Longing For More Match Play
May 1, 2015
Golf’s most exhilarating, entertaining, and honest format is played at the game’s highest level just twice a year — the Ryder/Presidents Cup, and the WGC Match Play Championship.
Even without the patriotism that the Cups provide, match play is deeply personal. The stoic shield is dropped, grudges are formed and harbored, and the chase is on. Holes are precious. Time is short to gain ground. There is greater urgency. It is edgier and chippier. It encourages fearless and heroic play. Every day feels like the back nine on Sunday. Losses hurt. Just ask Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez about their supposedly meaningless match, after they were already eliminated from advancing:
Match play is also a more dramatic and captivating viewing experience for the fan who is there, as you can parachute into a match and immediately feel the importance, rather than catching a threesome passing through a hole with players at varying degrees of competitiveness. And the contrast of styles, ball-flights and driving distances is an endlessly fascinating mind game. (See Bubba I-refuse-to-hit-a-straight-ball Watson vs. anyone.)
I don’t know if I can think of a parallel in another sport — where the more hotly contested, emotionally charged and aggressive form of the game is so suppressed or limited. The higher-energy form is usually how every sport chooses to end its season and crown its champion — with a mano-a-mano playoff.
Not golf. Not with the FedEx playoffs. Not for the Olympics.
Yes, I know TV calls the shots, and if there isn’t a better financial solution, this won’t change.
I went to TPC Harding Park to catch the final wave of round-robin group play Friday at the WGC Cadillac Match Play. I saw superb golf; the game’s best players pushing each other and elevating their games in a way 72-hole marathons just don’t. I’ll long for sequences like these for the rest of the year:
Westwood and Spieth Trading Chip-Ins in a Do-or-Die Match
Moments after finding my bearings at Harding Park — all 18 holes were scrambled, rerouted and renumbered for the Match Play — I figured out that freshly-minted Masters champion Jordan Spieth and Ryder Cup foil Lee Westwood would soon be arriving at the 15th tee (the public’s No. 1) at all-square. In those last four holes:
- Spieth and Westwood piped their drives down the middle on No. 15, with Spieth finding either a divot or an old ball mark. Spieth gouged his wedge a few yards short of the green, and Westwood seized the opening by sticking his approach to 8 feet. Spieth answered by chipping in. “When he was still over it, I thought he was going to chip it in,” Westwood said. “I just knew it.” But Westwood coldly poured in his birdie put to halve the hole. “Jordan played as good as I expected him to play,” Westwood said. “I upped my game.”
- On No. 16, Westwood returned the favor. The 16th hole (the public’s No. 7) was transformed into a drivable par 4, egging every group to go for it. Spieth pushed his drive right of the green, with Westwood finding a pot bunker just left. Spieth pitched a delicate shot to 10 feet, while Westwood was making a mess of the hole, bouncing into his sand shot, blading it over the green, and chunking his third shot short. But then Westwood holed his chip for par, which must have added an extra 10 feet to Spieth’s putt. Spieth missed. No blood. “It unravels very quickly in match play,” Westwood said. “You’ve got to strike when you’ve got the momentum.” A cool moment was Graeme McDowell looking on from the adjacent eighth tee and applauding Westwood after seeing the hole-out. McDowell was simply a fan of a match at that moment, with no skin in the game, just like the rest of us.
- Renewed and reinvigorated, Westwood stiffed his tee shot to the 230-yard par 3 No. 17 to 10 feet, and buried the birdie putt to go 1-up.
- Westwood then survived the reachable par-5 18th hole — where any score is in play — after Spieth missed a 25-footer for birdie for the tie.
And that flurry of play was just on a Friday, long before a title was within reach. Is that such a bad thing?
McIlroy Channels His Inner Tiger to Fight Off a Dormie Deficit
That back-to-the-wall, must-make putt is all too rare in stroke play. Maybe one or two players will feel it during their final holes on Sunday. But even that scenario doesn’t quite duplicate this feeling. There is something a bit more demoralizing about missing, and losing the match.
McIlroy birdied his final three holes to force sudden death with Billy Horschel.
“I didn’t give that one away,” said Horschel afterward. “He beat me.”
No birdie was more impressive than his cold-blooded 25-footer on No. 17, a dagger Steph Curry would be proud of.
After Horschel hit a textbook shot into the long 17th, a draw at the middle of the green that gently moved toward the flag and finished 20 feet away, McIlroy had to bury his 25-footer to have a chance at winning the hole and staying alive.
“I remember I holed a putt on the 17th green at the Ryder Cup,” said McIlroy, the eventual champion. “It was sort of the same thing. I hole it or we’re going to get beaten. I drew a little bit of inspiration from that.
“I dug deep when I had to, which I’m very proud of.”
Coolest moment of the week.
Too bad we can’t have that every week.