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College golf's match play conundrum

For Golf World's 2011-12 College Preview package in the Sept. 5 issue of the magazine, I wrote an article that explores the state of match play in the men's game. I know the use of the format at the NCAA Championship continues to be a bit polarizing, but I approached the story from the premise that love it or leave it, match play is going to be part of the national championship for the foreseeable future. Given that, it surprised me that more match play events hadn't been created in the past few years to help teams gain experience in the format to be best prepared come nationals.

Below you'll find the article in its entirety, the article's appropriately titled in the magazine "An Imperfect Match." Curious to get other people's thoughts about whether there should be more match play in college golf, none or whether the balance right now is fine.

In spring 2007 the six members of the NCAA men's Division I golf committee revealed they were making a fundamental change in the format of the national championship, adding a match-play component to determine the winning team in hopes of increasing excitement at the event and interest overall in the sport. Upon hearing the announcement, the college golf community greeted it with essentially two reactions.

(1) Wow!

(2) It will never last.

As the 2011-12 college campaign begins—and match play still is an integral part of crowning not only the D-I champion but now the D-II as well—the decision continues to elicit similar feelings, albeit now in the form of a hybrid response.

Wow … can you believe it has lasted?

Love it or leave it, the format at nationals, where the top eight schools after 54 stroke-play holes compete in a series of head-to-head contests that whittle down to an eventual champion, is here to stay for the near future, leading to an interesting philosophical question.

Will match play ever become a prominent part of the regular season?


Surprisingly, perhaps, the answer seems to be no. More than 4 1/2 years since the decision to incorporate it into college golf's most important tournament, the number of match-play competitions available for teams to gain experience playing the format (outside the confines of a school's own practices) can be counted on one hand.

"It's a really tough sell," says Ryan Ressa, men's coach at Long Beach State, who nevertheless decided to change the format of his school's annual Del Walker Invitational tournament from stroke play, the only new match-play competition added to the 2011-12 calendar. "I think the majority of college coaches don't like match play. I don't get a sense that coaches are really wanting to switch."

The arguments from those resistant to more match play encompass both the big and little pictures. If coaches are supposed to be developing the next generation of tour pros, and match-play tournaments are a disproportionately small segment of the PGA and European tour calendars, shouldn't it be the same at the college level? Moreover, the rankings that help the NCAA committee select at-large teams for the postseason are based on results of stroke-play events. By decreasing the number of those tournaments a school competes in, there's a potential it might harm its chances of receiving a bid to NCAA regionals.

"It's hard to make it work in your schedule given the number of days of competition we can play," says Alabama men's coach Jay Seawell. "It would take away from some of the great tournaments our guys get a chance to go to right now."

Derek Freeman agrees, but he also knows the sick feeling he had in his stomach last spring at Karsten Creek GC. The men's coach at UCLA, the top-ranked team entering the 2011-12 season according to the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll, had seen his squad post the low score in stroke-play qualifying. Less than 24 hours later, the Bruins were bounced from the championship, losing to Duke in their first-round match.

"We did exactly what we set out to accomplish," Freeman said in earning the No. 1 seed heading into match play. "But then we just didn't do a very good job of making the turnaround. Part of that is my issue as a coach. I've got to make sure I prepare my guys better for that turnaround and kind of change their way of thinking for match play."

To help do just that should UCLA get back in that situation next spring when the 2012 championship is held on one of its home courses, Riviera CC, Freeman will be among the eight competing in Long Beach State's event.

"Because the NCAA Championship is now match play, it only makes sense to adjust and try to find more match play. You're an idiot if you don't," contends Washington coach Matt Thurmond, whose team lost in the first round of match play at the 2009 NCAAs and who also is playing at Long Beach. "[If] you want to prepare your team, then you should play more match play."

In 2009 the Big Ten established a conference match-play tournament played in Florida in February, largely to help teams knock off the winter rust but also to help familiarize them with the format. The Big East Conference holds a similar event, and the Golf Coaches Association of America runs a 16-team tournament, being played next March at Concession GC in Florida. Yet, in the three years since the NCAA incorporated match play at nationals, only Texas A&M in 2009 competed in any of these tournaments and actually won the NCAA title in the same season.

Does that mean the preparation argument isn't quite so strong? Maybe, but match-play supporters argue there are tangential benefits that come from playing the format that might help teams and golfers in the long run, even if it doesn't directly lead to a national championship.

"I understand the arguments [against match play], but I think it makes the guys tougher," Ressa says. "If you're playing in a stroke-play event and you finish second or third, you don't really feel too bad. But if you lose a match and you have an opportunity to win or lose it, there's a feeling that's kind of gut-wrenching. That's what all these guys experience in that eight-team bracket [at nationals]. If they lose that thing, they're beat down for a while. You don't get that feeling in golf enough."

Unless there's a sizable shift with respect to coaches' interest in match play, that isn't likely to change.

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July 28, 2014

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