Sports Arena

Match Play Ho-Hum

If it's not a team sport, it's snooze.

By 3.2.06

PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem's brainstorm of a series of World Golf Championships has mainly done what it was supposed to do. The world's top players, no matter which tour they play, get to play one another at a designated series of tournaments throughout the golf year, for big money. The stars all show up. That makes the advertisers and the fans happy. It boosts TV ratings. It can result in memorable, high quality golf.

Except for once a year. Once a year, seduced by the breakthrough success in the 1990s of the Ryder Cup matches, the World Golf Championships holds a World Match Play tournament. Geoff Ogilvy won this past week, besting Davis Love III in the Sunday final match. In the consolation match, Zach Johnson beat Tom Lehman.

It was a snore.

By the halfway point of the back 18 -- yes, the final match is 36 holes -- I found myself zipping through not only the commercials on my video tape, but through swing analyses, the players' walks up the fairway, the players pacing around greens reading putts, everything but the actual stroke. Watching it live would have been absolutely intolerable. A given single game of golf makes baseball look action packed.

And I love golf.

EARLIER, I SAID THE TOUR and Commissioner Finchem had been "seduced" by the ratings success of the Ryder Cup. "Deceived" might be a better word. After the TV bonanzas of the Ryder Cups in the 1990s, everybody was talking about how dramatic match play was. That's when two players, or two teams of two players, contest a golf match hole by hole instead of stroke by stroke. Yes, match play can be dramatic and aggressive, full of surprising reversals and spectacular shots.

But match play in a team event like the Ryder Cup can't compare to a single elimination match play tournament. For one thing, if Tiger Woods loses his alternate-shot match on the first day of Ryder Cup play, he doesn't go home. He's going to play four more times.

In the five-day event just concluded, Ernie Els got beat on Wednesday, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, David Toms, and Tiger Woods lost on Friday, and that paragon of sporting charisma, Retief Goosen, lost in the quarterfinals Saturday. Advertisers had to be tearing their hair out. Some interest could be maintained sentimentally as 46-year-old Tom Lehman, leaned out to a sepulchral fitness, beat one top ranked contender after another. (He's this year's Ryder Cup captain; will Tom play his way onto his own Ryder Cup Team? The announcers discussed this fascinating subject at least a hundred times.)

FOR ANOTHER, IT'S NOT JUST MATCH PLAY that makes the Ryder Cup (and lately the President's Cup) interesting. It's team play, nationalistic rooting interest, and the novelty of having golfers depend on one another for victory.

In TV terms, a Ryder Cup can be packaged and presented in a comprehensive and entertaining fashion. Even on the most crowded day, the singles finals on Sunday, in Ryder Cup or President Cup competition there are 12 matches on-course. At that, television has had to learn how not to get stuck just showing putts, and nothing but -- the broadcast of the Ryder Cup matches at the Belfry in 1988 fell into that trap. At the World Match Play on Wednesday, 32 matches take place. ESPN broadcasts a marathon of almost nothing but putting on almost nothing but late holes.

Day by day the field thins out, half at a time. Broadcaster Mike Tirico must feel awfully secure in his job. At one point, he gently suggested that the Match Play ought to have a Monday finish, because the most interesting days are the round of 16 (day three), and the quarter- and semi-finals, held on the morning and afternoon of the fourth day.

By the end of the week, players themselves were complaining -- and their complaints were being echoed by the broadcasters -- that they couldn't develop any sense of momentum, that it was like trying to win five golf tournaments. The broadcasters also complained, with some justification, that it looked like Davis Love and Geoff Ogilvy were trying harder not to lose than they were trying to get the ball in the hole. And in the consolation match, Tom Lehman sagged from visible exhaustion.

NOT VERY INTERESTING GOLFERS, and not very interesting golf -- and not even much of that, that's the final day of the World Match Play. This year fell in about the mid-range of fan attractiveness. Tiger Woods has been in the final three different times since the event began in 1999, and last year, David Toms played fabulous golf to win the event. At that, the Match Play has been lucky. Kevin Sutherland beat Scott McCarron in 2002. Jeff Maggert beat Andrew McGee in the opening event, remember that one? And when the tournament moved to Australia in 2001, I found myself composing a haiku during the final:

Down the stretch they come!

Steve Stricker beat Pierre Fulke.

World Match Play, ho-hum.


How about it, Commissioner? Can we just bag this one?

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.