Alister Mackenzie’s most celebrated designs – Royal Melbourne, Cypress Point and Augusta National – each encourage all that is good about match play, golf’s most interesting form of competition. Think about it. Stroke play, card and pencil in hand, only really becomes exciting when it morphs into match play near the end of its typically 72-hole life. Until then, even the most gifted golfer has a hard time breathing life into a four-day long contest against 18 inanimate objects.
“When I won in Dubai recently the last seven holes were basically a match between Richard Sterne and myself,” points out Stephen Gallacher, one of three Scots (Richie Ramsay and Paul Lawrie are the others) in the field for this week’s Accenture World Match Play Championship in Arizona. “In that situation I had to be aggressive if I wanted to beat an opponent playing as well as Richard was.
“But, when I went four shots ahead with two holes to play, I knew that a couple of pars would definitely win. So my strategy changed. I played those holes very cautiously.”
It is the human aspect, the interaction between all-too fallible opponents, which makes the Accenture so potentially enthralling. Even without the injured Brandt Snedeker and the indifferent Phil Mickelson, a gathering of 64 of the 66 best golfers on the planet is an exciting prospect. Make that very exciting.
In fact, for many golf fans, Wednesday’s opening round of 32 matches is the most entertaining day of golf on the 2013 calendar. Perhaps only Masters Sunday comes close to challenging for that bold accolade.
Happily, most of the players – even those worried about the distinct possibility of playing well yet still taking an early bath – seem to enjoy a break from the tedium of stroke play.
“I actually prefer match play to stroke play,” says Lawrie, who last year made it to the third round over the Dove Mountain course just outside Tucson.
“It’s great fun because you can play so aggressively. And there’s always stuff going on, especially when a match is tight. You constantly have to make choices about whether to go for shots or not. I like that and how holes can ebb and flow with every shot hit. I wish there was more match play on our schedule but I understand why there isn’t. The tours and the television people worry about the top players all being gone by Thursday.”
The former Open champion is correct. One of the best aspects of head-to-head competition is the level of activity just below the surface. While some golfing ostriches stick their heads in the nearest bunker and claim to play the course rather than the man, such a strategy does not find favour with either Lawrie or Gallacher.
“I play the course until my opponent does something that directly impacts on me,” says the latter, whose last match play experience came during the 1995 Walker Cup matches at Royal Porthcawl.
“For example, there’s no point in me playing for a par if he has hit his approach to six inches. So his play has a direct effect on my next shot. The good thing is you always know what you have to do. There is no guessing, which can happen when your nearest challenger in stroke play is in another group.”
Lawrie, one of the stars of last year’s Ryder Cup matches, where he produced the best last-day figures on either team en route to seeing off Snedeker by 5&3, backs up his compatriot’s assessment.
“I play the course until it makes sense to play the man,” contends the former Open champion.
“So, early on, I’m typically playing just as I would in stroke play. But, at some point in the match, I will almost certainly have to switch to playing in a way that gets the job done, no matter how often I hit the ball.
“In the end, I probably end up playing the man more than the course. But there’s a little bit of both.
“At Medinah last year, Brandt won the tenth hole to get back to two down. Then I won the 11th. At the next hole, he missed the green long and left with the pin front right. Knowing he had a very difficult up-and down and was likely to make five, I played safe to the front-left portion of the green. From there, I was going to make a par more often than not. So the odds were in my favour. Match play is often all about playing the percentages.”
As for the tournament venue, it would be safe to say that it is no one’s favourite track. But Lawrie, for one, enjoyed his time there 12 months ago.
“Dove Mountain is a good fit for match play,” he continues. “The fairways are wide and there are lots of birdie chances. The back nine is a lot of fun. There are a couple of reachable par-5s and a drivable par-4. They are all interesting in that you have a choice to make about going for the greens or not.
“It takes a pretty poor shot to miss a fairway. But, if you do miss, you are in real trouble out in the desert.
“There won’t be many matches where guys are shooting 75s. “There will be plenty of birdies and eagles. Which is what you want.”
For the Caledonian trio there is also much to play for beyond this week. Both Ramsay – who won his US Amateur title at match play – and Gallacher are on the verge of making it into the world’s top 50. Should they progress to at least the third round, both should be well placed to be part of the elite field at Augusta for the Masters.
And both would do well to follow the path Lawrie has trodden over the last two years, one that has seen the 44-year old Aberdonian win three times and make a second Ryder Cup appearance at an age where most are contemplating non-playing captaincy more than playing stardom. “Paul has been a great inspiration to me,” confirms Gallacher.
“I’m in a similar position to where he was two years ago. But it’s all about being in the top 50. It’s so hard to make the Ryder Cup team if you’re 51 or higher. So, although winning in Dubai was huge for me, all it does is get me on track. I’ve got to do what Paul did, win here and there and tot up a lot of high finishes, especially in big events.”
And this week – the first prize is a cool $1.4 million and even the 32 first-round losers are paid as much as $45,000 – is as good a place to start as any.