The Match Play Championship: A Primer on February Madness

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“Wednesday at the Match Play Championship is the most underrated day in golf,” said Chris Reimer, the communications manager for the PGA Tour, and I cursed in my head for two reasons. First, he was absolutely right. Second, I realized at that moment that I would have led this post with that exact same idea, except that I hadn’t officially conceptualized it in my brain yet, and now I’d feel bad using it without attribution.

Damn you, Chris Reimer, for stealing my lede. But also, great call.

Besides the four majors and the Ryder Cup, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is my favorite tournament of the year. (Actually, I think I might even like it a little better than the PGA Championship. Sorry, fourth major.) The Match Play Championship, as I’ll be calling it informally, is a five-day event featuring the 64 best golfers in the world, give or take a Mickelson. It involves a single-elimination, March Madness–style bracket that winnows the field down from Wednesday’s 64 to one ultimate winner. And it’s all match play, mano a mano, the way the original caveman golfers intended.

As it happens, match play is my favorite format. Think about what makes the memorable majors so great. The Sunday duels, right? Snead vs. Hogan, Nicklaus vs. Arnie, Watson vs. Nicklaus, Tiger vs. Bob May, Tiger vs. Y.E. Yang, Tiger vs. Rocco Mediate, Tiger vs. everyone else in his generation. But it takes a certain set of circumstances to make those duels possible. Sometimes, because of the stroke play format used in all four majors, you end up with a dud. Match play removes the element of chance. Every single match is a natural one-on-one duel. By pitting golfer against golfer without the protection of an entire field, it gets to the heart of what makes the competition so compelling.

So, let’s set up the February Madness with a comprehensive primer. Hopefully I can answer all your main questions and a few you might not have known to ask.

What’s So Great About the Match Play Championship?

You mean, besides the idea of pitting the world’s 64 best golfers against each other in a win-or-go-home format and then introducing a BRACKET, i.e., the greatest geometrical creation in all of sports?

Well, here’s some more: The chaos of Wild Wednesday’s 32 opening matches makes the tournament special all on its own. The day is rife with upsets and drama and extra holes and pressure putts that win or lose matches. But those elements aren’t confined to Wednesday; often, they continue right to the last hole on Sunday. The tournament has only been around since 1999, but it already inspires more excitement — from fans and players — than any other non-major stop on the Tour. If you want to project that success into the future, I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine the Match Play assuming the status of a fifth major. It’s that good.

Where’s the Bracket?

Right here. Feast your eyes.

Am I Missing Any Other Key Details?

You’ve got most of them. Sixty-four golfers, seeded exactly like the NCAA tournament, with seeds 1 through 16 facing off for a Final Four berth in four different “regions.” The regions are named after legends — you’ve got the Sam Snead region, the Bobby Jones region, the Ben Hogan region, and the Gary Player region. The semifinals and finals are both played on Sunday; the final used to be an anticlimactic 36 holes, but it was smartly changed to 18 in 2011.

The tournament is played at The Golf Club at Dove Mountain (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it does seem like golf has a tendency to use 15 words when three would suffice) in Marana, Arizona, just outside Tucson. I’ll be here all week, following the best matchups and reporting back.

Do the Players Care About This Tournament?

Consider the evidence. This is the first tournament Tiger Woods has played since winning the Farmers Insurance Open a month ago, unless you count playing with President Obama a “tournament.” (And maybe we should.) Ian Poulter hasn’t played since the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in early January, but he’ll be here. So will Rory McIlroy — last seen missing a cut in Abu Dhabi a month ago — and so will Luke Donald, and Lee Westwood, and almost every top golfer.

But forget the anecdotal evidence, because here’s what you really need to know — of the top 64 golfers in the world, only two are missing the Match Play Championship in 2013. Show me another event where that happens, and I’ll show you a major. These guys love the tournament. (It doesn’t hurt that you make $46,000 just for losing on Day 1, while the winner pockets $1.5 million.)

Who Are the Two Absentees?

The first is Brandt Snedeker, who’s had a great start to the season but is suffering from sore ribs and wants to rest up. Fair enough.

The second? Well, the second is Phil Mickelson, who chose to take a family vacation instead of competing. It’s not the first time he’s skipped the event; in fact, he’s done it three of the last four years. If you’re a cynic like me, you might start to suspect that Mickelson simply doesn’t like match play. He’s only made the quarterfinals once in 11 appearances at the Match Play Championship, and his singles match play record in the Ryder Cup (4-5) and the Presidents Cup (2-4-3) shows a golfer whose performance doesn’t match up with his incredible ability.

Let’s Talk About the Seeds … What Do They Mean?

Less than March Madness, but more than you might think. For example, no 1-seed has ever lost in the first round to a 16-seed in college basketball, but at the Match Play, it happens about once per year. Here are the first-round records of every seed from 14 years of match play competition … and yes, it took me about two hours to compile these individually, so please be wowed:

1-seeds: 40-16 (71.43 percent)
2-seeds: 34-22 (60.71 percent)
3-seeds: 39-17 (69.64 percent)
4-seeds: 41-15 (73.21 percent)
5-seeds: 32-24 (57.14 percent)
6-seeds: 32-24 (57.14 percent)
7-seeds: 25-31 (44.64 percent)
8-seeds: 26-30 (46.43 percent)

So you can predict a fairly high rate of success for the top four seeds in every bracket, but after that, things start to get close to random, and 9- and 10-seeds actually have winning records against 8- and 7-seeds. In other words, there’s a lot more pandemonium and a lot less predictability at Wednesday of the Match Play than the start of March Madness.

Who Has the Best Career Record at the Match Play Championship?

I’ll give you four.

1. Tiger Woods. This should surprise exactly no one, since Tiger Woods is the greatest singles match play golfer in world history. (Don’t let the lack of Ryder Cup pairs success fool you … when it’s one-on-one, nobody is better.) He’s won three titles at Dove Mountain, the most of any golfer, and he’s compiled a career 33-9 record.

2. Ian Poulter. This should also surprise exactly no one, since Poulter is the greatest Ryder Cup golfer of his generation. He won the 2010 Match Play title, reaching the semifinals in 2005 and the quarterfinals in 2004. Career record, 18-9.

3. David Toms. This one might surprise you, since Toms has compiled a meager 1-2 singles record in his Ryder Cup career. But get him to the Match Play and he’s money; he won the title in 2005, lost a championship match to Tiger Woods in 2004, and has advanced to the third round four other times. Career record, 24-10.

4. Geoff Ogilvy. He’s the only other golfer with multiple titles (two) at the Match Play Championship, and he reached a third finals in 2007, losing to Henrik Stenson. Career record: 20-5. Unfortunately, Ogilvy didn’t qualify to play this year.

Those are your four Hall of Famers. But bear in mind, past history doesn’t guarantee future success. All four golfers have lost multiple times in the first round.

What Are the Best Wild Wednesday Matchups This Year?

Glad you asked. First off, we’ve got two Northern Ireland vs. Ireland derbies right out of the gate. The first is a 5-12 battle between Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington that I consider the best match of the day. Next is Rory McIlroy (a finalist last year) vs. Shane Lowry in a 1-16 battle. Lowry is basically an unknown, but he had one great moment in 2009 when he won the Irish Open near his hometown, and the fans ignored the warnings of officials and stormed the 18th green after he made the final putt.

I’m also really looking forward to watching Fredrik Jacobson, a Swede who was on fire for most of last weekend’s Northern Trust Open, take on Ernie Els. And of course, any match involving the greats — Tiger, Poulter, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley, etc. — is worth watching, because at least one of them is bound to be upset.

Is There Anything That Could Make Wild Wednesday Even Wilder?

How about BLIZZARD CONDITIONS?!?!?!

OK, that might be overstating it, but we’ve got temperatures peaking in the upper 40s, wind gusts up to 30 mph, and cold, wet rain. That’s rare for the Tucson area this time of year, and though most normal people have reacted to this news by complaining, I love when the elements test golfers. Sun is for country clubs and cowards.

What Are Some Intriguing Possibilities Past Day 1?

In my bracket, I have Tiger Woods going on an insane Ryder Cup revenge tour. In Round 2, it begins with him dispatching Francesco Molinari, the Italian who halved his match with Woods in the Ryder Cup under dubious circumstances. Next, he takes down the Swede Peter Hanson, and then eliminates Martin Kaymer, who made Europe’s winning putt, in the Elite Eight. Poulter is next in the Final Four (and my God, wouldn’t that be a dream matchup …), where he thrusts a stake into the heart of Europe’s savior, followed by a championship win over Justin Rose, whose incredible putts at the end of his match with Mickelson made a European victory seem real for the first time on that disastrous Sunday. Then he rides a bald eagle off into the sunset.

My favorite possible Round 2 matchup, besides the Tiger-Molinari rematch, is Lee Westwood vs. Kaymer. Sergio Garcia vs. Matt Kuchar is a close third, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Garcia lose in Round 1 to Thongchai Jaidee, a Thai golfer who made it to the quarters in 2010 before barely losing to Poulter. He’s my dark horse pick, along with American Ryan Moore, who has the luxury of facing Jim Furyk — America’s worst Ryder Cup’per ever, you could argue — in Found 1. And if I’m being honest, I get anticipatory chills from so many Sweet 16 and Elite Eight possibilities — Donald vs. Poulter; McIlroy vs. McDowell; Watson vs. the red-hot South African Charl Schwartzel; Rose vs. Bradley; and on and on and on.

Here’s my bracket if you’d care to look. Sorry for the quality; the lack of technology in my environs forced me to hold my computer awkwardly over the hotel desk and snap a photo with Photobooth. It’s not ideal.

What About the Course?

It’s a Jack Nicklaus–designed course that was originally so difficult the pros complained until some of the contours were softened and the most difficult holes made more forgiving. But the greens still have extreme slopes that can make two-putts all but impossible, and the entire course is surrounded by hazardous desert. The landscape is dotted by saguaro cacti, and the whole scene is framed by the stark Tortolita Mountains in the background. As someone who’s been to the western half of the U.S. just once previously, for a two-day stint in Los Angeles, I can tell you that it’s a gorgeous environment, and it feels very much like you’re on the set of a western.

Final Thoughts?

I’m so pumped up that I don’t even care about waking up at 5 a.m. My plan is to follow Poulter (tee-off: 7:35 a.m. in Arizona) in his match with Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher, since Poulter has assumed heroic proportions in my mind, and leave them around 11 a.m. to walk with McDowell and Harrington.

To help you get pumped up, here’s a great video of the top 10 moments in Match Play Championship history. Enjoy it, and enjoy Wild Wednesday:

Filed Under: Golf, Shane Ryan

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere