You gotta love match play. There’s simply nowhere to hide, especially when you’re well-documented hothead Sergio Garcia.
A mistake in match play usually means the loss of a hole, no questions asked, unless you’re well-documented nice guy Matt Kuchar.
The quarterfinal match between the two PGA Tour veterans last Saturday brought the vagaries of match play into no-so-clear focus, and gave golf fans their own version of March Madness.
To recap: On the par-3 7th hole of Austin Country Club, Garcia had a seven-foot putt to extend his 1-up lead over Kuchar. He missed, and before Kuchar had a chance to concede the tap-in for the halve, Garcia raked the ball toward the hole. It lipped out, squaring the match.
It was a true tail-between-the-legs moment that really only happens in match play. In regular medal play, Garcia would have no doubt taken an extra half-second to actually stroke the ball into the hole and take his lumps against the scorecard. But in this case, Kuchar was his opponent, which brought some gray area into play.
Feeling that Garcia somehow deserved the halve, Kuchar told his opponent that he didn’t want the hole to be one or lost that way. He even asked a rules official if he could concede the putt retroactively. No dice, came the reply.
Garcia offered his solution even as he stated his mea culpa for blowing the putt: If he felt so bad about the situation, Kuchar could always concede the following hole.
Yeah, right, Kuchar pretty much said, though that option was clearly within his power — another quirk of match play. A player can concede a hole any time, for any reason — before the hole is completed.
“I thought about it and said I don’t like that idea, either,” Kuchar said after the round. “What didn't I like about it? It’s hard to say other than I kind of just stuck to what the rules official said the rule was.”
So, yeah, Kuchar hid behind rules somewhat, and in the end, Garcia kept blowing short putts, including one on the very next hole that saw him take a whiff of a full swing at the ball as it sat an inch from the cup. He and Kuchar had a verbal back-and-forth about the situation on the 10th hole, but from then on things appeared to settle down.
Kuchar went on the win the match 2-up, eventually making it to the finals, where he lost to Kevin Kisner.
So what’s the upshot of all this for me, a former Sergio-style hothead who has finally gained enough perspective to laugh over blown tap-ins?
- Putt the damn thing out in all cases, unless you hear the words “pick it up” or “that’s good.”
- One inch counts the same as 300 yards.
- Match play rocks in many ways, but chiefly in that it truly levels the playing field. Every hole is its own mini-round, and if you blast one OB on that hole, you’ve most likely lost it. Then it’s your job to concede it and move on. Gamesmanship is paramount, but so is common sense.
- At the highest levels of the game, there’s simply no excuse for acting as Garcia did. We’ve seen it too many time with this guy, even though I’ve long admired his game. It’s not fair to his opponent, to the fans, to the rules officials, to anyone.
- Every golfer should engage in match play in all its forms, from friendly four-ball Nassaus with our buddies to more serious one-on-one club or amateur competition. It takes the emphasis off raw score and puts more weight on shot-to-shot strategy, which helps us score better when we’re back to playing against ourselves, the course and Old Man Par.
Sometimes I wish the PGA Championship — which moves to May this year — would return to its match play roots, which gave way to medal play in 1958. At least we have the WGC event, the Ryder Cup and the Presidents’ Cup.
But enough of that for now. We’re just a week away from the ultimate stroke play event, down in Augusta, Georgia. As a former champion, Garcia will be there. And you can bet the farm he’ll putt everything out.