour to start putting away the clubs for the year. What it needs is a marquee event around which to anchor the fall schedule.
Right now the event filling that role is the World Golf Championship American Express tournament. But the AmEx has failed to resonate with either the fans or the players. This year the No. 1 player in the world, Vijay Singh, No. 4 Phil Mickelson and No. 7 Mike Weir all skipped the AmEx. Help is needed. The ideal event to move to the fall would be the Accenture Match Play Championship, currently the first of the WGC events on the schedule. It is also the only one of the three individual WGC events that has captured the imagination of the fans simply because it is match play and there isn't another of those on the calendar.
There is something about this time of the year when foliage blushes with wine-colored beauty that takes the breath way that moves the mind from thoughts of golf to the sounds of colliding shoulder pads or the crack of the bat sending a frenzied crowd to its feet. Even in those parts of the world where weather is not conspiring to hasten the end of the golf season other events, other sports, are pushing the game from the sports pages and out of the TV highlights. And it is especially easy to ignore an event when no one is there. Last week at the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas five of the top-30 in the World Ranking were on hand on and only one of the top-10.
Moving the Match Play to the fall makes sense for several reasons. Granted, golf is always going to have a difficult time competing with college and professional football or with the baseball playoffs, but if it offers up something that is not a routine stroke-play event, that would go a long way toward grabbing attention. The other advantage that a match play event has is that it can grab the interest of the fans early in the week. While only the truly addicted golf fan cares about the opening two rounds of a stroke-play event, even casual followers of the game will fill out their grid for a 64-player match play field and follow the early rounds to see how their picks are faring. There will be a reason to sort through the autumn clutter of football and baseball to pay attention to a match play tournament.
Moving the Accenture Match Play to the fall would not only strengthen the PGA Tour schedule at that time of the year, but it would also strengthen the tournament. One possible reason why there are so many upsets in the Match Play is because it comes so early in the year and the best players are not yet playing their best. That is particularly true for the European Tour players whose circuit is far from in full swing when the tournament is played in late February. If any tournament has a chance of becoming the fifth major -- the Players Championship, with a great field and a great course, fills that role now -- it is the Match Play because of its uniqueness. Move it to the first week of October and make the PGA Championship "Glory's Next-to-Last Shot."
Speaking of the Players Championship and speaking of the schedule, while we are moving things around let's also shift the Players from March to May. That tournament has become one of the most compelling on tour. Like the Masters -- the only one of the majors played on the same layout every year -- the Players has the advantage of a TV public that has grown familiar with a great golf course. Virtually everyone watching on TV sits with eager anticipation as the players near that awesome finishing stretch of the par-5 16th, where eagle or double bogey is possible, the treacherous island-green 17th and the brutal 18th with water up the entire left side. Anticipation is one of the strongest of human emotions, the wonder of what is to come, and the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass flirts with sense of the unexpected with the best of them.
With the Players Championship moved to May and the Match Play shifted to early October, the PGA Tour can have successive months of the Masters, Players Championship, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in April through August with September open for the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup and the Match Play in October. With a healthy bonus offered for the best record accumulated in those six events -- the four majors, the Players and the Match Play -- there should be sufficient incentive to hold the interest of both the fans and the players.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine