When the ceremonial starters hit the opening tee shots at the Masters this Thursday, they will kick off the first major to be played under the new rules of golf. Yes, golf — the sport first mentioned in writing 562 years ago in an act of the Scottish parliament — is still changing the rules.
The 34 traditional rules of golf were overhauled and reduced to 24 rules by the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to speed up play and make the game more accessible. These changes affect how golfers of every ability are penalized, how they take drops, and even how they putt.
Despite all of these needed changes, the governing bodies of golf overlooked the one change that would make professional golf better than it has ever been: They didn’t change the PGA Championship into the match play major.
Match play is an alternative to stroke play, which is the format every major championship is currently played under. In match play, golfers compete head-to-head instead of against the entire field. The player who has the lowest score on a hole wins; the player who wins the most holes wins the match.
Of the two formats, match play is the more exciting, and everyone knows it.
In stroke play, steady and safe golf is rewarded with Top 25’s and big checks. The emphasis is on avoiding big numbers on hard holes and taking advantage of the easy holes. In stroke play, the difference between a six and a five can mean the difference between winning and losing. In match play, the result of a six and a five is the same, a loss of a hole.
This encourages players to be more aggressive and try spectacular shots they never would in a stroke play tournament. When the best players in the world are forced to play aggressively for an entire week, magic shots are the result.
The other advantage of match play is that it produces definite results throughout the entire tournament. There is an old adage about stroke play tournaments: You can lose the tournament on the first day, but you can’t win it. There is little to no incentive to watch the first three rounds because the players simply jockey for position on the final day. If fans are lucky, stroke play will produce an exciting duel for the win on the final day.
With match play, every player either wins or loses every day, and this guarantees the fans exciting duels throughout the week. There is incentive to watch on the first day as well as the last day of a tournament, because the players are constantly competing to survive and advance to the next round.
One concern about match play is that the tournament will be less profitable if the well-known players are knocked out early. The PGA Championship was a match play event, but changed to stroke play for precisely that reason. According to the Henderson Time-News, the Professional Golfers Association of America changed from match play to the current format because the tournament lost $9,000 in 1957. That $9,000 loss over sixty years ago robbed golf fans of what could be the most exciting event of the season.
This economic argument is unfounded. Yes, there is a chance that two no-name golfers end up in the final. Yes, there is a chance that Tiger Woods, the golfer who drives interest more than any other, could lose in the first round. Those are real risks associated with changing the tournament to match play.
While there is a chance two no-name golfers in the match play final will kill interest, it is entirely offset by the chance for a head-to-head showdown between two greats with a major championship on the line. Imagine a finals match between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, or a match between Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas! The whole golf world would be unable to take their eyes away from the television.
Changing to match play is guaranteed to drive fan interest because it’s something different. Fans already get to watch 48 weeks of stroke play tournaments, including three stroke play majors. Fatigue really sets in, and most golf fans will take the opportunity to watch anything different.
The Barracuda Championship is a good example. The Barracuda has substantial fan interest despite having a field that never includes the top 50 players in the world. That’s because it is a stableford event, where golfers compete based off of points rather than their score. It’s different, and that’s why the fans like it.
Perhaps the greatest argument for changing the format of the PGA Championship is how fans and players currently view it. According to Golf Digest, only two percent of PGA tour players would choose to win the PGA over the other majors and its TV ratings are consistently the lowest of the American majors. Changing the PGA Championship to match play is the shot in the arm the tournament needs.
Sutton Dunwoodie is a junior studying Political Economy.