Golf: Perfect match of golf's ancient and modern

World's best will face game's oldest test when global era dawns this week.
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IT IS the original form of the game, the version played regularly by the vast majority of golfers and it is how the major amateur championships are still decided. Now that tiny, yet significant, minority of golfers known as tournament professionals are going to get a crack at it, too. Matchplay is back, as we shall see in California on Wednesday.

Of course, events such as the Ryder Cup have provided a glimpse of the most thrilling format of the game to worldwide television audiences but calls from the participants for more were always drowned out by the clatter of the spikes of 156 pros heading for the first tee of the following week's tournament.

The commercial reality - as the lecture from on high usually starts - is that 72 holes of strokeplay is the only viable option for tour golf. Matchplay has become the ugly relative no one wants to talk about. Fields are limited, half the players go home after one day, the stars may get knocked out early, the final might feature unknowns and television, with its cameras fixed at the 16th, 17th and 18th, may not get to show any golf because the matches - horror of horrors - could end out in the country at the 13th.

Sponsors voted with their wallets and matchplay tournaments disappeared. From 1916 until 1959, the US PGA Championship distinguished itself from the other majors with its matchplay format, but then reverted to the tried formula of strokeplay. The US tour event in Tucson, which dates from 1945, was the last to feature matchplay but only briefly, for two years and another as medal-matchplay in the mid-Eighties.

At home, the PGA Matchplay ran from 1903, when James Braid was the winner, but Des Smyth became the last champion in 1979. The Epson Grand Prix lasted for four years as a matchplay event from 1985, but only two more as a strokeplay tournament before it was axed altogether.

But as golf enters its new global era, what better way to start than with the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay Championship. It promises to be the most exciting new event in the game since Bobby Jones gathered together a few pals at a course he had just built in Augusta, Georgia in the Thirties.

A number of factors should make it work, not least the ability of television now to cover all 18 holes. Then there are the sponsors, Andersen Consulting, who actually like matchplay golf. When setting up their own unofficial tournament they used the format to distinguish it from strokeplay ones. Barry Lane, Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie won it.

As for the field, the idea was to collect the top 64 players on the world ranking. If that has not quite worked out due to Jumbo Ozaki's reluctance to leave home, then at least the replacement has past credentials if not present form. Nick Faldo against the world No1 Tiger Woods, assuming no other withdrawals before tomorrow's draw, should be the pick of Wednesday's first-round matches. A second-round clash between Lee Westwood and Greg Norman, a rematch of their Australian Open play-off in 1997 won by the Englishman, is on the cards the next day.

The event is officially under the jurisdiction of something called the International Federation of PGA Tours. This body may just be a collection of the usual suspects, but the important thing is that the world's tours have stopped trying to compete with each other and are co- operating, even if there is the impression that meetings start with Tim Finchem, commissioner of the US tour, saying: "Right lads, this is how we are going to do it..."

The federation's aim, in reaction to Greg Norman's threatened breakaway world tour in 1994, was to introduce more opportunities for the world's best players to meet outside the four major championships. They have come up with three new events this year and a revamp (or destruction, as some see it) of the World Cup is promised for next year.

The Matchplay is the only event which truly fits their intention to come up with "new formats". Otherwise they would have been better served by expanding current events, such as the World Series, qualification for which was by winning events around the world but which, like the NEC World Invitational, has been mutated into a jolly for Ryder and President's Cup players.

The third event, the American Express World Championship, is the season's finale. Since the prize-money of pounds 3m and the pounds 630,000 winner's cheque for each tournament counts on the tours, the official money lists for America and Europe will be decided at Valderrama in November.

While American players cannot quite get their heads round the fact that their tour now takes in Spain, louder criticism has come from Europeans that the order of merit can now be won by someone who wins one of these large cheques, plays the minimum requirement and does not support the tour week in, week out.

Growth, however, was not going to come without pain and there will be no time for gripes this week at La Costa. A matchplay contest over 18 holes concentrates the mind wonderfully. "I think you'll find because of the nature of golf and 18-hole competition there will be a lot of surprises on the first day," Montgomerie said. "It will be a very interesting and busy day. There will be shocks - at least half the lower-ranked players will beat higher-ranked players. It's important to put into perspective that these are not major championships. The majors can stand on their own two feet, but there's plenty of space in the calendar for the world's top golfers to get together more often." Enjoy.