Golf: Matches that strike home

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The Independent Online
LAST month, we had the Ryder Cup. Today, there is the climax of the Alfred Dunhill Cup. And on Thursday, it is the World Matchplay Championship. If you are only a recent convert to golf, you might not even know that strokeplay tournaments exist.

But they do. They proliferate. Indeed, the three afore- mentioned events - if one allows the Dunhill's hybrid match-medal format - are rare examples of matchplay in international golf, offering welcome respite from the otherwise relentless barrage of 72- hole strokeplay tournaments.

Matchplay does not deserve its present neglect among professionals. It is, after all, the game that most golfers play, at golf clubs all over the land. It is also sport in its purest, head- to-head, form. On the few occasions when the professional game deigns to put it on, matchplay regularly provides the most compelling moments of theatre. Why, then, do we not see more of it?

The answer is no mystery. Sponsors and television are wary because they dread the prospect of a final between, say, Mats Lanner and Jeff Hawkes, which is what Epson got for their Grand Prix tournament in 1987.

Even if you end up with Nick Faldo in the final, as happened at the World Matchplay last year, he might be playing the comparatively anonymous Jeff Sluman, and might finish him off eight holes from home, which also happened last year. Matchplay is unpredictable. Yet strokeplay cannot always be relied on to conjure up enthralling denouements. Peter Baker winning the Dunhill Masters by seven shots last June hardly generated the same excitement as the miles of putts he holed to beat Corey Pavin at The Belfry three weeks ago.

Baker is among the dozen who will be at Wentworth for the World Matchplay this week. In non-Ryder Cup years, that tournament is a lone bastion of genuine matchplay golf. The spectators love it. Apart from other considerations, with matchplay you are spared the terrible frustration of being on one part of the course while the decisive strokes are being played five holes away.

The best players love it, too - not every week, but as a different challenge which they would relish the opportunity to experience more frequently. 'I just wish there was another matchplay tournament somewhere,' Fred Couples said after the Ryder Cup.

The omens for more professional matchplay events are not propitious, however. Too many sponsors are perceived to have been burned in the past; and, as with so many other sports, it seems unlikely that the interests of the people who actually play golf will be allowed to override those of the people who sponsor and televise it.

Yet there is hope, from an unexpected quarter. Any initiative would probably have to be inspired by the European PGA Tour - and the tour's new liaison with BSkyB could provide just the opportunity. A dedicated sports channel should have no difficulty in compensating for the caprices inherent in matchplay golf (by tape-delayed transmission, for example).

If Sky and the tour were to create a matchplay tournament together, they would do more than win viewers and encourage a matchplay renaissance. Many critics of their financial marriage would forgive the two parties. And, who knows, it might even help Europe win the 1995 Ryder Cup.