Starting in 2015 at the WGC-Match Play event at Harding Park — an unforgettable week as you may recall! — the format of the tournament changed. Of course it’s still match play and it’s only been in effect for two years, so it’s not really a great sample size to judge, especially since I wasn’t able to catch much of the coverage. In all honestly, I don’t have a good feel for the new round-robin format and I don’t like not knowing or experiencing firsthand the positives and negatives resulting from the somewhat significant changes since 2014.
What I can say with utmost confidence, though, is that Wednesday — the first day of the matches — used to be one of my favorite days of the season (and definitely the most exciting one all year at a non-major, hands down). It was always action-packed, filled with tons of dramas, massive upsets, riveting comebacks, twists and turns that was nonstop from start to end. Which was largely because it was truly golf’s version of the NCAA’s March Madness, a single-round elimination knock-out format. Lose the first match and you might be headed for first-available private jet out of Austin (or Tucson, the longtime venue of the event pre-2015), before the no. 1 seeded player had even teed off.
Obviously, there are always upsides and downsides to changing anything and/or any format generally speaking. But I can’t complain too much about any event that strays from the usual 72-hole stroke play format that we see just about every other tournament of the year. I mean, I’ve covered so many regular Tour events since 2011 that you really have to impress me these days to get me super revved up about a non-major. And actually, it happened recently at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Maybe it was the new venue, international city, a change in scenery, the cool atmosphere — probably a number of things, but aside from the Masters, almost every other tournaments starts to lose its luster after a while when it’s like Groundhog Day every year. Same city, same course, same story lines and mostly the same faces.
When was the last time you heard anyone say, “Man, I wish there weren’t so many match play events” or “Match play never produces drama and it’s such a boring format.” Or, “I wish we could add another 72-hole stroke play tournament to the schedule!” Oh, let me think. Never. (For instance, people are pumped up about the new team component that debuts next month in New Orleans.)
I will say the WGC-Match Play has lost some of the luster and excitement to the first day, but I guess the players generally have positive feedback since they’re guaranteed three rounds. At the same time, it’s not like the majority of the field flew across the globe to trek to Austin. (It’s hard for me to say “Texas” when we’re in “Austin” because I don’t have to tell you that Austin isn’t like, “Texas, Texas.” If you know what I mean. Yeah, fully aware that sentence may not have been properly constructed, but it’s late and if you’ve ever been to Austin and Texas, there’s no need to explain. Hell, even if you haven’t and you’re American, you still should.
But I digress. I do recall a few critiques of the new format from 2015, which I believe have since been amended. Correct me if I’m wrong, but one of main complaints was that if two players in the four-player pods were tied after three matches, then the “winner” who advanced to the next round was decided by their match against each other since every player goes head-to-head with the other three guys in all of the 16 groups. This seemed silly when it wouldn’t be difficult just to conduct a sudden death playoff between the two and I think it’s been changed so that’s the case, but correct me if I’m wrong.
OK, I’ve gotten ahead of myself already, though. This is what happens when I don’t have time to write until 2am. Let me first explain and breakdown the “round-robin” format, and by that, I mean, copying and pasting the relevant info from the pre-tournament media notes.
First of all, because of the way the schedule worked out this year and the Masters is in two weeks, some players ranked in the top-64 opted not to compete — they clearly don’t like guaranteed big bucks, rather they obviously have too much money! Kidding! Sort of? Henrik Stenson (5), Adam Scott (8), Rickie Fowler (9) and Justin Rose (13) are not in the field. Adam Hadwin (51) is getting married on Friday in Phoenix (congrats, by the way!). And yes, he’s honeymooning at The Masters! Every woman’s dream! I’m sort of joking, but not really. This happens all the time, though, because of the lack of an offseason in golf, so tour players often postpone the honeymoon to a more convenient week that fits into their schedule. I’m fairly certain everyone is cool with it.
The next five players down the rankings list who were able to clear their schedules include: Jason Dufner (65), K.T. Kim (66), Joost Luiten (67), Pat Perez (68) and Si Woo Kim (69).
OK, so here’s the Tour’s explanation/breakdown of the format, seeding, blah blah.
*Players in the field will be seeded according to their position on the Official World Ranking as of Monday, March 20. The highest ranked player in the field is No. 1, and the lowest ranked player in the field is No. 64.
*Players are then placed into four pools of 16 players.
*The top 16 ranked players in the world will head 16 groups of four players each. The No. 1 seed is the top player in Group 1, No. 2 seed is the top player in Group 2 and so on. Each of the groups headed by the top 16 ranked players will have their respective groups filled out by randomly selecting them from three pools of players; Pool B (players ranked 17-32), Pool C (players ranked 33-48) and Pool D (players ranked 49-64).
For example, No. 1 Dustin Johnson will be grouped with one player from 17-34, 33-48 and 49-64.
*The 64-player Dell Technologies Match Play will utilize Group Play (or Round Robin) Matches with the field divided into 16 four-player groups. The 18-hole matches will be played to either a conclusion, or a halve, with matches not extending beyond 18 holes until Friday. Points are awarded to players based on results of each match as follows: Winner 1 point, Loser 0 point, Halved each player ½ point.
The player in each group with the highest point total at the end of group play advances to the 16-player, single-elimination matches. In the event three or more players in a group are equal with the highest point totals, a stroke play hole-by-hole playoff on holes 1 through 18 in sequence will determine the player that advances to the 16-player, single-elimination matches. If only two players in the group are tied, match play will be the format used to determine the playoff winner.
Wednesday, Round 1 – 32 matches (64 players)
Thursday, Round 2 – 32 matches (64 players)
Friday, Round 3 – 32 matches (64 players)
Round 4 – Saturday morning – Eight matches (16 players) – winners advance to round 5/quarter-final matches. Matches all square after 18 holes in round 4 extended on holes 10 through 18 and repeated if necessary.
Round 5 – Saturday afternoon – Four quarter-final matches (eight players) – winners advance to round 6 /semi-final matches. Matches all square after 18 holes in round 5 are extended on holes 12 through 18 and repeated if necessary.
Round 6 – Sunday morning – Two semi-final matches (four players) – winners advance to the Championship Match, losers advance to the Consolation Match. Matches all square after 18 holes in round 6 are extended on holes 12 through 18 and repeated if necessary.
Round 7 – Sunday afternoon – Consolation Match (two players) and Championship Match (two players). Matches all square after 18 holes in rounds 7 are extended on holes 12 through 18 and repeated if necessary.
*The 16 Groups
There was a made-for-TV event on Monday night showcasing the super exciting (???) random draw for the groups. I have not heard the reviews for the show or really any mention of it other than simply the groups and providing an opportunity to overanalyze the strength of each pod. None of them really stuck out to me. I guess I heard some hype over the first group since all four players have won a major and then fellow Spaniards Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm are in the pod. The player formerly known as the exciting young Spaniard El Nino will for sure face off against his younger replacement. Oh, narratives!
But here they are:
Group 1: Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker (18), Martin Kaymer (41), Webb Simpson (58)
Group 2: Rory McIlroy, Emiliano Grillo (26), Gary Woodland (33), Soren Kjeldsen (62)
Group 3: Jason Day, Marc Leishman (28), Lee Westwood (43), Pat Perez (56)
Group 4: Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen (23), Ross Fisher (47), Jim Furyk (51)
Group 6: Justin Thomas, Matt Fitzpatrick (27), Kevin Na (46), Chris Wood (49)
Group 9: Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka (20), Kevin Kisner (34), Jason Dufner (59)
Group 10: Tyrrell Hatton, Rafa Cabrera Bello (22), Jeunghun Wang (40), Charles Howell III (61)
Group 14: Phil Mickelson, J.B. Holmes (31), Daniel Berger (35), Si Woo Kim (63)
So, while I will miss the best and most exciting (and only) Wednesday in golf all year and fondly remember the riveting finish to the final edition of golf’s true March Madness in 2014 — you can’t forget Victor Dubuisson’s absurd recovery shots from all sorts of cacti and scary-looking plants in the desert that kept extending the match five extra holes before Jason Day finally closed out the Frenchman.
I guess the players seem to like it, but I still think it’s weird in the scenario when a player has already lost the first two majors, making his third match irrelevant… so while it doesn’t mean anything for the 0-2 player, the fate of another player in that same group is in the former’s hands. You’re not entirely “controlling your destiny” or whatever catch phrase is being thrown around these days.
But let’s turn to comments from some of the top-ranked players!
“I think it’s too small of a sample size. But I’ve been a big fan of going to this format. 18 holes of match play really anything can happen. And you’ve seen that in the years gone by. Tiger being beaten by Nick O’Hern or whoever it may be in Arizona. Not that Nick O’Hern is a bad player, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. But if it had of been the way the format is now, and Tiger could go out and win his next two matches and give himself a chance to get to the weekend, then it’s a little bit different.
“It just gives players a chance. If you don’t get off to the fastest of starts and you don’t win your match on Wednesday. You might still win your matches on Thursday and Friday and still go home, but it gives you a chance.”
But despite Rory’s success at the event, he would like to see the final return to a 36-hole duel.
I think that does make a difference, as well. But no matter who you’re playing on Saturday morning, they’ve played the golf course three times, as well. And it is, it’s match play and it’s over 18 holes:
Honestly for me, even though I’ve been to two finals here and I’ve won one and I’ve lost one, I would like to see the final go back to 36 holes, because I think it’s too important a match to just play over 18 holes. And I think the best player always wins over 18 holes. Sorry, over 36 holes, no matter what.”
Jordan Spieth doesn’t sound like he’s sure what he thinks, but he does go through which “loss” felt worse in the two different formats over the past three years…
Normally the more rounds you play, the more separation you get. But at the same time — and the fact that you can get away with losing a match. So again it goes to — I’m not sure, but I would say it gives you the opportunity of playing more rounds on the golf course, still advancing if you have an off day.
In the grand scheme of things, throughout seven rounds the better players — the guys who are hotter will typically separate themselves. And the guys who are hotter typically in the top, what is it, 30 in the world — not necessarily the case here. You run into a lot of guys who move their way in off of the last month of golf. And they’ll continue to play well. But normally over the course of time versus a win or go home, guys in the top-30 separate themselves. That’s why they’re in the top-30.
Q. Secondly, you lost to Ernie (in 2014), I’m going to say, quarterfinals? Does that sound right?
JORDAN SPIETH: (He) putted like Ben Crenshaw.
Q. And then Westwood beats you to keep you from going to group play. And then Louis last year. Which one irritated you the most and why?
JORDAN SPIETH: I think it was — it was definitely Ernie, to answer your question. No question about it. But the reason being I felt really good about the way I was striking it there. And putting it.
I felt better than maybe the last couple of years about the way I was playing at that time. I also thought — that was a one and done format. So I was almost feeling like I had won more important matches. I was riding momentum. Each time I’d knocked off a guy and made them go home, versus getting this round robin play, when you’re not sure what’s going to happen until the end. You’re still in control of your own destiny. But that one felt like March Madness, and now I’m confused how it feels the first three days.
So I got to Ernie and I’m like, okay, you know what, I can out-putt Ernie — or I felt that way. And then he made three 30-footers on the front nine. I don’t know if I can beat Ernie if he’s making 30-footers. And I was also — I let my frustration get to me a lot there, and that frustrated me looking back on it.
I was a bit of a mental midget that day. I wasn’t proud of it. I think I tweeted apologizing that day for some of my outbursts, which is abnormal for me. And learned a lot because it would have been a lot easier for Ernie to stay mentally strong when the guy across from you and obviously verbally, mentally weak that day and I was. And so looking back that was the most frustrating loss.
Q. What about Louis?
JORDAN SPIETH: If you’re going to try to make it worse by using adjectives here, then I can say that — yeah. I’d love to win this tournament being here. I’d love to. I’m also not going to win it every year. And I lost to a guy who’s a major champion and went to the finals. Was obviously playing that well. So that one wasn’t necessarily as tough on me.
The one before, the one against Ernie, I just beat Kuch. Kuch is a difficult match play, too. And I shot 6-under against him. And then I just had an off day and didn’t squeak by. What I was talking about earlier. You’ve just got to win those off days — that off day or two that you’ll have if you’re playing to the caliber of winning.
What’s funny, Michael reminded me today, against Lee Westwood, we were 16 under in those three rounds and I didn’t advance. And that will happen, too. It’s match play. Not often the guy who would win if we had a four round stroke play event, actually very rarely does that guy win this tournament. But that’s nice about the change of pace.
“Losing early hurts more. Packing the bag. That’s why when it was — before we had the group format, packing the bag on the Wednesday afternoon is just such a waste, such an awful feeling. And I did it every year at La Costa. I think I just left the club glove ready by the locker, didn’t even put it away.”
He agrees with Rory that the final should be 36 holes:
I kind of actually second that. But then if you’ve had 18 holes all week as your format and suddenly flip it to 36, that’s a difficult one to justify. The World Match Play, it was HSBC when I won it, it was 36 all week. You had a tiny field, 16 guys or whatever it was.
I think it would be really cool to see that kind of — 36 hole matches would be awesome to see. As you know, I don’t need to explain it, when you’re trying to give value in everything it’s difficult to do.
*Jason Day was the last winner of the old format in 2014 and also the defending champion this week. This exchange was funny:
Q. You mentioned the unpredictability of match play, but in this format is there actually less surprises and maybe who wins the championship? You won it last year. Rory won it the year before. It’s not exactly any surprise there.
JASON DAY: Who won it the year before that, before Rory?
Q. You did.
JASON DAY: I did? Okay (laughter).
I had no idea. That’s terrible, man.
Who won before that? Yeah, so — that’s shocking. Yeah, I’m just trying to think. It’s hard because there’s always — it’s not like tennis. In tennis when you — everyone watches the majors. In tennis, usually the top four seeds get through, at least two or three of them get through.
In this kind of a format just golf is such a different beast that you can’t — other than like a Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy, they can physically conquer a course with how long they hit it and how precise they are with their irons, you can’t really be too physical with golf. In tennis you can be bigger, stronger, faster. You have more speed that than the next guy, but it’s a reactionary sport. Out here you’re reacting, per se, to what he’s doing to make a smarter decision hopefully or take on risk, but you’re not really reacting to how he’s throwing shots at you.
Some days you can get a guy and he can go off and have a really great day, and the next day he could play terrible. Golf is just really finicky like that. Obviously the last few years, I feel like the top seeds have done decent.
Yeah, it is unpredictable, but usually it’s — when you come into an event like this, it’s all about the attitude and the emotion that you go into it knowing that you’re going to do a little bit more than the next guy with regards to how much you really want to push yourself mentally when you’re out there playing against a guy. Because you can’t quit. No matter how bad it is, even if you’re 2-down or 3-down, you never know what’s going to happen around the middle of your round or on the backside because momentum does change pretty quick in golf. So you always have to stay on your toes if you’re in the lead or behind, and you’ve always got to kind of keep pushing.
So the unpredictability of a higher seed or a lower seed winning against a higher seed, there’s good chances, but once again, you’re there for a reason. You should perform and hopefully get to the top.
Q. But having three rounds now guaranteed as opposed to the previous way where it was single elimination right from the start, does that change things at all, do you think?
JASON DAY: The first year I played it, I played it at TPC Harding Park, and I went 0 and 3. My mentality going into it — because it was so cut throat before where you say if I didn’t win on Wednesday I’m gone. And I didn’t really take to it too much. I didn’t really like the format at the start. I’m like, this is a terrible format. I don’t like it at all.
And then the next year, coming to here, I was sitting there and I’m like, just kind of think the way you’re supposed to think and say if you do go out there, you have to win every single match, regardless, doesn’t matter. Even if you lose one, you feel like you’ve lost, but you’ve got to keep pushing even though — that’s the mentality you need, you need to take into this kind of format, even though it is a round robin with three guaranteed rounds to play, you have to win every single match, that’s the way I feel.
And I think the first year that I played at Harding Park, I didn’t — like I say, I didn’t really take to it. And I kind of — emotionally, inside, I was like, I kind of took out all of the — I want to — I kind of get you, just me and you, and that’s it, you know. Whereas in like it just kind of took all that kind of mongrel inside of you, your gut, out of you.
And then the next year I changed my attitude and the way I looked at it and I was fine from there.
Q. Along the same lines, you’ve had success under both, round robin and do or die. Do you prefer one or the other?
JASON DAY: I like the other way where it’s just — you either win or you go home, because it’s just — it forces you to go out and play. I need to play well here. If I don’t play well then I’m going home. I’m going to watch these guys on the weekend, because I really want to be here. I’ll take either way, but I like the kind of format before.
Me too, dude.
Day is conserving his energy and not playing a practice round. But no worries, he’s got another game plan.
JASON DAY: I’m going to be playing video games with Nick Watney all week. I’m staying at his place. So it’s us gaming all week. Mountain Dew and pizza.
Q. Any game in particular?
JASON DAY: Call of Duty. I’m going to be yelling at 12-year-olds. So if I yell at your 12-year-old, I’m sorry.
“Match play is very unpredictable. Any day the guy you’re playing against can shoot a very low score that no matter how — you can play very well and still get beat. So match play, that’s why it’s fun. It’s exciting for everyone to watch. And it’s fun for us to play, too. You have a bad hole, you can just pick up and go to the next one, so that’s nice, also.
“Obviously I’ve got three days, three rounds to play. I’ve got three matches, no matter what. I feel like the game is pretty sharp right now. And I stayed — and I practiced a little bit the last couple of weeks. So I feel like I stayed in good form. And just have to see.
“I could play three good rounds and still not make it through. So I don’t know how you judge on your finish. Obviously I want to be playing on Sunday for the championship, but you just never know what’s going to happen.”
*Justin Thomas, who cracked me up a bit:
Q. Coming into the match play event, when you get on the ground, you talk about the different mindset. How different is it? Just a feeling as soon as you get here?
JUSTIN THOMAS: It is. I think it’s the — at least how I feel or how I felt this year coming in, I never like thought of — it’s not a worrisome feeling, but it’s just like you’re nervous. Like I was — it’s weird. I don’t know why I’m nervous. I don’t feel like I should be nervous. I’m sure I will be on the tee shot. You’re nervous about who is going to be in your group. At least I’m nervous, am I going to get through my pod. Who cares? I either am or I’m not. You think about it before you leave, whereas a Sunday or Monday a couple of days before the tournament you’re like, is it Thursday yet? You’re just going through the motions. It’s really weird. I don’t know why I felt that way. I don’t know because of my performance last year, so it would be my second one. It’s odd because you obviously have three matches and you have to beat everyone else in your pod to get through.
For me this year it’s just more so. All I’m focused on right now is trying to beat Chris Wood. And I don’t even know who I play — I understand I’m going to play both the other guys, but I don’t know who I’m going to play which day or the other. Right now all I’m focused on is the first match.
Q. It’s just a one-on-one thing?
JUSTIN THOMAS: Yes, it is. And that’s the thing that is so different because especially a week like this when the conditions can change so much. I think this will be a very interesting place to have a stroke play tournament on. You can get some tremendous waves. You can have great weather one morning and then blow like 40 in the afternoon. You get some complaining from the guys. But now you can’t complain, because the only person you’re playing against is in your group. That part is a little bit different. Yeah, it really is, it is you versus the other guy, mano y mano.
Q. Since you can’t predict how you are going to play tomorrow or how Chris is going to play or anybody else, how can someone possibly say I like this group I’m in, I got a good draw?
JUSTIN THOMAS: Yeah. And I understand that Golf Channel, they need things to talk about, but to look at some groups and be like, oh, that’s an easy group to get through. Well, one of those guys has to get through. How do you think they feel? I have to play him who’s won however many tournaments and he’s won this. Some people — I don’t know if this is Matt Fitzpatrick’s first match play probably in terms of this. He won the U.S. Am. He’s obviously good at match play. He’s won on the European Tour. And that’s just because this is his first time, he doesn’t have a record, and people might say something about him.
Everyone here is really, really, really good. The top 64 in the world. And anybody can win any day. And it is funny how it’s like, this is the group of death or this is that. Let’s all just calm down and go play golf.
Q. Do you think you have a good group?
JUSTIN THOMAS: I just went through this. I’m not biting the bait that easily.
Just curious: Do you have a preference on the format? Do you miss the old or do you like the new? Personally, I miss Wednesday of the old, like I already said. And then the rest of it is all the same to me. The event is the same week as the real March Madness, so I really don’t think it’s going to make any significant difference in ratings or interest if x-player were knocked out in the first round if the format were still single-round elimination. Let’s be real, the people interesting and watching this event are going to watch regardless of the format, and the few that may not watch if x-player was already eliminated is so insignificant that you probably wouldn’t even notice the difference. In other words, same people watching the event in the old format would watch it in either format and no one is going to tune in because the format has changed.
Let the games begin…! Hopefully it will be a good one. I love match play. I mean, who doesn’t? And I love Austin. It’s actually the birthplace of the site in a way — at least the name, but I’ll get into that with more detail later this week.
Oh, here’s a screenshot of darts I threw randomly to fill out the bracket. It’s not saving properly on the Tour site — ahem, technical difficulties, people! — so apologies for making you squint since the “print your bracket” function isn’t working.
Oh gosh, that’s worse than I thought. I will try to figure out why the Tour’s Fantasy Bracket page is having technical difficulties or what I’m doing wrong. Stay tuned. I’m sure you’re dying to know my picks. And I’m also sure my bracket will be busted before I rectify the quality of this screen shot or figure out if I’m not filing out the bracket properly, even though it’s about as straightforward as possible…