Many golf purists consider the match play format the “purest form of golf”. If you like, matchplay is to golf what 15s is to rugby or what Test Matches are to cricket. However, every week, sometimes twice or thrice, golfers around the world tee it up for nine or 18 holes and more often than not, play in the standard stableford format. Amateur weekend golfers and professional golfers alike, almost always play in the stableford format. And the reasons for this occurrence is largely the same across golf, rugby and cricket. Let me explain.
Cricket test matches and even one day cricket takes a long time! Test matches can go on for a week and still result in a draw! Who wants to watch cricket for five days and have no winner declared in the end? And please don’t confuse a draw to a tie – they don’t mean the same thing in Test Cricket! Go figure.
The now more popular cricket version, T20 lasts for a few hours and never ends in a draw! In rugby, the 15s game takes 80 minutes and teams can only play one game a day and need a few more days to rest before they can play again. In the shorter 7s version, the game lasts only 14 minutes and because the field has fewer players, 14 as opposed to 30, there is more open space for running.
In 7s rugby, teams can play multiple games a day and tournaments are completed in two to three days. The thread across all sports formats and what makes one format more widely accepted than the other is simply TV. For many years now, the power of TV (read that as TV audiences or as the consumption habits of viewers) has changed the way sports are played. So, TV favours 7s rugby over 15s, much to the annoyance of the rugby purists. Indeed when rugby was included in the 2016 Rio Olympic games, it was the quicker, faster more entertaining 7s version that was selected.
Similarly, T20 cricket has grown in leaps in bounds; the India Premier League (IPL), the worlds most lucrative domestic cricket league, is played in the T20 format. Talks to include cricket in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics are also centred around the T20 format. The power of TV has also influenced changes to scoring in Badminton, Volleyball and Table Tennis – who have all adopted the rally scoring system where a point is scored irrespective of which team or player served – similar to what we see in Lawn Tennis. The “side-out” scoring system was deemed to be confusing to TV viewers and made those games that much more less appealing for TV.
In golf, a few more factors come into play; the stableford format allows for large fields of golfers to compete over a single day; a typical amateur club competition can have as many as 200 golfers. Professional golfers compete in fields of about 144 players over four days. However, matchplay competitions take time – at my local club for example, the matchplay club championship is played over two or more weekends and the Pro match play events are generally limited field events to allow for competition over four days. The US PGA schedule for example has only one matchplay event, the WGC Dell Technologies Matchplay with a prize purse of $10.5m (Sh1.1billion). This contest has undergone various changes to accommodate TV and sponsors, moving from a straight knock-out contest to one where players are initially pooled.
Team events in golf have, however, retained the more entertaining matchplay format; the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup and event the Tannahill Shield here in Kenya are all played in the matchplay format. The recently concluded Solheim Cup, USA vs Europe lady golfers, is also played in the matchplay format. The popular Nairobi District League is also played exclusively in the matchplay format.
Are we, therefore, condemned to forever only play in the stableford format? The quick answer is yes, however, there are variations to the format – for example, a few years ago, Limuru and Muthaiga converted their club nights to medal competitions – making them that much more challenging. I believe many other clubs across Kenya followed suit. On the opposite side of the scale, some clubs converted their monthly mugs to stableford competitions, breaking a tradition that is centuries old!
The matchplay format allows for more entertainment, spectacular upsets and often the lowest score and the best golf doesn’t always win – and therein lies the beauty of matchplay. So who has more clout at your club, the strokeplay club champion or the matchplay club champion?
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