Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fixing The Match Play and FedEx Cup at the Same Time

Golf's annual World Match Play Championship should be an event circled on the calendar by golf fans and casual fans alike.

It’s not. Even a remarkable performance by Golden Hands could do little to raise the interest of the sports world on Sunday afternoon.

golden hands
In theory, it should be a showcase tournament with 64 players involved in a March Madness-like bracket in a unique format. It is the only match play tournament on the PGA Tour calendar. It should elicit the same sort of enthusiasm and excitement that team events like the Ryder Cup does.

Instead, no one gives a shit. 

Okay, there are some people that give a shit -- just not that many. This year, the event hit a new low. Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson didn't even bother to show up. Going up against the Olympics, NBC punted on coverage to CBS. Going up against the Olympics, the Daytona 500, college basketball and the NFL scouting combine, the tournament got barely a casual mention on SportsCenter or Twitter.

If you play a big golf tournament and no one watches – does it make a sound?

There are myriad reasons why the Match Play, somehow around since 1999, is floundering. The format is blamed by some, as it inevitably forces big-name players to vacate the premises by Wednesday night.

Other reasons include a terrible course in the desert of Arizona that doesn’t appeal to players, fans or viewers. Probably the biggest knock against it is timing – the event ends the PGA Tour's West Coast swing but many players would much rather be in Florida preparing for the next swing, with the next World Golf event in just two weeks in Doral.

Likewise, there are several tournaments on the West Coast swing that players love – think Pebble Beach, Riviera and Torrey Pines – that far overshadow the Match Play, which still feels like a silly season, made for TV event.

And speaking of made for TV events – there's another tournament that no one gives a shit about and that is the Tour Championship, nominally the most important on the PGA Tour calendar. As with the Match Play, the Tour Championship has been hampered by timing and format.

The tournament takes place opposite college and pro football, a spot that no sport besides baseball can occupy and not get destroyed. IndyCar, following my suggestion, has vacated the fall. NASCAR has gimmicked its Chase for the Cup yet again in a desperate bid for relevancy. The WNBA tries to wrap up in September. MLS has struggled with miniscule ratings while insisting its season ends in December.

The PGA, to its credit, has tried to change things. The Tour Championship used to take place in November and stars like Phil and Tiger skipped it at times. The FedEx Cup starts in August, trying to gain some eyeballs before football rules the world.

It hasn't worked in large part due to the format. A player can win the FedEx Cup without winning the Tour Championship. While that may fly in NASCAR, it doesn’t work in golf. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods didn't ascend to greatness by finishing 10th in big tournaments.

So why not make the best of a bad situation and fix both the Match Play and the FedEx Cup at the same time.

Yes, I am proposing the Tour Championship become the PGA Tour's only Match Play event.

Let's face it – the Match Play tournament is dead. Whether they move it somewhere else or placed somewhere new on the calendar, the brand is done for. There’s no going back. You can't make it work. You tried for 15+ years and it failed. You wipe your hands clean and move on.

fedex cup logo
The Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, on the other hand, is not dead but it needs help. And in 2011, the PGA Tour lucked into what the tournament should be.

That year, Bill Haas and Hunter Mahan went to a playoff in the Tour Championship with the tournament and the FedEx Cup on the line. It was sudden death for all the marbles. It was riveting television. The FedEx Cup finally delivered when Haas dug a ball out of the water to a few feet and won.

That is what the FedEx Cup should be. It didn't matter that Haas and Mahan weren't Tiger and Phil – it was high drama and I turned away from football for a few hours. That is exactly what the PGA Tour needs to recreate year after year.

The Tour Championship can still be 30 players, but it must be in a match play format. It even gives a nice added bonus because with 30, you can give a bye to the top 2 in the standings – ratcheting up the intensity for the first FedEx Cup events.

No longer can someone win the FedEx Cup by finishing 10th. You have to win the Tour Championship. And year after year, the PGA will end its season with two guys going mano a mano for $10+ million. Don't you think you'd watch that? I'd watch it if it was Haas and Mahan – and I'd clear out my schedule and call my friends if it was Rory and Tiger, or Phil and Adam.

The setup is perfect for a four-day event and you instantly remove the problem of big names going home by Wednesday night. Will there be upsets and no-names involved? Sure, but it will feel more like the NCAA Tournament than a made-for-TV event as every player involved will have earned their way and want to be there.

On Thursday, you play 14 first-round matches, as the top 2 seeds enjoying a bye.

On Friday, you play the Round of 16 with 8 matches.

On Saturday afternoon, you play the quarterfinals – it could even be a nice lead-in to a Notre Dame night game on NBC.

Then on Sunday morning, before football arrives, you can play the semifinals as they are played now. Wouldn't that be a nice change from the endless pregame shows? Wouldn't that instantly become the highest-rated program on Golf Channel each and every year? And you can entice some football viewers to pay attention to the final on Sunday afternoon.

The final is played on Sunday afternoon, with an easy-to-sell story of two of the best golfers in the world going toe-to-toe for 18 holes and more money that most can even dream of having.

Who wouldn't watch that?

More importantly, wouldn't you rather watch that than the 2014 version of the Match Play or Tour Championship?

It's time for the PGA Tour to think outside the box and reinvigorate its struggling playoff system. And then they can spend the rest of their time praying for a Tiger/Phil final.

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