COMMENTARY | Professional golf's version of March Madness gets under way Feb. 20 in the desert outside Tucson, Ariz. I, for one, won't be filling out a bracket.
The World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship is the only tournament in the 30-plus event PGA Tour season that follows a match-play format. While the match-play drama of the Ryder Cup is unrivaled in the game of golf, the individual version just fails to measure up.
Maybe match play is misunderstood because it's seen so rarely. "Dormie" is a term used to describe a situation where one player is ahead by enough holes that the worst he can do is tie. But few beyond on-course commentators Mark Rolfing and Roger Maltbie can say "the match is dormie" without generating looks of confusion among casual golf fans.
Maybe the World Match Play fails to generate much interest because there are too many participants. Rather than playing against the golf course to post the lowest score, the world's top 64 players will be dueling one another in a six-round, single-elimination contest.
Last year produced a marquee final match when U.S. Ryder Cup veteran Hunter Mahan upset soon-to-be No. 1 Rory McIlroy. The list of past winners is also high on the Q-rating scale: Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Geoff Ogilvy and Tiger Woods.
The problem is the other 50-odd players who fill out the brackets. Give us appealing matchups in every round by trimming the field to 16 players and televising one full round of matches every day.
Maybe the World Match Play is boring to watch because it's played over such a pedestrian course. I love playing target golf in the Sonoran Desert as much as the next guy -- the narrow strips of green surrounded by cacti, sagebrush and cholla makes for a visually appealing experience if you are in the arena. But viewing the action from your couch, all the holes at the Ritz Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain can blend into one.
A memorable course can make a difference. Last year's final round at Doral (WGC-Cadillac Championship) drew a 2.8 TV rating while the McIlroy-Mahan Match Play final only drew a 2.3. Final rounds at Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines (Farmers Insurance Open), PGA National (Honda Classic), and Muirfield Village (The Memorial) also drew more viewers.
The Match Play was moved from LaCosta Resort & Spa north of San Diego to Tucson in 2007. I suspect this was done in part to replace the old Northern Telecom PGA Tour stop that left town. Having a signature, Jack Nicklaus-designed 7,833-yard desert golf course with the swanky Ritz Carlton to provide player accommodations didn't hurt, either.
But what this tournament needs, what match play needs, is to be contested over a famous golf course. And that will probably require a change on the calendar.
Move the tournament to July 4 weekend and have it played on a stunner like Cypress Point on California's Monterey Peninsula or one of the links-style courses such as Pacific Dunes around Bandon, Oregon. You could alternate sites between the East Coast and the West with gems like Shinnecock Hills or National Golf Links on Long Island hosting every other year.
Getting a tournament like the Match Play onto a private course like Cypress (which used to be in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am rotation) could be a tall order, but a smaller field would make it more manageable.
In the meantime, I'll be tuning in to the matches this week to see McIlroy make his 2013 U.S. debut and hope that he advances a few rounds to potentially face Rickie Fowler and then Dustin Johnson or fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell.
Condense the field and these type of intriguing matches are guaranteed.
Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for the New York Post, the Greensboro News & Record, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News and FoxSports.com. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association.
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