Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Match Play Update

"It's 65 degrees in February.  How can I
squeeze in 9 holes between dropping off the
kids and taking the FGW to the doctor?"      
The Fantasy Golf Wife (the "FGW") was recently knocked-out of commission with a herniated disc so for the past week I've been Jack Butler after he got canned in Mr. Mom with a couple notable exceptions: (1) I still have a job and, (2) instead of being repeatedly propositioned by a lascivious Martin Mull, the FGW is hobbling around like Yoda and periodically cutting loose a string of f-bombs that would make Bobby Knight go "whoa people let's just take it down a notch."  So instead of growing a nasty beard, putting on twenty pounds and becoming one with a flannel shirt, I've been running around like Henry Hill right before he got pinched at the end of Goodfellas (which means I just portrayed the FGW as a mob wife strung-out on coke.  She is not having a good week).
  
When we were woken-up at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday by the sound of a police helicopter circling the neighborhood, I almost went outside and surrendered just so I could go to jail and get some sleep.  (I am not making-up the helicopter.  It was straight-out of Goodfellas with everything but Monkey Man playing in the background).  Turns out they were looking for a shooting suspect.  (Did I mention that I live 10 miles from the setting for The Wire?)  This is a long way of saying that I cannot vouch for the next 2,000 words because they were written by a zombie and if you think this intro has been all over the map, wait til you read the rest of it.  

Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, K-E-L-L-Y

Mmmm . . . perpetual cheese.
My salvation last week was Tivo and The Golf Channel's ("TGC") early round coverage of the Accenture Match Play Championship as I would retreat to my basement every night around 9:30 p.m. with a few beers or a bottle of wine while avoiding the temptation to sample the variety of pain medications now available in our medicine cabinet (you never want to do anything that could ultimately put you in the same sentence with Brett Favre and Rush Limbaugh).  Maybe it took me being in a slightly altered state of mind but, for the first time in all the hours I've spent watching golf, I began to appreciate the unique talent of TGC announcer Kelly Tilghman.  I spent a fair amount of time on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday watching and re-watching her over-the-top monologues trying to come up with a description of her style and I kept coming back to the image of the announcing crew as a wedding reception buffet with a raw bar (Roger Maltbie), carving station (Johnny Miller), dessert table (Dottie Pepper) and in the middle of it all, Kelly Tilghman as a giant magnificent fondue fountain just spewing an endless supply of cheese.
      
"You know Kelly, that's a
watercolor I bet Luke Donald
 wishes he left in his studio."*
At one point I decided that I should start writing down her one liners and then see how they stack-up against the undisputed champ, David Caruso in CSI: Miami (Caruso Lines) but that would have violated my strict "no notes" policy.  The one that stands-out went something like this:  "Sang Moon Bae told me that he looks forward to playing more golf in the United States so he can, as he said, 'learn English more quickly'.  For now, he is letting his clubs do the talking (she breaks into a fake smile and chuckles). . . and they are fluent."  That prompted a classic "you've got to be f---ing kidding me" from an ill-tempered FGW who has no patience for hack female sports announcers even on her good days.  It's as if Tilghman's training consisted of watching Dan Akyroyd in Trading Places combined with memorizing as many cliches (sports or otherwise) as possible.  When Luke Donald splashed a tee shot on Wednesday, I expected her to cut-in and say, "at this point Luke Donald would like to slip out of that water hazard (chuckle) and into a dry Martini."  That is unless Nick Faldo (a/k/a the Tango to her Cash) beat her to it.  It actually got to the point on Friday where I looked forward to her cut-ins for a dose of unintentional comedy so I decided to honor her with a love song (The Kelly Song).     

The Tournament

The Accenture Match Play exemplifies the law of diminishing returns (the first slice of pizza always tastes better than the 5th) because each day you have half as many matches as the day before; ergo, less chances for compelling match-ups and exciting finishes.  Compounding this problem from a broadcasting perspective is the fact that the first three rounds are on weekday afternoons when most of the viewers advertisers covet (a/k/a "the gainfully employed") are not available to watch.  (Surprisingly, TGC's effort to shine a light on the homeless problem in America with the show Pipe Dream** did not generate the corporate sponsorship momentum that they had anticipated).  
Go ahead Tyler, throw the left cross.
You know you want to.  Everyone will
say he fell and hit his nose on the table.
Unfortunately, golf has not reached NCAA Tournament level popularity where guys from Long Island working in Manhattan tell their secretaries that they have to go meet a client on a Thursday afternoon so they can spend the rest of the day getting bombed while watching Northern Iowa play Missouri in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  TGC and NBC also caught a bad break when Phil Mickelson bailed which would have been like North Carolina bailing on the NCAA (and if you ride this analogy to its logical conclusion, Tiger is Duke because, if you have a soul, you instinctively hate them both).

True to form, the best days of this year's Match Play were Wednesday when thirteen of thirty-two matches went at least 18 holes and Thursday when we had matches like Kuchar v. Watson, Watney v. Woods and a rematch of Stanley v. Snedeker.  (That cold front that hit the East Coast on Thursday evening was propelled by the collective sigh of the advertisers after Tiger missed his putt on 18 and lost).  You could feel the momentum waning a little bit by Friday with no Tiger or Phil (or even second tier attractions like Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley) but at least we still had Kaymer v. Kuchar, Stricker v. Mahan and The Mechanic v. a now perpetually brooding Rory McIlroy (when did he turn into Robert Pattinson?)  

"Dude.  Losing is soooo lame."

On Saturday, however, the cotter pins started coming loose thanks in part to the inexplicable decision to move the semifinals to Sunday morning and shorten the final match to 18 holes.  That left us with one interesting quarterfinal match on Saturday between Kuchar and Mahan which turned out to be a 6 & 5*** beatdown on the level of Tyson v. Spinks.  (For my readers under the age of 25, Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks were heavyweight boxers back when heavyweight boxing was one of the coolest sports around . . . and before Tyson served time for a rape conviction - Tyson v. Spinks).  There was still a marquee match between Westwood and McIlroy looming in the semifinals but some genius had the idea to rearrange the format so instead of having that match at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, they played on Sunday morning when most of us were at church.

With the FGW on the disabled
list, I decided to stay home
and brush-up on my Leviticus.
                 
By Sunday afternoon we had what turned-out to be a pretty attractive final between Mahan and McIlroy but this is where NBC annually runs into its final hurdle.  It's impossible to maintain interest in a golf match between two players, even when they're among the best in the world.  There is simply too much downtime which results in extended camera shots of golfers walking down the fairway (golf's version of "dead air") and long gaps in the action for the announcers to fill with banter or, even worse, features like Peter Jacobson hitting shots next to a cactus wearing a bulky protective suit that made it almost impossible for him to swing.  (Unfortunately, it didn't make it impossible for him to talk.  Now I know why they picked Jacobson to win the U.S. Open in Tin Cup.  It was a non-speaking role).          

By the time they reached the 10th hole, the drama was gone as Mahan was up by 4 and on his way to a 2&1 victory.  My guess is that most people tuned-out during the back nine.  The fact that the Daytona 500 was rained-out probably didn't help because those two events would have been ideal channel surfing partners.  (Of course I have no idea what most people did and I'm just describing what I did.  It was 50 degrees outside and I had my first two hour window of freedom in a week so I went and played nine holes which, in the words of Chris Farley, "was awesome").   

So how can we fix the match play tournament to make it more watchable on the weekend?  I'd start by cutting the field to 32 players to improve the chances for better matches later in the tournament.  This year that would have meant potential final 8 matches of McIlroy v. Schwartzel, Westwood v. Quiros and Snedeker v. Dustin Johnson.  (No offense to Martin Laird, Peter Hanson and Mark Wilson but if you asked 20 people on the street who they were, 17 of them would say the original Beach Boys).  Making the field smaller and taking away one round would also mean that you could start the tournament on Thursday instead of Wednesday which would make the following plan more feasible.

Once the finalists are determined on Saturday (using the old format), have the highest ranked players who didn't make it pick two teams from the remaining 30 to play against each other Ryder Cup style on Sunday with the winning team splitting $2M and the losing team splitting $1M.  You'd have to pay them something extra to stick around for Sunday and you could generate the extra prize money by cutting the earlier round payouts and by televising the drafting of the teams on Saturday night.  It would be golf's version of an All-Star game and it would give them something to cut to in between shots of the Match Play final instead of an interview with a suit from Accenture comparing the level of excellence we've seen on the course this week to the level of service provided by Accenture employees everyday.  (And yes, he really went there).    

I'm stealing hockey's idea for the draft because I got caught-up in there's a few weeks ago and it was unexpectedly entertaining even though I hardly knew any of the players.  If the NHL found a way to get me to watch something related to hockey that didn't involve me being at a game, then they are definitely on to something.  If anything, this concept would work better for golf because the NHL guys who were picked late genuinely didn't give a crap whereas golfers are more sensitive and we'd get to see guys like Francisco Molinari and R.C. Bello get more and more agitated every time they get passed over by Luke Donald and Lee Westwood.      

"Don't worry folks, the plow
will be by to take off your
rearview mirror by tomorrow."
And one more tip.  Move the tournament to Southern California and set the tee times as late as possible.  Donald Trump would probably pony up the prize money himself to get an event like this to Trump National in Los Angeles.  The 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines showed that live golf coverage spilling into primetime on the East Coast is just flat-out awesome. Wouldn't the Match Play be the perfect tournament to do that with every year?  Wouldn't it dramatically improve weeknight ratings in the Northeast where we're usually shrouded in bitter cold darkness starting at 5:00 p.m.?  And finally, why do I live in Baltimore again?        

Explanatory Endnotes

*Luke Donald is also a painter who specializes in renderings of famous courses where he has almost won majors. 

**Rather than try to describe the Golf Channel show Pipe Dream to you and try to make some sense of it, I'll just give you their description and let you try to make sense of it.  "Follow one homeless man's quest to play on the Champions Tour.  Tune in to see if Mark Burk can turn his life around and get a fresh start."  I should add that part of the reason that Burk is homeless is that he was convicted of terrorizing his ex-girlfriend, super model Beverly Johnson, who not surprisingly threw him out of her mansion.  Burk has apparently been unsuccessful in his attempts to find lodging in the mansion of another super model so now he wanders in and out of homeless shelters carrying a set of golf clubs.  You have to admire him for refusing to lower his standards by settling for a dental assistant with a two bedroom condo.       
   
***In match play golf, you compete to win each hole and your score is the number of holes you have won versus the number your opponent has won.  For example, if you've played nine holes and you've won 3, your opponent has won 1 and you tied the other 5, you are 2 up.  The match is over when one player is up by more holes than there are left to play and the final score is recorded as the number of holes the winner was up and the number of holes left to play.   So in the case of Mahan v. Kuchar, Mahan was 6 up when they finished the 13th hole and won the match 6 & 5 because there were only 5 holes left to play.  

"Did you just call me a 'bitch'?"
That, however, is not even close to the biggest blowout in Match Play history.  In 2006, Stephen Ames was set to face Tiger in a match and dared to say that "anything can happen, especially where he [Tiger] is hitting the ball" but what Tiger heard was apparently, "anything can happen, especially where Tiger's hitting the Perkins' waitresses."  Tiger won the first nine holes and then halved the 10th for a 9 & 8 win but those days are long gone.  Now we've got some guy named Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano telling the world that Tiger is "beatable" before their match and it takes Tiger 18 holes to prove him wrong.  The lesson as always . . . if you go to a pancake house, don't order the corned beef hash and don't order the strange because you will regret both the next morning.         

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