Some people love match play; others hate it; still others can simply take it or leave it. Match play can be quite boring at times -- like when a match is decided by a 6 and 5 or 7 and 6 type score. It can also produce one of the most exciting moment you will ever see in golf -- the winner being determined by the last putt on the last (or extra) hole.
Consider this, though. Many of the world’s best golf competitions are contested in a match play format, including the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur and just about all amateur championships run by the USGA and the R&A. Team events like the Ryder Cup, Walker Cup and Palmer Cup are match play and those have produced some of the most memorable and exciting moments in the history of the game. Even the PGA Tour has a match play event on its schedule and for the last two years, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain, located in Marana, Ariz., just outside of Tucson, has hosted the world’s best golfers, serving as venue for the World Golf Championships - Accenture Match Play Championship. When the tournament was first played on this layout in 2008, Geoff Ogilvy, the Australian and winner of the 2006 U.S. Open, bested the 64-player field and won the prestigious title by defeating England’s Paul Casey, 4 and 3, in the final match. The event returned to the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, last month and it was Ian Poulter besting the 64-player world class field, defeating fellow Englishman Casey, 4 and 2, in the title match.
The pros are now gone, but the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, again is in the match play spotlight. This time around it is serving as venue for some of the best players in college golf as it hosts this year’s Callaway Match Play Championship, March 21-23. The professional stars of tomorrow will be on display as 16 of the country’s leading golf programs battle over three days to determine a champion. Heading the field is Texas A&M, the reigning NCAA champion which won that title in the new national championship match play format last spring at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. Three other teams that advanced to the Elite 8 of match play at the NCAA are also competing -- Arizona State, Southern California and Washington -- as well as Middle Tennessee State, which won this event last year when it was played at The Farms Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Rounding out the field are Arizona, Colorado State, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, San Diego, Stanford, TCU, Texas Tech, UCLA, and UNLV.
Veteran Arizona coach Rick LaRose has long been a promoter and fan of the match play format. “It’s exciting for the players because every hole means something,” LaRose said. “I think the kids like the idea of head-to-head, you against me. Every shot is important and you can have a winner and a loser on every hole.”
LaRose also feels this year’s Callaway Match Play Championship will be something special for the players in that they will be competing on the same course and in the same format as the pros. “They’ll play a course the PGA Tour played match play on and I think that’s cool,” LaRose said. “It’s an outstanding match play course. And consider, one of the greatest golfers of all time (Jack Nicklaus) designed it. He did a great job. It favors the guy who can think his way around a little bit.”
Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins also is a big supporter of match play, and it’s not simply because his Aggies won the NCAA title last season in this format and with one of the most exciting finishes in NCAA Championship history. “Stroke play is probably the best way to go for individual competition, but I feel that match play is the best way to determine the best team,” said Higgins, whose Aggies went 0-3 at last year’s collegiate match play event. “You can’t hide anyone. Every player, every match is important. All five guys count the same and that’s as good a definition of team as you can find.”
Even the pros realized that in match play you have to change your mindset and your on-course strategy each and every day. “I think (match play) is a lot about attitude,” said Ogilvy during this year’s Accenture Match Play Championship. “Golf is so much in the head. The mental aspects of match play are something I really enjoy. In match play it’s black or white. There’s a result on every hole.”
To me, what’s so interesting about match play is you don’t always have to be at the top of your game to advance, which means that pretty much everyone competing is on an equal basis.
“It’s definitely different that the NCAA (basketball) tournament where there is a pretty big discrepancy between (seeds) one and 16,” said Nick Watney during this year’s PGA Tour event. “Anything can happen at any time.”
Said Ogilvy, ”I always thought it was fun that you could shoot 80 but still win or that you could shoot 65 and lose. I really like the me-against-that-guy thing.”
Sergio Garcia echoed similar thoughts. “It’s a funny tournament, this match play,” said the talented Spaniard. “Some years you come here you feel like you’re playing unbelievable and you get beaten in the first or second round. And some years you come here and you don’t feel quite as great and you manage to somehow get around it.”
It will certainly be interesting to see how it all plays out at this year’s Callaway Collegiate Match Play Championship. Will there be some boring matches? Probably. Will there be some upsets? No doubt. Will there be some exciting, down-to-the-wire matches? You bet. And besides, it sure adds a different twist and a refreshing change within college golf.