Monday Rap: Match Play Can't Go Away, JDay and Rickie Are Officially Back, And Who's The Masters Favorite?
Match Play—I Want You To Stay
Allow me to be the 1,296th person to advocate for match-play golf between the world's best players.
Is part of this recency bias? Absolutely. The World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play went out with a sizable bang this past weekend, delivering compelling entertainment for five straight days before a rather anti-climatic final in which Sam Burns waxed Cameron Young 6-and-5. That was a dud to end an electric week, but such is the reality of unscripted television like professional sports. Sometimes the Super Bowl stinks. We've had plenty of March Madness finals that don't deliver the goods. But that doesn't mean the journey to get there wasn't fantastic and very much worth it.
Sunday marked the conclusion of the World Golf Championships, originally founded in 1999 as a way to bring the finest players from the world's tours together a few times a year. That's now an outdated proposition for a few reasons—first, the best players in the world are now playing on one of two tours, and those tours are not on speaking terms. Plus, the "other" tours have aligned with one of the two major tours. The Asian Tour now exists firmly within LIV Golf's orbit, while the DP World Tour is now a glorified feeder tour for the PGA Tour ecosystem. (It sounds harsh, but it's true). With the WGC's now set for the same fate as Shell's Wonderful World of Golf and the Skins Game, we're now no longer guaranteed to see the PGA Tour's top stars face off in match play outside of the the Ryder and Presidents Cups. That would be a travesty.
We already have more than enough 72-hole stroke play events, which can become montonous when it's the same format trotted out week after week after week. Match Play is a delightful change of pace—most recreational golfers play match play for the majority of their rounds, and it's an easy-to-follow format that virtually everyone has experience in. We all know the feeling of being out of a hole, only to pull off a miracle shot right before your opponent makes an absolute mess from an advantageous position and, somehow, escape with a halve or a victory. Most tournaments don't provide real drama outside of the Friday-afternoon cut sweats—and those, too, are going away in the designated events, but that's a conversation for another time—and the closing stretch on Sunday, when maybe a tenth of the field has an actual chance to win. Match play provides a bunch of tournaments-within-tournaments; every putt, from the first hole on Wednesday on, matters greatly for the outcome of a match. Every round is like a Sunday. The world's best players are fierce competitors; put them in mano-y-mano situations and their killer instincts kick in. Each match is intense, and each match offers a fresh start to build momentum moving forward. A bad first round does not immediately ruin one's chances, and the momentum swing of going from one down to one up are far more compelling than a couple birdies during a Friday-morning round. Match Play also gives us a week where raw scores don't matter as much, which free up organizers to set up the course in more fun ways than they could for a stroke-play event; there's no worry of having the winning score being something obscene, so there's less fear of drivable par 4s and easily reachable par 5s. That leads to plentiful birdie and eagle opportunities and, at a tricky track like Austin Country Club, still the potential for lost balls and chaos. I, for one, loved having the 18th hole be a borderline-drivable par 4, which would almost never happen in a stroke-play event. What matters isn't how many under or over par a certain player is, but how he fares in relation to his adversary, who's playing the same golf course he is. That's fun. Not always, but sometimes.
It's also a super fun format to bet on—unless you're betting first-round over/unders, most golf bets take a few days to sort themselves out. But with match play, each match offers gambles a simple choice: bet on this guy to win, or bet on that guy to win. With sports gambling driving an ever-increasing portion of viewership and interest, sports leagues should absolutely lean in by catering competitions to better fit the betting universe.
As for the potential downsides to match play…there's been a ton of discussion this year as to the value of having the stars around for all four days, and match play obviously can't promise that. But judging from the (highly unscientific) sample of Golf Twitter, this format caters to the core golf audience, and golf cannot simply ignore its most fervent fans every week of the year. This isn't to suggest that every tournament should be match play, of course, but it's hard to imagine one sponsor wouldn't want to differentiate itself from the rest of the designated events by being the match-play week. The fans love it, and the players seem to love it, too.
“I would love to have it back,” said Scottie Scheffler, who won the 2022 Match Play and finished fourth this year. “I think match play is a good change of pace. Commercially, I don't know how well it works when it comes to TV and only having so many guys on the golf course on the weekend.”
Billy Horschel, a past champion of the event who advanced to the knockout rounds again this year, nailed it on the head: “We all enjoy it, some more than others," he said. "Some enjoy the old format better than this format—but if you look at the game of golf, we want things that are different. I’m sad to see it go.”
Collin Morikawa told me he's a big fan: " I love it. Hate leaving early in group stage because it feels like a missed cut, but any time we have a week like that or even (the team-competition) Zurich, that changes it up. It's always a nice change for us."
Ratings are vitally important, sure, and it's important to factor them into the big-picture. But surely we can risk at least one week of semi-down weekend ratings for a week the core audience loves. And for as relatively boring as Sunday afternoon's action was, Sunday morning was electric, with both semifinal matches featuring one established superstar (Scheffler and McIlroy) playing against one up-and-coming superstar (Sam Burns and Cameron Young), birdies in bunches and both extending into extra holes.
Still, corporate sponsors are the ones footing the majority of the $20 million designated-event purses, and if one of them doesn't want to take the match-play plunge, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan should step in to keep golf's tried-and-true format alive in the elite professional ranks.
Which brings us to our proposal, which isn't necessarily an original one, but no matter: let's make the back half of the Tour Championship a single-elimination tournament for the FedEx Cup grand prize. Everything would stay the same through Friday afternoon; the top 30 players after the BMW Championship would qualify, and you'd keep the staggered scoring to start the week to properly reward season-long play. Then, after two rounds of stroke play, the top eight on the leaderboard would advance to a single-elimination bracket to decide the FedEx Cup champion.
If we're being honest, the FedEx Cup itself hasn't quite caught on like the PGA Tour hoped it would; winning a FedEx Cup is a nice resume piece, but it's not the type of stuff careers are built off of. It's not like we'd be messing with one of the four major championships. And clearly there's already an issue given the tour's constant tweaking of the Tour Championship format. This match play proposal, then, would inject life into a middling event that already runs the risk of flat television should one player build a comfortable lead coming down the stretch. Simply making Tour Championship match play would be one mark of an excellent season, something players could boast about and pundits could cite as a mark of consistency—he's made match play at East Lake three years in a row—and even the consolation matches for guys who lose would be for millions of dollars. There are, of course, commercial considerations that might make this implausible, but it's not my job to sort out the finances of the PGA Tour. We're here to advocate for what would provide fans the best product, and incorporating match play into the tour's richest week, which already features a very limited number of golfers on the weekend, feels like a win for all involved.
Let's party like it's 2015
Because Jason Day and Rickie Fowler sure are. Day and Fowler aren't old or washed up by any means; Day is 35 and Fowler is 34, which not long ago was considered the prime of a professional golfers career. But the elite game is increasingly a young man's jam—33-year-old Rory McIlroy is the oldest player in the top 20 of the world rankings—and, so, you'd be forgiven if you thought Day and Fowler's days as top-level competitors might be over. There's been plenty of evidence to support that hypothesis. Day dropped as low as No. 175 in the world rankings and he's struggled in recent years with both his always-nagging back problems and swing changes designed to alleviate those problems. But Day is firmly back on the mend and is now officially in Masters Dark Horse Territory. After getting to the quarters of match play only for a fit of allergies to strike at the wrong time, Day has now finished inside the top 20 in each of his seven starts in 2023, including five top-10 finishes. The swing changes with instructor Chris Como have settled in beautifully, and he ranks 10th on tour in strokes gained tee-to-green, 13th in strokes gained putting and sixth in strokes gained overall. He missed the cut in his last two Masters appearances, in 2020 and 2021, but he's playing much more like the earlier-career version of Jason Day that racked up three top-five Masters finishes in the 2010s.
"I am excited to be back," Day said after officially locking up a Masters berth, having missed the 2022 edition. "The game is looking nice. There's still some stuff swing-wise that pops in every now and then, like the wedge shot on 14 that—it's just in between patterns. I've just got to kind of work out those kinks. I feel happy with where I'm at. I've got a week off coming up now, and then get in probably Friday and prepare then."
Fowler won't be at Augusta next week unless he wins this week's Valero Texas Open, which looks a distinct possibility given the state of his game and the relative weakness of the field. Fowler's listed as the third favorite to win this week on most books, behind only Tyrrell Hatton and Corey Conners, and that feels about right. Rickie, too, fell outside the top 100 in the world rankings but, unlike Day, there was no real injury to point to. Instead, Fowler was lost in swing-change wilderness as a two-ish year stint with instructor John Tillery produced preciously few signs of sustained progress. As such, he's since returned to legendary teacher Butch Harmon, who guided Fowler to his career peak of world No. 4 and finishing int he top five of all four majors in 2014. What took him so long remains a mystery.
“It was sad,” Harmon told Golfweek's Adam Schupak of Fowler's slide. “It was hard to watch him go from a perennial top-10 player in the world all the way to outside the top 150.”
Fowler still has miles to go to reestablish himself in that elite tier, but he seems more on-his-way than he has at any point in the past four years. After beating Jon Rahm in his opening match and going 2-1-0 at the match play—he didn't make the knockout rounds because Billy Horschel went 2-0-1 to win the group—Fowler now has top-20 finishes in five of his last six starts and has crept back up to No. 59 in the world, his highest mark since mid 2021.
"I mean, obviously we all go through work and changes to ultimately get better," Fowler told reporters this week. "We're not trying to get worse or stay in the same spot. Maybe if you're Tiger in the early 2000s, that was pretty good. But, no, we're all working to get better. There is always going to be setbacks. Can't be on top forever. Yeah, nice to be back in a good spot moving forward and building momentum and confidence."
Who, oh who, is the Masters favorite?
After the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, I had a stern conversation with myself. (At least by golf writer standards). I implored myself to remember exactly how I was feeling in that moment: that Jon Rahm is by far the best golfer in the world, and that it wasn't really all that close, and that I wouldn't sway from this belief just because of a few tournaments between then and the Masters. He'd won five of his last eight official starts, including two of the first three designated events, and he hadn't finished worse than seventh in any of those eight appearances. The early signs after that talking-to were positive: Rahm opened the Arnold Palmer Invitaitonal with a preposterously good 65 at Bay Hill, and surely he'd romp to yet another victory on his way to a history-book season.
Then, golf happened. Rahm struggled the rest of that week at Bay Hill en route to finishing T-39. He then withdrew from the Players Championship after one round due to an illness and, in his only start between TPC Sawgrass and Augusta National, he did not play well in going 1-2 and failing to advance out of the group in the match play. All the while, his closest chaser, Scottie Scheffler, kicked it into overdrive. Scheffler dominated the best field in golf to win the Players Championship and looked excellent again in Austin, missing a five-footer that would've sent him to the finals before eventually losing to good pal Sam Burns in extra holes. Then there's Rory McIlroy, who finished second at Bay Hill, made 17 birdies in 36 holes on Saturday at the match play and beat Scheffler in a high-profile consolation match to finish solo third. He, too, feels great about his game heading into the year's first major and his latest opportunity to complete the Career Grand Slam.
"I feel a lot better about things now compared to this time a couple weeks ago after The Players Championship," McIlroy said Sunday. "So try to rest and recover a little bit over the next couple of days, and, yeah, all eyes on Augusta and just making sure that the game's ready. But everything feels in really good order, just work on some things that I know that I'll need for that week and just make sure I'm ready and rested."
Most books have the ruling triumvirate of Scheffler, McIlroy and Rahm (listed in order of world ranking, not personal opinion) with roughly equal odds to win the Masters. They are, by most available measures, the three co-favorites. Who would you take?
—I'd encourage everyone to listen to our first interview with a LIV Golfer on the Fore Play Podcast. Thomas Pieters, one of LIV's newest signings, joined us for an hour-long conversation about his experience of playing in America, his decision to join LIV and what life is like on the rival circuit. Thomas is a different cat; he didn't have many friends on the PGA Tour and felt rather lonely traveling a foreign country playing golf. LIV, then, offered him a guaranteed payday, a more secure schedule and, most importantly, a chance to do something that makes him happier. Not every golfer is married to the grind and hellbent on milking every last ounce of achievement out of their body. Thomas doesn't feel like he has a legacy to build or protect, nor does he care about much at all besides his level of contentment when his head hits the pillow at night. Even if you don't agree or think you'd act differently in his shoes, it's a refreshingly honest and different outlook you don't often hear form the macho-world of professional athletics.
—Celine Boutier of France beat her old Solheim Cup teammate Georgia Hall in a playoff to win the LPGA's Drive On Championship in Arizona. It's the 29-year-old Duke graduate's third victory on the LPGA Tour. Having played alongside Celine in the HIlton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions back in January, I can attest first-hand to her kindness and ability, and it was fun to see her get a W.
—Sneaky great day for English golf, even if both victories happened on this side of the pond. The mercurial Matt Wallace won his first PGA Tour event in this opposite-field Corales Puntacana Championship by one shot over 22-year-old Nicolai Hojgaard of Denmark, one-half of highly touted Danish twins (the other being Rasmus) who will both push for a Ryder Cup spot this year. On the Korn Ferry Tour, 41-year-old David Skinns won the Savannah Golf Championship and is now in great position to earn promotion to the PGA Tour after doing so in 2021, only to lose his card after a disappointing 2022.
—LIV Golf returns to action this week in Orlando at Orange County National. This gives Cameron Smith, Dustin Johnson and the rest of the Masters-qualified LIVers one last opportunity to tune-up before a high-profile reunion on Magnolia Lane. After winning his second LIV event last summer, Smith has just one top-20 finish in his four LIV starts since. And keep in mind, those are in 48-man fields. And those are the only tournaments he's played since that victory in Chicago last year, a result of LIV's light schedule. And DJ is off to a slow start as well, with a 37th-place finish in Mayakoba and a 13th in his last start at LIV Tucson.
On the ratings front…LIV hasn't released all its "internal data," but early signs are that the ratings for the Tucscon event were significantly lower than the ratings for the Mayakoba event, which weren't good to begin with. After Charles Howell III and Danny Lee won the first two LIV events of the year, Greg Norman and co could sure use a household name to step up and take the victory in Orlando.
—Just one more week before the Masters. Next week will feature an Augusta-themed Monday Rap, as you might have guessed. Enjoy this last week of relatively casual golf watching before we all lock in for the best week of the year.
Until next week,