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‘PGA Tour must find way to keep matchplay event’

Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy are officially the two best golfers in the world, but neither made it to the final of the last WGC Match Play in Austin, Texas.

It would have been fitting if both had prevailed in Sunday morning’s semi-finals to provide the tournament with a stirring send off. Instead it was Sam Burns against Cameron Young in an all-American final, comfortably won by Burns 6&5.

But even though an undercard contest usurped what most observers wanted for the main event – McIlroy beat Scheffler in the “consolation match” – last week’s action highlighted the folly of allowing this curious competition to slip from future schedules.

It is curious because, since its inception in 1999, The Match Play – where competitors go head-to-head in trying to build an unassailable lead of holes won – has rarely gone to form.

In the inaugural final, the world number 25 Jeff Maggert beat the 51st ranked player Andrew Magee at the second extra hole. They set a trend, where upsets are often the order of the day.

Indeed, in 24 runnings McIlroy (2015) and Dustin Johnson (2017) are the only reigning world number ones to make the final other than Tiger Woods who did it four times – 2000, 03, 04 and 08.

As Sunday’s semi-finals proved, head-to-head combat in golf is much harder to predict than a sport such as tennis where a player’s superiority can more easily prove decisive.

In matchplay, golf becomes all the more engaging to watch. When the worst that can happen is the loss of a hole rather than a tournament-wrecking blow up, competitors play more aggressively.

Although the group stage format – brought in to replace a straight knockout in 2015 – offers potential second chances, the imperative to beat your opponent is compellingly ever present.

And Saturday’s last-16 matches and quarter-finals provided a truly spellbinding day of golf – the sort that leaves you scrambling for the TV remote when the screen tells you it has been on too long and is about to switch off.

But with the advent of the PGA Tour’s “designated” events in response to the threat of the lucrative LIV tour, there no longer seems room for this tournament.

It will be sadly missed. John Wood, a former top caddie and now an erudite and insightful commentator for NBC, tweeted: “The PGA Tour can’t abandon matchplay.

“One week a year. It’s so refreshing & fun to watch, to play, to commentate. I think the players love it, as do the fans. Maybe one of the designated events will take a look at it. It will make them stand out from the crowd. Find a way to keep it in.”

The tournament invariably serves memorable moments. McIlroy’s monumental 375-yard drive to four feet on the par-four 18th to help secure a place in the knockout stages last week was a case in point.

And few who saw it will forget Bob McIntyre doing something similar against Dustin Johnson a few years ago.

There have been spats too, Sergio Garcia falling out with Matt Kuchar in 2019 and Keegan Bradley squaring up to Miguel Angel Jimenez in 2015 might not have been the most savoury sporting moments, but they generated plenty of passionate interest.

The difficulty with matchplay is the whittling down to just a couple of matches for the final day, which can make sustaining engaging TV coverage a real challenge.

Perhaps running the tournament in conjunction with a women’s matchplay event is the answer? Allow both to share the limelight with simultaneous coverage and the sharp ends of both would not feel so sparse.

Regardless, let’s hope the magic of matchplay is not forgotten as the golfing bandwagon moves on.

It does so with McIlroy in jaunty mood after what was undoubtedly a successful bounceback from his missed cut at the Players earlier this month.

A new putter – a return to the shape of the flat stick with which he enjoyed so much early career success – and a slightly shorter, softer driver shaft paid dividends at the Austin Country Club where he collected two eagles and 44 birdies in 123 holes played.

Now it is all about tuning up for a ninth attempt at completing the career Grand Slam at the Masters.

“For the first week out I thought both ends of the bag worked pretty well,” he reflected.

“I don’t think anything is in bad shape, so I’ll just keep it ticking over and work on the shots that I need for Augusta National.”

McIlroy is rightly buoyed for the challenges ahead, as must be English golfers Matt Wallace, David Skinns and Georgia Hall.

On Sunday Wallace landed his first PGA Tour title in 80 attempts by winning the Corales Puntacana Championship in the Dominican Republic. It is an opposite field event so the victor is not eligible for the Masters, but it remains a notable triumph.

The 33-year-old now heads to the Texas Open in San Antonio for one last tilt at a spot at Augusta. “Hopefully I can do this all over again and then get to the Masters,” Wallace said.

“But if not, I’ll be heading home and that will be really nice to take a trophy home. I haven’t been able to do that for five years and been wanting to do it for a long time.”

Skinns is a 41-year-old from Lincoln who secured his third win in five years on the feeder Korn Ferry Tour by finishing a shot clear at the Club Car Championship in Savannah, Georgia.

Hall, meanwhile, will surely draw great confidence from a superb closing 65 at the LPGA Drive On Championship in Arizona, which put her in a play-off with Solheim Cup partner Celine Boutier. The Frenchwoman prevailed at the first extra hole.

“Obviously fantastic to get to the position I was in,” said Hall. “I knew I had to shoot low, and obviously gutted about the play-off.” –