Who's kidding who - we're really all just waiting for The Masters. That said, why does the WGC Accenture Match Play fail to generate any real excitement?
The main reason is probably that the best players in the world don't make it to the weekend. That is not to say the winners themselves have not been among the top players. After the somewhat underwhelming Scott McCarron v Kevin Sutherland finals of 2002, (although it was during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics so at least in Canada there were other things to worry about - and not necessarily Ian Leggatt winning the Tucson Open which they used to run concurrently with the WGC), the stars actually have been winning the WGC Match Play.
Since the famous McCarron-Sutherland tilt (like the "Thrilla in Manila" and the "Rumble in the Jungle", you may now know it by its more colloquial name "The Tiff at the delightful La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad"), the list of winners in the past 10 years is actually pretty impressive:
2003 Tiger Woods
2004 Tiger Woods
2005 David Toms
2006 Geoff Ogilvy
2007 Henrik Stenson
2008 Tiger Woods
2009 Geoff Ogilvy
2010 Ian Poulter
2011 Luke Donald
2012 Hunter Mahan
That is a solid list of players and arguably as strong as any of the Majors for the same period. Stenson is not a weak link because he was 8th in the world rankings at the time and rose to 6th with that win. Over the same time period, the Majors included winners such as Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman, Michael Campbell, Lucas Glover, Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Shaun Micheel, Charl Schwartzel and Y.E. Yang - all nice players but not exactly Murderer's Row.
So, the WGC Match play does give us top players winning including a healthy dose of Tiger in the early aughts and as late as 2008. So why does it seem so blah?
A look somewhat deeper into the results suggests a weakness to the format. The big names never seem to get to the weekend together. This is usually fine for stroke play because a single big name can be the focus for the weekend and all other players are measured in comparison to that player. It is less the case with match play because the play of anyone not directly in a match with that top player does not really have an impact. In other words, if Rory is the only top guy making it to the final 8, the only interesting situations on the weekend are his matche and the other matches don't mean much. If Rory is the only big name on the weekend in a stroke play match, you may have 7 or 8 guys gunning at him at the same time and every shot matters.
The results show the big names don't make it together so often. Consider the same 10 year time period. Of the top 8 players each year (i.e. the 1 or 2 seed in each bracket), how many of the top seeds actually make it even to the final 8? Not that many. And aside from Tiger, many of these names don't exactly spike the ratings or trigger the quote-machine.
2003: 2 (Woods and Toms)
2004: 3 (Woods, Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson)
2005: 2 (Reteif Goosen and Stewart Cink)
2006: 1 (Goosen)
2008: 1 (Woods)
2009: 1 (Ogilvy)
2010: 1 (Casey)
2011: 1 (Martin Kaymer)
2012: 2 (Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy)
So over the past decade, one or none of the top 2 seed in each bracket get to the weekend the majority of the time. Only once have there been 3 of the top 8 make it to the weekend. That was nine years ago. Clearly, golf is not like March Madness in which a number one seed in a region has never lost in the first round. At the WGC Match play in the past decade, one number 1 seed loses in the first round on average. Only twice has every number one seed moved on to the second round. Upsets are the norm.
Now, this probably says something about the quality of the modern player. Not that the elite players are bad but more likely that the average player is better. There is less variance between an elite player and a player ranked 40th in the world than in the past. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato To Dawrinism, there are no longer .400 hitters in baseball not because players are getting worse, but because everyone is better (however you may feel about Gould's grasp of evolution and statistics, there is no doubt this is the finest review of a book written by a Harvard scholar).
WHAT TO DO?
First, match play is a good thing.
Match play is an exciting way to play golf. The Ryder Cup is proof. Even better proof it that for most of us fans and amateurs, it is the typical way we compete in golf against our friends, enemies and acquaintances. Match play certainly belongs in competitive and professional golf.
However, these field of 64 match play events do not generate the tension and interest. The USGA U.S. Amateur is usually more interesting than the professional events (aside from Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup and hopefully the LPGA's smart new International Crown).
Now, one way to create additional interest for golf fans as well as introduce more match play is to take an idea from soccer. Create one or more ongoing tournaments that run concurrently with the regular season. In the case of golf, you can go one step further and create concurrent events using the existing framework of the stroke-play tournaments. Here are a couple of ideas that would work:
Team Match Play
Create sponsored teams consisting of about 8 PGA Tour member players. I'm sure it would be easy to get a sponsor for each team Let's say there are 10 teams of 8 players (e.g. the top 60 in FedEx points from the prior year plus 2 rookies per team). Each week, a team has to enter at least 4 members (maximum one rookie) of the team into that week's particular tournament. This would presumably be good for the less prestigious tournments which would ensure at least 30 of top 60 at every event. The roster of 4 would play another team's 4 players on Thursday and Friday.
Let's say there is a Team Taylor-Made and a Team RBC: each would put forward 4 players for a tournament and for the Thursday and Friday pairings, they would pair a Taylor-Made player and an RBC player in the same group playing match play concurrently with their individual stroke play event (i.e. no pick-ups or gimmes because the player is still in the stroke play event). So by Friday night, there would be 5 matches between the 10 teams with scoring out of 8 total points available (4 on Thursday and 4 on Friday). Once you get to the weekend, it is simply the stroke play event.
By the end of the year, there would be standings among the 10 teams and there would be a week in which there would be the playoffs and finals. Let's say 4 teams make the playoffs. Thursday and Friday would be the semi-finals and then Saturday and Sunday would be the finals. Something like 4 four-ball matches and 4 alternate shot matches on day one of each round (Thursday of the semis and Satursday of the finals) and 8 singles matches on the second day (Friday for the semis and Sunday for the finals). Tension and drama all year.
Individual Match Play
This is similar to the team match play but simply for individual players. Now, it is a bit more difficult to get individual players to play specific events so it would work like this.
In either case, the winners (whether team or individual) will be able to split a pretty significant pot created by sponsors. This prize money can be provided by the naming sponsor (Kodak after all paid out $1M to the winner of the arbitrary year-long 18 separate hole competition). In the team event, some of the money paid by a sponsor to get a team name would go to the prize money. Of course, the most interesting appraoch would be for each player to put in money (e.g. $50,000 to enter. Win $500,000 if there were 10 teams and winner take-all and in the individual, there would be $6.8M to split)
If anything, this might help the United States in the Ryder Cup to help its players get some match play experience. The numbers suggest they need some match play practice: over the past 4 years, only 5 American players have made it to the final four (31% from a 33.2% American entry rate into the WGC Match Play over that period) compared to 9 Europeans (56% got to final four from a 35.5% European entry rate).
The good part of these ideas is that they do not really require any significant additional tournament framework. These events occur concurrently with the regular stroke play events. They simply add interest and sponsors. That can't be a bad thing.