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Point Counterpoint

Stroke Play vs. Match Play Stroke Play


o illustrate the unequivo- cal superiority of stroke

play, let’s take a quick trip into my digital file cabinet. There, in all their wild splendor, rest my notes from the final round of the 2011 Masters. First, some background:

My habit on Masters Sun- day (forget Super Bowl Sun- day, this should be a national holiday) is to walk most of the front nine, set up camp in the grandstand behind No. 8, watch the final few pairings come through and then retreat to the oversized, high-definition televisions in the media center. The final round of last

year’s Masters showed exactly why golf writers lean on TV for the back nine on Sunday at Augusta National —and why stroke play is clearly the better format. No fewer than eight

players held a share of the lead at some point on that crazy, scintillating day. There were three different five-way ties for the lead on the back nine alone. Tiger Woods, seven shots behind when the round began—long since eliminated if this were match play—electrified the galleries by making the turn in 31 to briefly rise atop the leaderboard. My notes offered several

other reminders of the rivet- ing plot lines floating among the pines and azaleas. Rory

Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle.

16 / NCGA.ORG / FALL 2012

McIlroy went into the cabins, Luke Donald went into the creek and Adam Scott went into the lead (momentarily). At various times, those notes deliri- ously shouted: FOUR-WAY TIE FOR LEAD…WILD SCRAMBLE, 8-10 PLAY- ERS IN HUNT…FIVE- WAY TIE FOR LEAD. “There were so many

roars,” Charl Schwartzel said after ultimately win- ning, “sometimes you forget to breathe.” The point here: Only

stroke-play tournaments of- fer these rich and abundant possibilities. There are two potential outcomes in the Super Bowl, two potential outcomes in the Wimble- don finals, two potential outcomes in Game 7 of the World Series or NBA Finals —and only two potential outcomes on the final day of any match- play event. Stroke play offers infinite

entertainment value, with the 2011 Masters as a sparkling example. Now, in fairness, match

play has its merits. There is something inherently appealing about making golf a mano-a-mano duel, where you gaze into your opponent’s eyes on the No. 1 tee and then dive into laser-focused battle, with no need to contemplate what’s happening elsewhere on the course. And the strategic

twists —choosing a differ- ent club, for instance, when

your foe’s shot disappears into the trees—are fascinat- ing in a Johnny Miller-ish, inside-golf sort of way. But these nuances simply do not translate to television, where mass audiences demand big names in the mix. Or put another way:

Jeff Maggert vs. Andrew Magee, Steve Stricker vs. Pierre Fulke (who?!?) and Kevin Sutherland vs. Scott McCarron. Yikes. Those were the finals of

the PGA Tour’s Match Play Championship in 1999, 2001 and ’02, respectively. Tiger Woods hasn’t reached

Stroke play and the Masters give golf fans a wide open race for the championship.

the finals since ’08, and Phil Mickelson has never made it. The tournament usually produces a solid and respectable champion, but seldom a high-powered, high-profile winner. This brings us to another difficult-to-dispute point— stroke play identifies the best golfer far more often than match play does. Stroke play requires

relentless precision, because every single shot counts. There’s no making triple bogey, shrugging and saying, “Hey, it’s only one hole.” Woods made triple bogey early in the final round of this year’s British Open and could have fired up the pri- vate jet right then and there. For a sporting paral-

lel, consider major-league baseball’s 162-game regular season, with a rhythm akin to a 72-hole, stroke-play tournament. Baseball teams don’t accidentally win a division title. They might steal a playoff series thanks to a hot pitcher—as former A’s manager Tony La Russa liked to say, “the team play- ing best,” not necessarily “the best team,” wins in the postseason—but the long, regular-season schedule all but wipes out the chance of a fluke champion. (Quick disclaimer: La

Russa’s logic is sound, but it’s fair to suggest his team’s unexpected losses in the 1988 and ’90 World Series probably led him to this position.) At any rate, the same is

true in golf. Stroke play is like baseball’s regular season, a fair and unyielding marathon with a more


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