WGC Dell Matchplay Preview

    The WGC Dell Matchplay Championship will be competed March 23-27 at the Austin Country Club in Austin, Texas. In theory, a matchplay tournament with the world’s 64 best players sounds compelling. What would be better than watching the top two players in the world square off in the 18-hole final? Or, with golf’s “big four” (Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler) meeting in the semi-finals.

    How many times have the #1 and #2 seed met in the finals of the WGC Match Play since it began in 1999? The answer is zero. That’s 0 for 17. If it was a science experiment, they’d move on to a new hypothesis.

    Last year’s final matched up #1 seed Rory McIlroy and #50 seed Gary Woodland. Predictably, McIlroy won the match 4 and 2. 5 times in 17 years, the #1 seed has reached the finals. 4 of those 5 top seeds were Tiger Woods who won three finals and lost as the #1 seed to #19 seed Darren Clarke during his otherwise historic 2000 campaign.

    There have been some real marquee-challenged match-ups in the finals. Consider the 2002 Final with Kevin Sutherland (#62) defeating Scott McCarron (#45). The inaugural match in 1999 might have been a signal of things to come when #24 seed Jeff Maggert beat #50 seed Andrew Magee.

    The closest to perfection the tournament came was in 2004 when top seed Tiger Woods faced off and defeated #3 seed Davis Love III. Love is a hell of a matchplay player. He back two years later in 2006 and made the finals as the #23 seed to Geoff Ogilvy, the #52 seed.

    The problem, of course, is the unpredictability of matchplay golf. In a stroke play tournament, when a player makes a double bogey, triple or worse, it usually cripples their chances of winning the tournament (don’t tell that to Adam Scott who made a quadruple in round 3 of the Honda Classic and went on to win). In matchplay, a hiccup like that doesn’t kill you. You simply lose the hole and move on to the next one. There is also the momentum of matchplay, where a top player can go down a hole early in the match and press too hard to get back to all square only to make a mistake and go two down.
    In the end, the format rarely produces semi-final matches or final matches between the top players. There are too many “bracket busters” to borrow a term from our friends from the hardwood. It makes for a lot of excitement early in a tournament, but how many golf fans get to watch Wednesday, Thursday and Friday action? Golf tournaments make their money on Saturday and Sunday and if you end up with only a single marquee name or two on Sunday, it kills ratings. Fortunately, golf has incredible depth right now, really more than it ever has with the emergence of so many outstanding young players over the past few years.

    Imagine a Sunday morning semi-final with Jordan Spieth taking on Bubba Watson in one match and Rory McIlroy taking on Jason Day in the other match. That would create huge interest and massive television ratings. When you look at rankings 5-8 in the official world golf rankings you get Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose. With a suddenly resurgent Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia currently outside the top 8, you have some other very intriguing names that provide at least the potential for maybe the best WGC Matchplay we have ever seen. The problem is history tells us these top seeds simply won’t hold up because of the unique vagaries of the matchplay format.