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(Match) Play's the thing: Golf at its best

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Commentary: Accenture Match Play Championship

(Match) Play's the thing: Golf at its best

Match play may not be every professional golfer’s, or every golf fan’s, favorite way to structure a tournament.

For one thing the contestants at the Accenture World Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain this week are not just from North America; they have come here from every corner of the planet; England, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Thailand, Spain, Scandinavia, Japan and Australia. Can you imagine flying halfway around the world, playing golf for three hours, losing your match and being done? No chance to improve on Day Two, like you can in stroke play, and be back in the mix.

For the fans, to see Tiger or Rory lose on Wednesday, Day One, and be gone from the tournament is certainly disappointing.

But what match play can offer is one-on-one drama and gritty competitive suspense that is often missing in stroke play tournaments. On Friday a relatively small number of fans, something like a thousand, were treated to the very best that match play has to offer.

Jim Furyk, a local fan favorite because of his time spent at the UA, and Bubba Watson, a fan favorite because of his unique talent, went 22 holes in an increasingly dramatic match that held fans spellbound, especially over the last five or six holes.

It was such a perfect pairing. Both of these guys are as different from each other as you can find on the PGA Tour. While both are incredibly talented—Furyk has won the U.S. Open and Bubba is the defending Master’s champion—they approach the game, and bring to it, a clash of styles that argue against the oft-stated maxim that professional golfers are robotic clones, indistinguishable from one another.

Furyk, for all his talent, is a stoic, never-give-up, extremely serious, detail-oriented grinder. When watching Furyk you can almost see the stress and intense concentration rise off of him like heat waves.

Bubba brings a much looser, emotional, let’s-have-some-fun, rip-it-down-the-fairway-and-see-what-happens approach to the game.

You just can’t even imagine Furyk teeing it up with a pink driver.

Friday afternoon, Furyk was one down on the last hole and most likely needed a birdie to tie and extend the match. They each hit good drives and stood in the fairway looking at lengthy shots to an elevated green with a pin tucked into an area that, for them, must have been hidden from view. Bubba hit an approach to within six feet, an astonishing shot that electrified the crowd surrounding the 18th green. It looked like the match was over.

Furyk immediately followed with a shot that hopped once and stopped just over four feet from the hole. It felt like the crowd was stunned. There was moment of stammering silence before they erupted, almost in disbelief.

Furyk got his birdie. Bubba missed his putt and they went into overtime. The grinder had, almost by force of will, tied it up.

The tension built as they traded pars and birdies for three holes until, on the short, tricky par-4 fourth, Bubba finally won it with a routine par after Furyk’s approach spun off the front of the green and he was unable to get it up and down.

As Furyk lined up the 15-footer he needed to extend the match, a thousand exhausted fans lining the nearby fairway and surrounding the green were completely silent.

The only sound you could hear were two male cactus wrens, hidden in the nearby desert vegetation, trying to out-sing each other. The sun came out from behind a cloud and every one of those fans, with everything they had, was willing the putt to drop.

That it didn’t was, for everyone but Furyk, almost beside the point. It was match play at its best and it was more than obvious that every person standing there in silence would be back another day.

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