Golfweek recently reported the PGA Tour’s World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play won’t return to Austin, Texas, after this year because of sponsorship issues. While it’s a shame to watch the Tour’s one match-play event drop off the schedule, it presents a golden opportunity for the USGA, PGA of America, R&A or some other body to step in with a better product than the steady barrage of stroke-play events served up week after week.
Why match play? It’s the best format for golf at all levels. It reduces stress for beginners, increases the fun factor and lowers a barrier to entry for the game. For avid golfers, match play speeds up the game and elevates camaraderie. For pro golf, various match-play formats increase strategy and heighten personalities. For course setup, match play allows for more unique hole locations and tee placement. And for daily course maintenance, it eases the burden on unrealistic and unsustainable practices in the interest of fairness.
In Scotland – where the modern game was invented – and much of the rest of the world, match play rules the day. Many club golfers typically play hole-by-hole matches, be they various two-player formats or other team events, instead of individual stroke-play events with aggregate scoring totals deciding a winner. In the Home of Golf, stroke play is frequently the oddity, not the default.
The ruling bodies that conduct top-tier professional tournaments would be well-served to look to Scotland for what could make our game better.
Unfortunately, we often take our cues from pro golf on TV. Whether it be scoring format, equipment, clothing, pre-shot routine or most importantly course conditioning, pro golf on TV has a trickle-down effect, especially in the United States. TV producers prefer stroke play events because they are, barring bad weather, typically guaranteed to end at a predetermined time to complete a broadcast window. Stroke play usually makes for a tidy product without the risk of a lopsided match ending early, leaving an hour or more of dead air on a Sunday afternoon. But this reliance on stroke play has an unhealthy impact on the game. The loss of the Dell Technologies Match Play after this year offers up a perfect opportunity for event organizers to embrace professional match play events on an even grander scale.
Match play already presents some of the most compelling golf on TV, just not at most pro events. The U.S. Amateur, U.S. Women’s Amateur plus the men’s and women’s NCAA Championship finals deliver more drama and emotion than most PGA Tour events, albeit to smaller viewing audiences.
We need look no further than the Ryder Cup, one of the most-anticipated events every two years. The passion exhibited is unique in pro golf, with teams of players from the United States and Europe squaring off in various match-play formats. It brings out the players’ personalities and often spotlights their strengths and frailties.
Imagine combining the benefits of match-play formats in a major championship. This isn’t exactly a new idea, as the PGA Championship was contested as match play until 1958. But aside from one annual PGA Tour event in recent years, the format has been cast aside for elite pros.
Now is the time for a resurgence with the advent of the Men’s & Women’s U.S. Open Match Play Championship. It would be modeled after the U.S. Amateur and open to pros and amateurs alike – just like the U.S. Open. The event would immediately become more popular than the FedEx Cup Playoffs with fans and would serve as a match-play lead-in to the biennial Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup events. Not only would this be a win for fans, it could help solve the USGA’s venue challenges.
The USGA has locked in many of the U.S. Open sites for both men and women for the next 20-plus years at a handful of venues including Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pinehurst No. 2, Oakmont, Shinnecock, Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course, Riviera, Oakland Hills, Winged Foot and Merion. Each is an amazing course with great architecture and tradition. And by repeating venues, the USGA has made the business of conducting championships easier in terms of scheduling, logistics and course setup.
However, the law of unintended consequences is that by locking in these venues, they have locked out others.
The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, Southern Hills in Oklahoma, Inverness in Ohio and other clubs have been great hosts before and have invested to conduct more championships. They are largely locked out of the U.S. Open schedule.
Municipal venues such as Bethpage Black in New York, Torrey Pines in California and Chambers Bay in Washington (my biased choice for future U.S. Opens and Match Play events, as I helped design the site of the 2015 U.S. Open) are also shut out. And what about any new course that comes along that might be worthy to host a national championship?
Creating The U.S. Open Match Play not only opens the door to all of these venues, but many, many more.
One of the great things about the U.S. Open is it was always the toughest test in golf. The winning score historically was usually around par. But that means there are only a couple dozen venues capable of hosting the event, and even then we see the USGA changing a course from par 72 to par 70, narrowing fairways, growing rough, speeding up greens and more, all in effort to protect par.
But with match play, par doesn’t matter. All of a sudden, venues such as Chicago Golf Club, National Golf Links of America in New York or Pacific Dunes in Oregon become viable candidates on the golf course side (there are still many other factors to consider).
Creating this championship would allow the USGA to match the venue to the event better. While Oakmont and Shinnecock work well for stroke play, venues such as Los Angeles Country Club (site of this year’s U.S. Open) or Merion (site of the 2030 Open) are far better suited for match play. It would also allow the USGA to better spread out events geographically. And instead of having the U.S. Open at Pinehurst three times in nine years, the resort could host two U.S. Opens and a U.S. Open Match Play.
This same idea holds true for the women’s game. The women actually have a wider range of great venue options because a course doesn’t need to approach 8,000 yards long. A best-case scenario would be finding a way for men and women to actually compete together on the same course, as in the major championships in tennis.
If the USGA doesn’t want to charge through the door the PGA Tour has opened, I hope the PGA of America, R&A or some other group will. More match play on great venues around the world is good for golf. All of golf.