Golf: La Costa too cosy for matchplay

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The Independent Online
AS TIGER WOODS walked to the 16th tee at La Costa last Friday afternoon, precariously placed at two down with three to play against eventual the champion, Jeff Maggert, a spectator pleaded: "Don't make us watch basketball on Sunday, Tiger." By then, Woods was at home and probably watching the only sport that fills American television screens at this time of year.

Advertisements in newspapers during the week for ABC TV's weekend coverage of the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay Championship featured Woods, David Duval and Ernie Els, but instead four of the chorus line from the US Tour were the only players in action. A final between Maggert, the 24th seed, and Andrew Magee, the 50th seed, was never going to continue the streak of the previous two Sundays when the golf, with Woods in contention, gained higher ratings than the basketball.

Ironically, one of the aims of the World Golf Championships is to offer huge pay-outs like the $1m (pounds 645,000) Maggert received, to go along with the Walter Hagen Cup, and boost the earnings of professional golfers in comparison with others in American sports. Duval's record $2.6m from the US tour last year was still less than the average salary in the NBA.

If it all sounds like a $5m mistake by the sponsors, it actually shows up the fact that television has still not come to terms with matchplay golf.

In the past, TV hated the head-to-head format because matches might not reach their fixed camera positions at the closing holes. Now, in the days of roving cameras covering all 18 holes and the positive image events like the Ryder Cup have given matchplay, the problem is fixed schedules.

It is the custom in the States for the midweek rounds to be hidden away on cable channels and for the national networks to grab the drama at the weekend. This works fine for regular strokeplay tournaments where the early action is largely forgettable but this week every shot mattered from the moment Nick Price teed off against Frankie Minoza on Wednesday morning.

The drama came thick and fast on the opening few days. That it did not last was disappointing - although Maggert secured his biggest pay-day by dramatically chipping in at the 38th hole of the final - but should not doom the event in its infancy. New characters such as Japan's Shigeki Maruyama, Sweden's Patrik Sjoland and the Argentinian Eduardo Romero came to the fore but, Woods excepted, the leading stars found that reputation counted for nothing. Certainly, Montgomerie against Stadler aside, there were few heavyweight confrontations that lived up to a local TV presenters prediction that this event would be like "sumo wrestling with long pants".

It was only four months ago that Wentworth staged a memorable Woods-O'Meara final in the Cisco World Matchplay and that event will continue to thrive on its 36-hole, 12-man elite format, as long as they are prepared to put up a purse to attract the 12 best players and not just 12 available IMG clients.

Its younger sister, with matches over 18 holes, badly needs to upgrade its venue. La Costa may have been a cosy home for the gentle, season-opening Tournament of Champions on the US Tour but did not provide enough of a test to define the better players. Magee feels comfortable at La Costa because "I can fade the ball off every tee. I don't need to hit a draw."

A true championship lay-out which tests the whole game should be found for the event and will be provided when it travels to Melbourne in 2001. But for two of the next three years it will remain at La Costa, a clear advantage to the US Tour players who are tournament fit after playing the West Coast swing. Europeans such as Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood took off all of January and suffered accordingly. Taking the field directly from the world rankings did not help the Europeans' cause and at least 20 should be guaranteed a start as opposed to the 11 who took on 40 Americans.

Overall, the impression was too much of a US Tour event rather than a major occasion as Maggert went to the top of the American money list with his $1m first prize, ahead of Duval and Woods. But in terms of Ryder Cup points, Maggert only gained as many points as the winner of the concurrent Tucson Open and every other US Tour event.

n While Europe's big names were failing at La Costa, Sweden's Gabriel Hjertstedt won the Tucson Open in Arizona. The 27-year-old landed a 25- foot birdie putt on the first play-off hole to beat America's Tommy Armour and qualifies for a place in the Masters at Augusta in April.

ANDERSEN CONSULTING WORLD MATCHPLAY CHAMPIONSHIP (La Costa, Carlsbad, Calif, all players US): Final (36 holes): J Maggert bt A Magee at 38th. Third place play-off (18 holes): J Huston bt S Pate 5 and 4.