Believe it or not, the PGA of America got it right 41 years ago when it changed the format of the PGA Championship from match to medal play. Match play may be dramatic, but it's no way to identify a champion. That's why Tiger Woods was both amused and amazed when someone asked him if last week's Andersen Consulting Match Play might become a fifth major. "No way," he said dismissively.
Let's get one thing out of the way right off the bat: There will never be a fifth major. Period. End of story. Quit yapping about it. That said, the Andersen is clearly the Tour's rookie of the year.
I came to a couple of conclusions last week. One, match play is superior entertainment. Corey Pavin once told me that, to him, a match was like 18 individual tournaments, with each tournament decided by a do-or-die shot. That's why Eduardo Romero—one down to Greg Norman in his second-round match at La Costa-described the seven-iron approach he hit to within one foot on the 18th hole as the best shot of his life. Romero would go on to beat Norman in extra holes, but the point is, when was the last time you saw anything that dramatic on a Thursday? If the Andersen had been a medal event, Romero probably wouldn't have dared fire at that treacherous pin, and even if he had made a birdie, well, that would've been a nice finish, nothing more.
Two, stroke play is far superior when it comes to identifying the best golfer. Anything can happen in an 18-hole match. A Jeff Maggert can beat a Tiger Woods. A Bill Glasson can beat a David Duval. A Steve Pate can beat a Davis Love III. In stroke play a guy like Maggert has to beat a Woods or a Duval over a four-day stretch, and on Sunday he has to worry about someone dropping a little 59 on him. In match play the strongest players can be eliminated in one day, dramatically weakening the field, which is what happened at La Costa.
Before the Andersen, Duval expressed reservations about the format, saying, in so many words, that it's bogus in a big event. It's hard to argue with him. Consider what Woods would have had to contend with had he made it to the final. He wouldn't have faced a single player ranked among the top 20. Can you imagine the Masters or the U.S. Open without Love, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Colin Montgomerie or Mark O'Meara after the opening round? Yet those so-called upsets are standard procedure in any match-play event. "We knew some top seeds would lose, but we didn't expect 90 percent of them to lose," said 12th-ranked Phil Mickelson, who was ousted in the third round by No. 53, Romero.
Neither did anyone else, apparently. The gripping excitement of the first two days' play led to over-the-top pronouncements—the fifth major business—in some quarters. Then when the final four turned out to be Maggert, John Huston, Andrew Magee and Steve Pate, players who many fans and some writers either don't know or don't appreciate, the Andersen was naively written off as a dud, a failed fifth. Sure, a Duval-Woods final would've been something, but the one we wound up with wasn't so bad, was it?
There's something else I don't get. In other sports, when unheralded teams knock off the big boys, they become sentimental favorites. How come Cinderella got no respect in the Match Play?
I guess I can understand why ABC and casual fans viewed the Magee-Maggert final as a worst-case scenario, yet my response is: tough. Get over it. Match play is about the golf, which is why the Brits love the format. They want to see the shots. Americans want to see who's winning. They focus on the play, while we're wrapped up in the actors.
It took only one playing for the Match Play to become my favorite tournament. How can you not love an event in which Fred Couples admits he's "choking like a dog" and good ol' Monty, America's punching bag, spits and sputters when Craig Stadler makes him clean up all his three-footers?
I wouldn't have cared if the final match had featured Magee versus Maggert, Duval versus Woods, or Rowan versus Martin. If you didn't like the two players in Sunday's final, you probably don't like golf. You certainly don't understand match play.