If 72-hole strokeplay is golf in its purest form then 18-hole matchplay is the sport at its most exciting. The combination of the intimate head-to-head battle, the risk-and-reward nature and the race to a definite finish with a winner and a loser create a more aggressive playing style that often produces more dramatic moments and magnificent shots in one match than in an entire day of strokeplay rounds.
And golf fans will be treated to even more drama and top quality golf at this year’s WGC World Match Play Championship thanks to a change in the format. The straight knockout format has been abandoned in favour of a round-robin system that sees the world’s top 64 split into 16 groups of four before the leading players enter the knockouts. The tournament has also moved from late February to the last week in April/the first week in May, and from Dove Mountain in Arizona to a temporary home at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco (it will move to Austin in 2016).
“Each golfer will play the other players in his group over the first three days, and then we will cut to the top 16 players over the weekend,” reveals PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem. “It’s a new direction for the event that is going to create a lot more enthusiasm and excitement. In total, there are going to be 96 group matches for fans to watch on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (in comparison to 64 total matches in the previous format). It’s a lot more golf and it means fans are going to arrive knowing that they can follow their favourite player for at least three days.”
The WGC World Match Play is always one of the most highly-anticipated tournaments of the year in the Golf World office and it prompts an annual debate about the best matchplayer on the planet. This year, we decided to put the matter to bed by ranking the best head-to-head players in professional golf. Who’s our world number one matchplayer? None other than defending champion Jason Day.
The aggressive Australian may seem like an embarrassingly obvious choice, but there’s more than just last year’s win to support his status at the top of the matchplay order. He boasts an outstanding record of 15 wins from 19 singles matches, including 12 wins from his last 13 encounters. “I’ve always loved matchplay,” admits Day. “The cool thing about the format is it’s one-on-one, so it doesn’t really matter how or what you score over the 18 holes because you only lose one hole at a time. Knowing this allows me to be super-aggressive, which is neat because I like to be more aggressive than most people.”
The 27-year-old’s incredible head-to-head run began when he finished 3rd in the 2013 WGC World Match Play Championship, continued when he hammered Brandt Snedeker in the 2013 Presidents Cup and turned into something special when he outlasted Victor Dubuisson to win the 2014 WGC World Match Play Championship.
“I love the feeling you get when the pressure is on and you know you have to hit the right shot,” he reveals. “It just seems like the harder it gets, the more focused I get. There’s something about the one-on-one format that puts me into a mode where I feel calm with everything that’s going on around me.”
All of which means he expects to take the championship’s new format in his stride. “The new group system is going to be interesting, but my mindset is going to be the same. Regardless of the format, I need to go and beat everyone else that’s there.”
Jason Day's professional matchplay record
And there are a lot of other very talented head-to-head players in the field. Below you’ll find our list of the six other matchplay masters who could pose the biggest threat to Day’s title defence
The WGC-Matchplay condenters
Warren has played three singles matches as a professional, and he’s won all three of them. Add this to a 100% Walker Cup singles record and the fact that four of his five professional titles have come after play-offs and you have a potential matchplay behemoth.
The 2011 WGC World Match Play Champion first showed his liking for matchplay when he won all four of the singles matches he played during the 1999 and 2001 Walker Cups. Since turning pro, he’s won 27 of his 40 head-to-heads, including three of his four Ryder Cup singles.
Opponents don’t need to like Reed, but they do need to respect him. The 24-year-old American added an unbeaten record at the 2014 Ryder Cup to an impressive amateur matchplay CV that included winning all six of his matches at the NCAA Championships.
The man who led Europe out at Gleneagles in 2014 has won three of his four Ryder Cup singles matches, a Volvo World Match Play title and 30 of his 44 professional head-to-heads. “Big heart, big player, real fighter,” summarises 2014 European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.
The 2010 WGC World Match Play champion, Ryder Cup legend and self-proclaimed ‘postman’ has played 53 head-to-head matches as a professional and lost just 14 of them. “It’s nice to get the adrenaline going and matchplay does that really well for me,” he says.
Most people presume this permanently smiling American is too nice for matchplay. But most people are wrong. His impressive head-to-head record includes winning the WGC World Match Play title in 2013, finishing third in 2011 and taking home the US Amateur Championship in 1997.