To start the 1984 season, professional golf went to the Arizona desert last week and dug up a dinosaur called match play. And it may be safe to predict that the prehistoric animal would have crawled back under its rock if Tom Watson hadn't been up to the challenge of winning an event called the Seiko-Tucson Match Play Championship.
Marquee names can do wonders for tournaments that are a little out of the ordinary, and Lord knows, match play has become as foreign to Americans as turbans and robes. In the U.S., a pro tournament is 72 holes of Watson or Jack Nicklaus trying to stave off a Mark McCumber or an Ed Fiori, a four-day picnic where thousands of people sit on the bank of the 16th green and watch threesomes play through for hours. The trouble with match play, of course, is that a lot of golfers never make it to the 16th hole; in fact, the vast majority never make it to Saturday or Sunday.
The uniqueness of the Tucson event made it possible for Watson to win his first tournament in the U.S. in 19 months, by beating four players over a two-day period and thereby taking away the same $100,000 he would have earned had he gone four grueling rounds against a full field of 143 other starters. That Watson won without even firing a round of better than two under par had something to do with the luck of the draw and the exhaustion of his competition. Three of the guys he beat had been there all week slaving for the privilege of losing to him.
Watson was one of eight players seeded directly into the round of 16, which meant he didn't have to play until Saturday. He didn't know what to expect of himself. Among other things, he was experimenting with his swing in Tucson. "I'm trying to stay down on the ball longer," he said. He did just fine. That his 2-up victory over Gil Morgan in the final wasn't exactly a thriller said more about the format than the competitors.
Match play is the oldest form of golfing competition. You and me, head-to-head, who can win the most holes. Before World War II there were as many as five match-play events on the tour, including the PGA Championship itself, which was settled at one-on-one competition for its first 39 years. But along came TV. and the networks weren't about to invest sizable chunks of money in a golf telecast if Sam Snead was going to lose in the second round and Chandler Harper was going to battle it out with Henry Williams Jr. in the PGA final, as was the case in 1950. Match-play tournaments faded away. The PGA switched to medal play in 1958 and promptly got on TV.
The revival at Tucson's Randolph Park Golf Course was an attempt to satisfy everyone involved: the locals, Seiko, the touring pros and a cable-TV audience. The players insisted on a full-field tournament, even if it was match play. The compromise was that the top 16 players on the '83 Seiko points list were seeded among the field of 128, the second eight getting a first-round bye and the top eight—Watson, Morgan, Hal Sutton, Fuzzy Zoeller, Lanny Wadkins, Calvin Peete, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw—receiving a four-match bye.
A few pros. Bob Gilder for one, protested that the top eight were getting the equivalent of "appearance money," since they were guaranteed $15,000 for showing up. Still, even first-round losers took home $750. First-round victors received $2,500 and two-match winners got $5,375. Sammy Rachels put it best after losing a third-round match to Dave Stockton. "This is a great event," he said. "I'm 12 over for three rounds and I win five grand!"
But the new tournament proved all over again that if you don't fancy upsets, don't embrace match-play golf. Craig Stadler was 2-up with two holes to play against J.C. Snead in his first match, and lost. How? "Aw, he got a little hot at himself and I took advantage of it," J.C. said. J.C. then lost to D.A. Weibring, who lost to Mark Hayes, who upset Fuzzy Zoeller but then lost to Morgan. Such is the way it went in one bracket.
Raymond Floyd was another name loser, to somebody named Dan Forsman. Said Floyd, "I knew I was in big trouble on the first tee when he shook my hand and said playing me was the biggest thrill of his life."
The most inscrutable upsetter turned out to be T.C. (Tze-Chung) Chen, a slender 25-year-old pro from Taiwan who plays the American circuit regularly. Chen began the week with a comeback win that was more surprising than the things you can sometimes find in chop suey. He was 7-down to Mark Calcavecchia with only nine holes to play—and won. Next, Chen defeated Scott Simpson, Vance Heafner and Tom Purtzer. "Match play funny," said Chen. "Players lose holes and get scared."
Another stranger was causing confusion in another bracket. He was Richard Zokol, largely noted for competing while wearing headphones. Zokol played without his music in Tucson but still dusted off Mike Reid, Bill Kratzert, Curtis Strange and Allen Miller. At that point it was said that Chen and Zokol were two examples of what was either right or wrong with match-play golf.
Luck ran out on the unknowns when the big guys joined the fray on Saturday morning. Wadkins buried Chen 6 and 4 and Crenshaw eliminated Zokol on the 20th hole. This set up the best match of the tournament, Wadkins-Crenshaw in the Saturday afternoon quarterfinals. Crenshaw went 4-up through 12 holes, but Wadkins made three birdies, and Crenshaw left three putts on the lips of the cups. Wadkins won on the 19th hole with a par 3. "I played like the Long-horns: no offense," said Texas alum Crenshaw.
As it happened, Scott Hoch was the only unseeded player to make the semifinals. Hoch consistently fired subpar rounds to roll over George Archer, Ron Streck, Lee Elder, Doug Tewell, Sutton and Kite. On Sunday morning, however, he met Watson, and bowed out 2 and 1.
In the other semifinal, Morgan did to Wadkins what Wadkins had done to Crenshaw. Wadkins was 3-up after 12 holes, but Morgan birdied four of the last six holes to nudge him, one-up.
One thing about match play: It's nerve-racking, and every hole is a new ball game. This seemed to have caused a drain on both Watson's and Morgan's interest by the final round. In 17 holes Morgan never made a birdie, and Watson made only one putt of real consequence, saving a par—and his 2-up lead—with a side-door six-footer at the 15th.
Will the match-play tournament endure? Probably, if the Tom Watsons have the wisdom to keep winning it.