Golf fans are puzzled; even those who have been following the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play event in Arizona are demanding to know, 'Whatever became of the real World Match Play Championship held at Wentworth?' A tournament boasting a roll of honour including Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Bob Charles, Greg Norman, Tom Weiskopf, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els. A tournament dating back to 1964 when the players were given suites at The Ritz and driven to and from the course in Rolls Royces. Well, I will tell you what happened to it - after 44 years, it was unceremoniously scrapped last autumn to make way for a new-fangled World Match Play Championship involving a round-robin format to be unveiled at the Finca Cortesin club near Marbella, Spain, later this season.
No-one grieves the passing of this great sporting spectacle more than Bernard Gallacher who, while winning 21 tournaments worldwide and playing in eight Ryder Cup contests, also served as the Wentworth club professional from 1975 until his retirement in 1996. "It's sad the world match play as we knew and loved it has gone, very sad," said Gallacher. "But its prestige had been in decline for some years, ever since the top players stopped coming along. For me, it lost a lot of its lustre when Mark McCormack [the former head of IMG who promoted the event] passed away in 2003.
"Mark had a great love of Wentworth and England in the autumn so he'd been the driving force since day one. It was because of him that Palmer, Nicklaus and Player first came over. Mark was a great entrepreneur and was absolutely brilliant for European golf. He recognised that Wentworth was the perfect course for match play golf and the Piccadilly, as it was known in the early years, had a wondrous habit of serving up great matches."
To illustrate just why the World Match Play Championship will forever hold a special place in the hearts and minds of players and spectators alike, let us look back to one of those great matches from Wentworth's rich history - Ballesteros v Palmer, 1983. To celebrate the 20th World Match Play, the first-round matches were reduced to 18 holes because of the number of former champions invited to compete. The new Spanish master did not disappoint. Ballesteros, who was two down, kept the match alive by winning the 17th and then, after a wild drive on the 18th, conjured up a shot through the trees that landed just short of the green. With Palmer pin-high after three, it was advantage America until Seve chipped in for an eagle three and beat the old champion amid nerve-tingling excitement at the third extra hole.
"Great theatre," recalls Gallacher, "and in autumn there is always a magical air about the place; misty mornings, warm afternoons, cool evenings with the sun slanting through the branches of the trees. I feel sorry for the younger generation of pros who will never know what made the World Match Play at Wentworth so unique. Is the new champions league format (16 players divided into four round-robin groups with the section winners advancing to the semi-finals) in the spirit of pure match play?
"Probably not but the sponsors and spectators don't want to see Tiger Woods going out in the first round; it's as simple as that. And if it's not going to be pure match play as we knew it then I'm glad it will be played at a new venue; the Americans may have their own event of the same name but there was only ever one World Match Play Championship - and that was the one played at Wentworth." firstname.lastname@example.org