A classic battle between Georgia and Oklahoma State in the semifinals of the 2011 men’s golf national championships affirmed the NCAA’s decision to add match play to the tournament format two years earlier.
Both teams deployed a lineup of players with futures on the PGA Tour. For Oklahoma State: Rickie Fowler, Morgan Hoffmann, Kevin Tway and Peter Uihlein. For Georgia: Hudson Swafford, Adam Mitchell, Harris English, Brian Harman and Russell Henley.
Hosting the tournament at their home course in Stillwater, Okla., the Cowboys hoped to return to the national finals after losing there to Augusta State the previous year.
Georgia men’s golf coach Chris Haack remembers the day well.
“That was just going to be one of those epic matches that came down to the last hole, the last putt, and Brian Harman ended up making a birdie to beat Rickie Fowler,” Haack said. “The scene around that green and the crowd around that green, we’d never seen that, even in stroke play. And I think that’s when all of the sudden, the NCAA committee went, ‘Man, we’ve got something special here.’”
The Bulldogs would lose the next day to Augusta State in the national finals but left with an indelible memory of how they got there.
NCAA officials walked away knowing their new national championship format was a keeper. This was the third year since they began tacking an eight-team playoff onto three rounds of stroke play to determine the team national champion.
In years previous, the men’s national title went to the team with the lowest aggregate score over 72 holes. This format is still in place for the NCAA women’s national championships, but it’ll change soon.
Next year, the women will follow suit in adding match play to their national championship tournament, contesting three rounds of match play over two days after four days of stroke play.
The Georgia women begin competing in the NCAA East Regional this weekend in Tallahassee, Fla., looking to play at the NCAA championships under the old format one last time.
The NCAA women’s golf committee recommended the change last August, and the Division 1 championships/sport management cabinet approved it in February.
These changes have been made at least partly in hopes of increasing the excitement level of the women’s championships, and tapping into some of the intrigue it’s lacked in comparison to the men’s tournament since 2009.
“It’ll give just your normal sports fan a way to connect to women’s golf,” said Georgia women’s golf coach Josh Brewer, who’s a proponent of the change. “The general fan sitting around watching TV can be like, ‘I get it.’ I think that’ll be a very good thing for our sport.”
Fan appeal has been a subject of some recent change in NCAA athletics, such as the Southeastern Conference’s relaxation on rules for piped-in music at football games beginning next season — a measure aimed at enhancing the stadium atmosphere for those in attendance.
Adding match play to the men’s championship tournament format in 2009 was a change geared less toward the in-person experience at events, and more toward the tournament’s broadcast marketability to a television audience.
A key factor in the change was Golf Channel, which signed on to broadcast both the 2015 men’s and women’s national championships, scheduled to be held back-to-back weeks at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.
“They wanted to get it back on television and they knew that match play was the best way to be TV friendly,” said Steve Burkowski, a Golf Channel reporter who’ll be part of the team handling both those broadcasts. “It’s a format that the average viewer that tunes in can understand.”
The NCAA team style of stroke play, which totals scores for the top five out of six competing golfers for each team, has not been a format viewers readily understand, Burkowski said.
Lay-viewers and casual golf fans are more likely to have experienced match play if they’ve ever watched the Ryder or Presidents cups. And the college game incorporates the team rivalries and matchups most fans identify with from other sports.
“That’s kind of the way college athletics is set up fundamentally,” Haack said. “You have teams that go head-to-head. People seem to get Georgia vs. Georgia Tech or Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State.
“In the match-play format, when you win and you advance, people understand that. I think it’s more of a traditional feel to the college game.”
Match play is relatively nonexistent on the women’s collegiate golf circuit. Georgia’s Liz Murphey Invitational became the first regular-season tournament to include match play last year, when it shifted its format from 54 holes of stroke play to an 18-hole round of stroke play plus a three-round match playoff.
But Brewer said he expects to see more events begin to embrace match play with the coming change in the national championships.
“I talked to my parents about it and people that were here to watch (the Liz Murphey Invitational), and they enjoyed it a lot more,” said Sammi Lee, a sophomore on the women’s team from Winter Park, Fla. “It’s fun to watch someone play one-on-one instead of just being out there playing the golf course because there’s something really going on right in front of you.”
Junior Rocio Sanchez Lobato, a native of Spain, experiences a lot of match play in Europe, where it’s more common to team and individual competition.
“It just brings everybody together pulling for each other,” she said. “It’s a lot more fun to watch match play than it is to watch stroke play because there’s a lot going on and there are more birdies because people tend to risk more.”
In addition to creating drama on every hole, match play almost guarantees a compelling finish.
“(Match play) is definitely more exciting cause you’re always going to have that last match on the last hole and it comes down to one putt,” sophomore Georgia golfer Lee McCoy said. “In stroke play it can be a lot more lopsided.”
Lopsided would be a good word to describe last year’s women’s national championship tournament, hosted at the University of Georgia golf course.
The final round saw nothing unexpected, as USC’s Annie Park ran away with the title, scoring into redder numbers all day. The course, absent many spectators, was largely devoid of any life.
“With stroke play, you can have a runaway and things are changing,” Brewer said. “If you’re not a college golfer, it’s hard to understand.”
Most coaches believe the addition of match play to the championship format will tap into that needed excitement, although many have been hesitant to jump on board with the change.
One argument against it holds that the playoff devalues the title of individual champion.
Other critics suggest that the playoff, like basketball’s March Madness, opens the door for upsets that could unseat a team that would have been able to outscore the rest of the field in stroke play.
Since the addition of match play in 2009, no team in the lead after the first three rounds of stroke play has gone on to win the tournament in match play.
Haack says the team champions in the new playoff are frequently ones that aren’t commonly accepted as the best in the country, although he doesn’t see that as an issue.
“I’d rather go for the excitement than worry about identifying what the polls say is the best team,” he said.
For Burkowski, it’s the atmosphere of match play as what makes the new format so attractive.
“I’ve been at the past couple of match play (championship tournaments),” he said. “What we saw in ‘12 between Texas and Alabama, that was one of the most exciting golf events I’ve ever been to, period. The two best teams. The final match. Eighteen. Famed Riviera. One putt wins it all. I get goosebumps still thinking about it.”
Haack has enjoyed seeing that drama play out in the men’s tournament the last five years, and believes the critics of the format change in the women’s game will like it once they experience how much more exciting it is.
“I think they’ll enjoy it,” he said.
The theater of the competition from the broadcast booth can’t be matched either.
“The drama we have seen in the five or six years of the men’s so far, I think it’s great,” Burkowski said. “You can’t create that.”
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.