Accenture Match Play: Looking Back and Forward

As mystery continues to swirl about the fate of the Accenture Match Play Championship at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Arizona (Tucson), I keep being drawn back to what a terrific tournament it is.

Match play is one of the most prolific forms of the game below the professional levels; almost all amateur golf is match play. It is the oldest form of the game for one major reason: make a 12 on a hole and you only lose a hole, not the entire match.

At the professional level, the players are so evenly matched and their games are so fine-tuned, you never know how it’s going to go. When World No. 1, Henrik Stenson, drew World No. 67, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, there was little doubt that Stenson would prevail, but Aphibarnrat was 1-Up on 1, 2, 10, 12 and as late as 13 before Stenson got it back to all square. But he didn’t pull ahead until 16 and didn’t ice his 2&1 victory until 17. Aphibarnrat wan’t about to roll over. But then Stenson never led against Louis Oosthuizen and got swamped 4&3. 

Dove Mountain is a perfect match play golf course because there are so many birdie opportunities; tough birdie opportunities, but birdies nonetheless. Some of the players complain about the severity of the greens, but having personally played it on two Media Days and being a good putter familiar with mountain golf, I think they make the course interesting. They are not funky by any stretch. They were designed by Jack Nicklaus, a players’ players known for giving the player ample room off the tee and his attractive, interesting and challenging green complexes (I know because of the six terrific courses he has given us here at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, that I virtually lived on for the years I was Monday Qualifying on the Champions Tour).

Nobody complains about the undulations at Augusta National. In both instances, it would be a cakewalk without them. Hit the right shot in the right place and you can score. Hit it on the wrong level or wrong side of a ridge line running through the spine of the green and you have your work cut out for you.

Plus you get a greater display of creative genius. Rickie Fowler missed the 14th green a little long and in the right fringe. The pin was just short of center on the left side of the green. Had he putted straight at the hole, he had to get it to the end of the upper shelf he was on and hope that the ball would feed down to the hole slowly enough that it would stay on the green. Not happening. So he putted straight across the green where the shelf was not as pronounced, down into the swale breaking left, up against the green’s basin edge still breaking left and feeding slowly down to the hole for a gimme; a 32-foot putt turned into a 45-foot work of genius.

In his victory media session, Jason Day was emphatic for keeping everything just where it is and just as it is for obvious reasons. But then he amplified on the necessity of a pure match play tournament. Some in the media were lobbying for a “knockout” round where the field played two stroke-play rounds to qualify for the smaller field match play. This would avoid the one-and-done scenario where you lose the superstars in the first round. But that consequence is part of the higher tension that comes with match play; there is no skating into the finals, you gotta be good from start to finish.

Don’t change the course.  Don’t change the format (laughter).

I’ll come back every year.  You know, I’ve heard rumors that it could go to Hyde Park, Bogota.  I heard tweaks of changing the format.  I think it’s fine the way it is.  We only play match play practically once a year at the [smaller] Volvo Match Play over in Europe and either the Ryder Cup or The Presidents Cup.  So there’s not too many events like this.

It’s a different kind of a format and I think people like to see it.  It puts golfers in pressure situations, is he going to make it or is he going to miss it?  People like seeing that stuff to see if you’ve got it — if you’ve got the guts to hole putts or keep fighting.  And I think it’s a great format.  I think it definitely shouldn’t go away.  I love it.  I love this place here.  But wherever they take it, I’m definitely still going to play, because I love to play match play.  I love playing against my opponents [instead of the course] and it should be fun.

Parenthetically, Commissioner Finchem said that nothing is ruled out at this point. Discussions are ongoing with many parties including Accenture and Dove Valley. Part of the creature comforts the players routinely mention is the secluded, onsite Ritz-Carlton just three quarters of a mile up the mountain canyon. Not having a commute for those early morning starts means more sleep. A quick jaunt back to the room before going out to dinner is another major time saver, although the year Hunter Mahan won, he and his wife, Kandi, never left the hotel.

Moving the tournament would probably require a different place in the Tour schedule because of the generally good weather in Tucson — no one will ever forget last year’s snow, but it was playable a day later — because other places in the country are worse. Finchem also doesn’t want to cannibalize existing markets, specifically mentioning San Diego which would rule out the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California and just 12 miles north of Torrey Pines in La Jolla.

And in any event, there is mutual agreement that Accenture and the Tour want to continue in some sort of relationship; the Match Play Championship has become synonymous with Accenture and they have loved their involvement in the Tucson market according to Finchem.

Asked if he and Victor Dubuisson had made it easier for the Tour to find a new sponsor, Day was still emphatic:

Oh, man.  You know what, I think we did make it a lot easier.  I didn’t make it easier on my heart.  I felt like I had a heart attack out there a couple of times.  But definitely match play is very exciting because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.

Victor in the cactus today.  Rickie this morning.  There’s so many — people don’t understand the momentum and the switches of momentum and the neutral ground that you have.  There’s a lot of kind of strategy that goes into match play that a lot of people just don’t know about.  If I’ve lost a hole then the momentum is going with my opponent.  Okay.  How do I stop it?  I need to somehow stop the bleeding.  It’s a great feeling when you’re out there playing.  I wish I could express the way I felt and the way match play format is, but I just can’t.  It’s just a feeling.  It’s an exciting format.

That from the winner of $1.5 million. But even the 32 players who got bounced out in the first round all made $48,000. The 16 who got bounced in the second round made $99,000. The next 8 made $148,000 and the last four who didn’t make it to the semis all made $280,000. That required winning three matches.

Commissioner Finchem said that all of this would be settled in an April time frame just due to the incredible level of planning, selling and logistics of moving to a new site.

As an Arizona homer, I’m rooting for Tucson.

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