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Rory McIlroy knows full well how mercurial match play results can be.
Rory McIlroy knows full well how mercurial match play results can be.

Golf match play an unpredictable pairing of expectation and results

Compared to the stroke-play format, match play can be a road to early oblivion. That is largely what makes it so fascinating when served in digestible bits, writes Steve Elling, but the format has its downside.

Every year, for those who speak some Spanish, it is good for a chuckle during the drive to the remote Dove Mountain resort and the Accenture Match Play Championship, in Arizona.

A route which crosses the main thoroughfare to the desert course is a road named El Camino de Manana.

It translates to "The Highway of Tomorrow".

The amusing part is, in match play, tomorrow is never assured.

Compared to the stroke-play format, with 72 holes of positioning over four days, match play can be a road to early oblivion, which is largely what makes it so fascinating when served in digestible bits.

It has its downside.

It is the only format in golf where, by design, the plot thins as the week progresses.

Fans buying tickets are not guaranteed their favourite players will survive the opening round of head-to-head play which, in this instance, was Wednesday.

By the weekend, the swelling gallery is following the last remaining groups, and sight lines are blocked. Relative unknowns have played for the title with few viewers at home or along the ropes.

But once or twice a year, it can be delectable.

Every hole is a mini-tournament, with strategy changes on the fly, escalating tension and the niggling issue of when to concede putts.

Upsets are common.

The 64-man bracket is seeded according to world rankings, but over the 14 years of the event, the lower-seeded player has won 38 per cent of the first-round matches, not to mention 47 and 64 per cent of the battles in the second round and finals, respectively.

The Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said: "When they tee it up, there isn't a dime's worth of difference between these players in world-ranking points."

Or in their results.

In tennis, the foursome of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal have won 31 of the past 32 grand slam titles, but 18 holes of match play in golf is impossible to handicap.

In 2011, the former world No 1 Luke Donald won, having never trailed all week.

Last year, he became the fourth defending champion to be dispatched in the first round.

Rory McIlroy made it to the final last year, during his spring ascent to world No 1. A year earlier, he was shredded by Ben Crane in the second round, losing 9 and 8 in a match that took about two hours.

Moments after the Crane pounding, McIlroy was greeted in the clubhouse driveway by his manager and a pair of reporters. It was noted that, on the plus side, at least he had finished in time for lunch.

"You mean in time for breakfast," McIlroy said with a laugh.

It is all part of the unpredictable allure of match play.



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