Stroke Play Has No Match

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

T. Bert Lance

 

I’ll admit right off the bat that I may be in the minority on this one. I am not a fan of the NCAA golf championships match play format. There, I said it.

 

Believe it or don’t, with the exception of WWI, schools have been competing for an NCAA title in men’s golf since 1897 (Yale won 13 of the first 20) using the time-honored, team stroke play format. After more than 100 years somebody decided that format was broken and needed fixing. So in 2009 a championship long decided by shooting, then adding up, scores changed to “all I need to do is be better than you for one hole.” The event went from stroke play to match play. It was such a good idea that the NCAA didn’t adopt this fix for women’s teams (competing since 1982) until 2015. The championship wasn’t broken but they decided to fix it anyway.

 

No other NCAA championship, played as a team sport all season long, is suddenly decided in such individualistic fashion. Tennis? Nope; Track and Field? Sorry. Those sports crown national champions after having schools compete in the same format over which they competed to qualify for a great big trophy. Not golf. Not anymore. In fact, from what I could deduce from the websites of the two schools that faced off in the National Championship final match yesterday, Arizona State didn’t play in any match play tournaments all year. And while Northwestern competed in a few “one offs” neither team’s conference championship was decided in that fashion. Nor should they have been, and neither should the National Championship.

 

North Carolina’s NCAA basketball title wasn’t decided by a one on one dunk contest followed by a point guard “dribble off”. The Clemson football team did not take home the championship because Deshaun Watson beat Jalen Hurts in a 40 yard dash. Or the Tiger’s right tackle held his block one second longer than his Crimson Tide counterpart. Each team won a team title by playing together as a team. The same way they had done it all year long. Neither sport changed the rules of the competition because CBS or ESPN made them. And that’s what this fix actually comes down to… TV and, of course, greed.

 

The NCAA wanted its golf championships back on television (they were televised, playing the traditional team stroke play format; men playing on one golf course, women on a different one, years ago) and the only way any TV network would agree to do it was if they changed the format to one more simple and easier to broadcast (match play) and made the women as well as the men compete on the same venue. “Done,” said the governing body selling its soul and selling out the student athletes. So for the last three years what was an exciting team event that saw athletes compete over 72 holes, hitting shots, counting strokes, all with the hope of helping a team win a championship has become a slog fest where 17, 18 and 19 year olds take forever to hit shots that may or may not matter and fail to show enough common courtesy to concede 10 inch putts. To make it all even more absurd the individual title is still decided by stroke play and so are the insignificant, match play seedings. Teams were ranked 1 through 8 based on stroke play scores over three days at Rich Harvest farms; not by how a team competed and fared over the course of an entire season. So while Northwestern claimed the top spot they could have just as easily been number 4 or 8, or not even in the match play portion at all.

 

Thanks to Mother Nature this year even that was rendered even more meaningless because an entire round was lost to weather even though plenty of golf could have been played the day play was cancelled. Plenty, but not enough. Not enough to avoid extending the championship an extra day thus upsetting a television schedule that has the men competing the day after the women finish. Heaven forbid they actually crown a national champion after a full 72 holes of competition. Remember that great Notre Dame football team that was crowned after 3 quarters? Neither do I. Not to mention this new world order put the women at a distinct disadvantage by making them play a golf course, under weather conditions, that was too big, too brutish, too unconducive to produce consistently good golf. Like many things; this thing has been compromised by television. The athletes and the viewers are not better off because of it.

 

But many will say all that’s worth it because of the excitement this format generates. Not me. And no matter how many times you replay a handful of screeching teammates you won’t get me to change my mind.

About Keith Hirshland

My name is Keith Hirshland and I am a four decades television veteran who has spent time both in front of and behind the camera. During nearly forty years in broadcasting my path has crossed in front of, behind and alongside some of the best in the business... And some of the worst. Many of those people I count as friends while others wouldn't make the effort to spit on me if I was on fire. This television life started early watching my Mom and Dad found, fund and run a local affiliate TV station in Reno, Nevada. As a teenager approaching adulthood I worked for them, first as an on-air sports reporter/anchor and later as a director and producer. Jobs in the industry took me across the country and then to many places around the world. Sports is my passion and putting it on TV has been my business. Production credits include auto racing, baseball, basketball, bowling, college football, field hockey, soccer, volleyball and water polo but the majority of my time "in the chair" since 1990 has been invested in the game of golf with both ESPN and The Golf. Channel ( I was one of the first forty people hired by TGC in 1994 ). I am a fan and I watch TV sports as a fan but I also have hundreds of thousands of hours watching from inside a production truck. I think that makes me qualified to comment, my hope is you agree. I have written two books, Cover Me Boys, I'm Going In (Tales of the Tube from a Broadcast Brat), a memoir that is a tribute to my parents, the hard working, creative people who started ESPN2 and The Golf Channel and a look back at my life in television. My second book is a novel, Big Flies, and is a mystery that tells the story of a father and a son with four of the world's most notorious unsolved robberies as a backdrop. I look forward to sharing new thoughts about golf, golf television, sports in general and the broadcast industry with you. The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They are not connected to nor endorsed by any other person, association, company or organization.
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