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A Match Play Puzzle

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Luke Donald, on the 9th hole today

[Andy Lyons/Getty Images]

The annual World Golf Championships match play tournament concluded this afternoon in Tucson, with Englishman Luke Donald defeating German Martin Kaymer in the final. There was an inch of snow overnight (in Tucson!), but it had melted by the time play began. The purpose of this post is to pose a question about the nature of golf that has long puzzled me, but first I will give some background.

Almost all golf tournaments are medal play, or stroke play, which means the winner is the player who takes the least strokes to get around the course. A professional men’s tournament almost always has four rounds, 18 holes each, played on successive days. In most tournaments, the field consists of 156 players, with about half of them cut at the end of the second day. (Only those who make the cut earn money.) Before the cut, they play in threesomes, the same threesome playing together on both the first and second days. After the cut, unless there are bad weather conditions or other reasons to shorten the playing time and play in threesomes, they play in pairs, with the leading pair going off last, the third and fourth best scorers, going off next to last, and so on.

To win, you must beat all 156 players. Obviously. The point of this observation, though, is that it leads to the golf truism that it’s hard to win tournaments — you have to beat not just the top 10 or 20 players in the field, but also the lesser-known player near the bottom who has a crazy good week. And that’s why the greatest players in the world generally don’t win that often. There are countless famous examples of this, perhaps none more famous than Jack Fleck‘s victory over Ben Hogan in the 1955 US Open. At the end of four rounds, Hogan had beaten everyone else. But he managed only to tie Fleck, who would beat him the next day by three strokes in an 18-hole playoff.

The alternative to medal play is match play. In match play, you are trying to beat the player paired with you, over 18 or sometimes 36 holes. You don’t count strokes. You count holes won. Thus, each hole that the two players play in the same number of strokes is considered “halved”, while each hole that one player in fewer strokes than the other is won by the first player. If you and I are playing and after 15 holes of 18, I have won 2 more holes than you, I’m “up 2”. Let’s say I win the next hole. I’m now up 3 holes, with 2 to go. Not much point playing the last two, and in fact they aren’t played. The match is over, with me winning by 3 holes with 2 to go, or “3 and 2”. Should we be “all square” after 18, we keep playing until one of us wins a hole and the match.

In a match play tournament, a single elimination draw is set up just like in tennis. Let’s say there are 64 competitors. Then they are seeded, or at least the top ones are, so that the top ones won’t play each other in the early rounds. In the first round of play, 32 match play matches are played, with 32 winners and 32 losers. Then the 32 winners play in 16 pairs, producing 16 winners, followed by the 16 winners playing in 8 pairs to produce 8 winners, and so on. Just like in tennis.

The PGA championship, one of golf’s four annual major tournaments, was run as match play through 1957, then converted to medal play, a great loss to golf tradition. For years, there was no match play tournament of consequence. But with the advent of the World Golf Championships, a match play tournament with a large purse and an international field of stature returned to the tour in 1999. This is the tournament that was played this week.

The oft-cited problem with match play tournaments is that the very best players may lose on day one, or day two, and then not be around on the weekend. This has two disadvantages: (1) top players may be less motivated to take the trip to the tournament, only to be bounced after one round; and (2) networks may not want to pay for the broadcast rights, only to be saddled on the weekend with just 8 players, few of whom may be widely known to the viewing public. By Sunday, they are down to showing two players, and let’s hope one of them is Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.

Speaking of Woods, he was runner up in 2000, and winner in 2003, 2004, and 2008. He’s done his share. But this year, not entirely surprisingly, he lost in round one. Mickelson lost in round two. Many famous players lost early. There is a certain inevitability to this. In medal play, a golfer can have a bad day and come back. In match play, after that bad day, you’re gone. And even if you have a good day, it only takes one golfer having a better day — your opponent — and you’re gone.

You may be aware that European golfers have moved well up in the world rankings lately. Entering the tournament, Europeans were ranked 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, and 9 (Lee Westwood of England, Martin Kaymer of Germany, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, Paul Casey of England, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, and Luke Donald of England). Interspersed among them were three Americans: Tiger at 3, Mickelson at 5, and Stricker at 8. It is therefore no great surprise that the two finalists — Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald — were among these top Europeans. And, in fact, in the aftermath of the event, Kaymer will take over the #1 spot, with Donald jumping to #3.

So, what is it that puzzles me? Yes, two of the top players in the world made the finals, but if one examines who made the round of 16, or the quarterfinals, few of the top seeds survived this far. Everyone in the late rounds was among the better players in the world, recognizable to anyone who follows golf at all closely. Yet, the tournament, like the other match play championships over the past 13 years, didn’t have the same feel that a major tennis tournament does. You don’t find high seeds filling the bulk of the late round slots. You don’t expect to see the golf equivalents of Federer and Nadal surviving to the end. When they lose, it doesn’t really feel like a major upset. If #45 in the world beats #3, ho hum. In tennis, that’s almost unimaginable.

My question is, what is it about golf that makes it different from tennis? Match play tournaments are rare, but when they come around, no one who follows golf finds the early round losses by the stars to be genuine upsets. That’s golf. It happens. No one plays at the top of his game every day. And when you don’t, you are likely to lose. No big deal. In tennis, on the other hand, the top 5 or 6 players should always beat the players ranked below 20, and usually do, even on off days.

One possible answer is that there isn’t the same depth in tennis. There’s a big dropoff in quality after the top few, whereas the top 100 players in golf are much closer in quality. Maybe, but if so, what would be the reason? And how would we know? How could we measure it?

My guess is that this isn’t what’s going on. I think the explanation lies in some fundamental difference between the two sports, a difference that might make consistent excellence in golf harder to achieve than in tennis, or might make an only slightly better player beat a slightly weaker player a much higher percentage of the time in a tennis match than in a round of match play golf.

One difference is that the stakes are lower each time a tennis player hits a ball during a match than they are each time a golfer hits a ball. One bad golf shot and you’ve lost a couple of strokes, or a hole. One bad tennis shot and maybe you have a fault on a serve, with a second serve still to come. Put another way, a golfer is likely to hit the ball only 70 times or so in a match; a tennis player will have hundreds of shots.

I can think of other differences between the sports, such as the fact that tennis is played on a court of fixed dimensions whereas golf is played on a continuously varying course, but I don’t know how that would help to answer my question. It might be part of an argument one would make in support of the statement that excellence is harder to achieve in golf than in tennis — excellence in the sense of approaching an ideal of the perfect player. One might then argue that tennis players who are near the ideal, such as Federer and Nadal in recent years, are therefore more likely to dominate matches against other players.

Woods, of course, achieved the same level of success for much of the last decade. Would he have if more tournaments were run as match play rather than medal play? Probably not. He wouldn’t have the cushion of that one so-so round.

Well, I don’t have the answers. I’m just using this post to raise the question.

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Categories: Golf, Tennis
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