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  • Alistair Tait

The Lost Art of Match Play Golf?

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

Who’s the best match play golfer that ever lived?

The question popped up on Sky Sports Golf last night, as Messrs Rob Lee, Mark Roe and Simon Holmes tried to fill in commercial time from host American broadcasters. Ian Poulter, Peter Alliss, Brian Barnes and Leona Maguire were among the names mentioned.

My initial thought was: How do we even know given there's so little match play in pro golf?

Other than the Ryder, Solheim and President Cups and this week’s WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play, we hardly ever see the oldest form of golf at professional level? Juniors all over the British Isles and Continental Europe grow up playing match play golf but hardly ever play it once they turn professional.

It is to professional golf’s shame that there aren’t more match play tournaments, especially when you consider it’s the oldest form of golf. The World Match Play Championship at Wentworth was one of the great events on the European calendar. It attracted a fantastic, high calibre field and drew in huge galleries to watch the action over the West Course.

Arnold Palmer won the inaugural event in 1964 with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Weiskopf, Hale Irwin, David, Graham, Isao Aoki, Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie, Paul Casey all lifting the trophy. IMG tried to carry on with tournaments held at Finca Cortesin in Spain and Thracian Cliffs in Bulgaria, with Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell joining the cast of “name” winners.

Finland’s Mikko Ilonen goes down as the last World Match Play winner. He triumphed at the London Club in 2014 and the tournament was no more. That’s not surprising: the event lost much of its charm when it left Wentworth. Quite how the European Tour let this great tournament slide into oblivion is a bit of a mystery.

Unfortunately, match play golf just doesn’t cut it for the people who currently call the shots in professional golf: sponsors and TV networks. The capricious nature of match play, which can produce an unlikely champion and the chance of a 6&5 win scares the bejesus out of sponsors and TV execs. The latter don’t want to have to fill in dead air on scheduled network time, while the chance of a journeyman winner doesn’t appeal to those putting up the money hoping for a marquee name to carry off the trophy.

Shame, because David beating Goliath thrills golf fans. Think Phil Price defeating Phil Mickelson or Costantino Rocca bettering Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup and you get the idea. It’s the stuff of legend.

So this week’s WGC – Match Play is pretty much it for match play lovers. That’s head to head match play. As for foursomes or even four-ball golf, we’ll have to wait until the aforementioned biennial matches to witness that at professional level.

Another shame. Quite why the professional tours haven’t looked at one of the most successful models for a match play tournament and tried to copy it is beyond me. The Sunningdale Foursomes has been going as long as the Masters. It’s unique for its ability to mix the sexes, amateurs and professionals, and provide thrills every year. Imagine something similar in professional golf, featuring the men and women. Surely that has to appeal to golf fans?

But no, all we get is a steady diet of 72-hole stroke play golf, with each tournament blending into the next in the hamster wheel that is professional golf.

The best match play golfer ever? Tiger’s three U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur wins take some beating. As does Poulter’s undefeated record in Ryder Cup singles. How about Sir Michael Bonallack? He won five Amateur Championships and five English Amateurs.

Sergio Garcia’s Ryder Cup record is impressive. As is Seve’s. While he and Olazabal surely have to be the best Ryder Cup duo ever?

Not sure there are many who have enjoyed going up against Walter Hagen in singles play. He knew ever match play trick in the book. So did two-time Amateur champion Peter McEvoy, who earned more than a few caps for England.

John Ball Jnr and his eight Amateur titles has to be worth a mention. Scotland’s Ronnie Shade might get a few votes from Scottish aficionados? He won five straight Scottish Amateurs, winning an incredible 43 straight matches.

Not many would want to have taken on Suzann Pettersen in the Solheim Cup. Cecil Leith and Joyce Wethered were more than impressive in their day too. They dominated the women’s amateur game.

Bobby Jones once said of Wethered:

“I had never played golf with anyone, man or woman, amateur or professional, who made me feel so utterly outclassed.”

Which brings us to arguably the greatest match play golfer ever: Robert Tyre Jones Jr. Five U.S. Amateur titles in a six-year spell is a record that surely will never be broken? Throw in the 1930 Amateur Championship in his Grand Slam year, the Impregnable Quadrilateral as it was then known, and it’s hard to look past Jones as the match play master.

I could list many others. You’ve probably got a few of your own. Sadly, match play prowess just doesn’t seem to matter as much as it once did. And the game is poorer as a result.

#JustSaying: “Moderation is essential in all things, Madam, but never in my life have I failed to beat a teetotaller.” Harry Vardon

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