Clunkers, surprises and celebrity sponsor exemptions

Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

In 2015, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem changed the format of the WGC Match Play Championship to include round robin play in the first three days before moving to the more traditional sudden death match play format for the final 16 competitors. It was supposed to ensure that more of the best players were around on the weekend. In your opinion is it working and do you like the format? 

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): I don’t mind the format.  And I don’t mind the fact that it may not be working as intended… i.e., with Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in the final four.  It shows the depth of the Tour that Noren, Thomas, Kisner and Bubba survived to the end.  With those four finalists, TV ratings may not be what the Tour would like, but if all they cared about was ratings, then they’d simply put the marquee group on the first tee on Thursday morning, and tell them to hit when ready for the next four days.  And that’d be pretty boring, IMO.

Craig Loughry, Golf Ontario (@craigloughry): Eek, I like traditional match play personally, but I understand it’s tough for players to potentially fly 17 hours to lose their first match and be done for the week. Or worse for the Tour, sponsors and fans, the number one seed doing a one and done. The round robin does generate some interest – there were some good matches and brackets – but I still think there is something to be said for having single match elimination. It puts more onus on every single shot and every hole. You could say the same thing for College Basketball’s March Madness. You love an upset there, and number one seeds go down from time to time. It’s in part why you watch. Should the NCAA try the same format: a round robin in pools playing multiple games to see who advances to the sweet 16? I don’t think they’re interested in that – what they have works for them. Does it work in golf for the World Match Play? I’m not convinced. It just doesn’t look or feel right.

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Life Member, PGA of Canada: The best players were around for the weekend! Just like any regular medal play event on the PGA Tour, the leader board is a mix of skill levels. In the semi final we watched an incredible match between Kevin Kisner and Alex Noren. Shot after shot! Putt after putt! What a show! At the same time two of the games giants duked it out with Bubba and Justin Thomas. Justin Thomas failed in his attempt to take over the #1 spot in the World Rankings when he lost to the ‘hottest’ player in the world. I love the format! In the Round Robin portion there is enough money and enough FedEx points available to get a player’s attention. And then, it’s ‘Mano a Mano’ and the best player won. I did realize that if we are going to persevere through 20 minute interviews with the winner because the match ended early, I don’t think I’m going to like 12-hole tournaments. Regardless, Steve Sands is blossoming before our eyes. One more thing: I thought the course reminded me a lot of The National Golf Club in Woodbridge and I think it answers the question about ‘how far the ball goes’ and the need to lengthen courses. IMO we don’t!

Dave Kaplan, Freelance Writer (@davykap): I think it stinks. The round-robin format makes for terrible viewing over the first three days of the tournament and always leads to humdrum, inconsequential matches on Friday. Plus, it takes all the fun out of filling out brackets beforehand. The win-or-go-home format is so much better. Can’t we just go back to that?

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): I’m a fan of the new format because guys aren’t just one and done, so you get more than one chance to see your favourite player.  I noticed that Graham DeLaet tweeted on the weekend that he doesn’t like the new format, as he played in the event in 2014, lost Wednesday morning and was on his couch at 2pm that day with the rest of the weekend off and 30K richer!  I think for some, heading to a tournament to play one match would be a waste of time and travel.  Having the chance to rebound from a first round loss is better in my opinion.  It doesn’t mean that the cream still all rises to the top, as evidenced by the world rankings of the last 8 guys in last week’s event.  In fact, there were only 2 top 10’s in the final 16.  But that’s just match play!

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: Well, we did have #35 vs #32 in the finale, so the fudging to get the top guns facing off isn’t working. But, I do like the round robin format in that one lucky round by an also ran doesn’t eliminate a star, and one bad round doesn’t either. Having to play well for three days to get to the weekend seems about right.

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): I prefer the traditional single elimination format as it ensures there are no meaningless matches. In round robin play, there were a lot of players going through the motions on Friday as they knew they couldn’t advance, yet they still had to play a match. Maybe the most critical tell in the discussion is that several marquee players – Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson – stayed away because they don’t like the format. That’s not good for a WGC event that is supposed to have the strongest field on the calendar.

There have been a lot of surprises this season including the return of Bubba Watson after an extended absence from the winner’s circle; a similar story for Phil Mickelson; the early success of Tiger Woods; continued dominance by Justin Thomas; MIA status for a number of players including Jordan Spieth; and many other stories. What do you think is the biggest surprise so far this year?

Deeks: It’s got to be the successful return of Tiger.  Few, if any, would’ve expected him to return and be so competitive so quickly.  The MIA of Jordan Spieth is surely only temporary; indeed, I expect him to be right in the mix at Augusta.  As I said last week, the solid play of so many players, including Tiger, is going to make for one of the most highly-anticipated Masters in many years… and for the rest of the season.  In fact, I might start watching “LIVE from the Masters” as early as Monday night, to see in advance who’s going to win!

Loughry: Honestly, for me, the biggest surprise is Bubba. I thought we were done hearing about him, but he’s proved me wrong. Bubba, who knew? Bubba?

Schurman: The biggest surprise this year is number of players who make up the ‘big 3’. Currently, there are at least 10 world class players who you could make a case for to be included in the upper echelon. Spieth will appear and disappear as will all the top players who have earned their lifetime amount of money. A player’s success is in direct correlation to their net worth.

Kaplan: The resurgences of Bubba and Phil (both of whom are lefties, might I add) have been welcome surprises, but nowhere near as surprising as Tiger Woods’ return to eminence over the last two months. In September, stories were surfacing everywhere about how he might never play again competitively. Fast forward six months and he has already racked up two Top 5s this season and is the odds-on favourite to win the Masters. How the heck did that happen in such a short time!?

Rule: Not to beat a dead horse, but I think the most surprising thing for me is the consistency that Tiger has shown, playing well in a few tournaments in a row.  When he couldn’t hit the ocean from a pier with his driver early in the year, it didn’t look promising for him to compete on a regular basis on tour, but he turned that around.

Quinn: Has to be Eldrick not only playing but playing well. Most mortals who’ve had one spinal fusion, let alone four procedures, feel lucky to be able to walk a course and don’t even think about swinging a club. For his sake, I hope he’s not letting his ego lead to long-term pain and even disability.

Mumford: The good play from Tiger and the return of Michelle Wie have to rank near the top of a lot of surprises this year but I think the dominance by the top-ranked players on Tour has to be the biggest one. Rarely are all of the best players in top form at the same time. It means that a dozen players will arrive at Augusta with wins and top finishes under their belt, plenty of confidence and a reasonable chance of walking off with a green jacket. Despite what the oddsmakers say, this year’s Masters could be a real shootout with a winner that will be adding another major to his resume. Longshots and dark horses need not apply.

Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo played on a sponsor’s exemption in an opposite field event on the PGA Tour this past weekend and shot 77-82 to miss the cut in last place. This was clearly a PR stunt to attract an audience. Is this kind of thing good for the PGA Tour brand and would you like to see it continue?

Deeks: Many people will put forward the argument that putting a celebrity in the field is taking away another “legitimate player’s” opportunity to earn a living.  Yeah, okay, but I don’t think the occasional PR stunt is going to kill anybody, and in the case of an alternate field event, it helps the tournament to succeed and attract a gallery, which makes the sponsor happy.  So go ahead and do it — occasionally — is my response.  (And wouldn’t it be great if once in a while the guest celeb actually played well?)

Loughry: Poor Tony, he shouldn’t have accepted the invite, he should know better. I don’t care if he is a fairly descent amateur player, playing Professional Golf and in top conditions, you’re going to get shown up every day of the week. I’m not at all surprised with his finish; I hope nobody else is either. I’m torn on this one. I know he took a spot away from a Tour player who could have used the start. On the other hand, I did see highlights of his round and was aware he was playing in the event. Sponsors rule the roost and if they want to throw the odd invite out to a celeb who might bring that event some attention (especially opposite the WGC), and it will help them renew their sponsorship commitment to the Tour and keep that event going, by all means let it be.

Schurman: Some will say Romo in the field sells tickets and creates interest. Others feel he has taken a ‘spot’ away from a player who has rightfully earned it and needs the entry to earn an income. This argument has come up before when Michelle Wie played in a men’s event as did Annika. It isn’t something I like but it isn’t new: Babe Zaharias did it the ‘40’s! Somehow, I felt Annika had earned her way but the others are seeking a free pass. If having Tony Romo in the field is an added attraction that sells tickets why doesn’t he play in an LPGA event to help increase their purses? There is a process to follow that provides players with entry into PGA Tour events. I think it should be followed. For what it’s worth, I didn’t like it when Suzie Whaley qualified for a men’s event and played from the forward tees to qualify.

Kaplan: Romo didn’t look great out there, bogeying his first six holes in the second round en route to an 82. But I don’t think he scored anywhere near bad enough to call the experiment an abject failure. To be honest, I like the idea of celebrities and athletes getting sponsorship exemptions because of the rating boosts and the extra media attention that their presences warrant. I hope it continues and they bring in some other high-profile athletes, like Josh Donaldson and Larry Fitzgerald.

Rule: I have no problem inviting celebrities into events occasionally as it does add interest and perhaps gets some non-golf fans paying attention to the sport.  Romo is a decent player, but was never going to threaten making the cut. It would be nice to get someone who has a legitimate shot at playing the weekend; that would add much more interest.  But I’ll admit, I checked the leaderboard Friday afternoon to see how he was doing.

Quinn: It was a stunt, but even if they had Stormy Daniels caddy for Romo no one was going to watch. They were already scraping the barrel to fill the field before inviting Romo so it didn’t matter that he took a spot. At least some in the gallery would recognize him. A teenager from Spain was six better than the old Cowboy, but 23 former Tour guys just hanging around (plus Furyk) also missed the cut. I guess Weir was just honing his game for the Seniors with a T-73.

Mumford: This is a stunt that has run its course. One only has to see a few minutes of the impossible-to-watch AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am on Saturday to understand that the appearance of amateurs, even with low handicaps, does not make for compelling television nor add anything to a tournament. The event in the DR was obviously stretched beyond comprehension to find players to fill all of the available tee times. They even gave a spot to Keith Clearwater, age 58, who last won on the PGA Tour in 1987. Given that Tony Romo was virtually guaranteed to miss the cut, what was gained by putting him in the field? A few hits on social media and maybe a couple of die hard Cowboys fans with nothing else to do on Friday afternoon. This was like putting a blind man onto the starting grid of the Indy 500 in a 1997 Honda Civic. Just a recipe for disaster. The PGA Tour is supposed to represent the best of the best while this tournament in the DR smells like a money grab. Bad for the brand. No good for golf fans either.

The Round Table
The Round Table is a panel of golf writers, PGA members and industry experts.

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