February 2, 2009

Big Ten's 'Match' Game

Conference coaches hope new event can kick start their springs

The inaugural Big Ten Men's Match Play Championship, set for Feb. 13-14 at Heron Bay GC in Coral Springs, Fla., is a genuine example of necessity being the mother of invention. What that necessity was, however, isn't as obvious as you might think.

Certainly, given the addition of a match-play component to the NCAA Championship this spring, the conference's coaches liked the idea of getting their golfers more experience in a team match-play setting prior to the postseason. Yet, providing a structured way for these Midwestern schools to shake off the mid-season rust and, in turn, become more competitive earlier in the spring was an equally compelling reason behind the tournament's creation.

"We're coming out of the winter every year, and we're not as prepared as we should be," said Northwestern associate head coach Steve Bailey. "So why don't we all go and play against each other rather than have our first outing be in a tournament against 10 of the top 25 teams in the country and we all trip coming out of the gate?"

To wit: Just two of the 11 Big Ten schools in 2008 had a top-five finish in their first spring tournament, with the average finish for the conference being only slightly better than 10th place. In 2007 one team shared a victory in its spring opener (Indiana), but the average was closer to an 11th-place finish.

The slow spring starts, meanwhile, haven't boded well for the conference come the NCAA Championship. Since Minnesota won the national title in 2002, only twice has a Big Ten team finished in the top-10 at nationals: the Golden Gophers in 2006 (T-3) and 2007 (T-9).

Aside from getting to practice and play in presumably warmer Florida, the bracketed Big Ten event guarantees each six-player team will play at least three matches against other schools (five schools get byes into the quarterfinals with losing teams playing in consolation rounds). No team, though, can come away with worse than an 0-3 record, preventing programs from unduly harming their postseason eligibility under the NCAA's ".500 rule."

"What I like is the guys are going to get a lot of reps early in the [spring]," said Illinois coach Mike Small, whose squad is the top seed after finishing the fall with three wins and a No. 6 ranking in the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll. "And because it's match play, you're going to have a lot of putts that mean something."

Also adding to the event's cachet is that it will be televised on the Big Ten Network in a two-hour package later in the spring.

Word of the Big Ten event is getting out to other conferences, and some are considering similar events in the future. The Ivy League already has one scheduled for next fall, and the Pac-10 is trying to work out the logistics of holding a match-play tournament as well.

"The more we can get the guys comfortable with match play in a team setting, the better off we're going to be going into nationals," said UCLA coach Derek Freeman. "To have a tournament with the teams from your conference, all those natural rivalries, it seems like an idea that could really work."