GOLF; Is match play the answer?

With few exceptions, professional golf is a game of medal rather than match play. That means a player's finish is most often determined by one's total score for all rounds rather than on the basis of hole-to-hole competition against a single opponent. What's needed in pro golf, a friend proclaimed recently, is more of the latter.

The men's tour in particular has been searching for ways to instill new interest in the sport, which has seen its TV ratings drop 30 percent since 1975. Chip Campbell, the PGA Tour's director of communications, has said, "No [pro] sport can survive appealing only to participants," so golf, with a relatively small participation base of 15 million players, needs to hook more outsiders. Having selected pros wear TV microphones, adding message boards to the course, keeping statistics a la baseball, and other gimmicky attempts to attract new fans aren't bearing much fruit, so maybe the drama of match play is part of the answer.

Of course tournament organizers would cringe at the thought of losing a gate attraction in the early going, although tennis has survived with this situation. With medal play, advocates argue, big name stars often "live to see another day" after a shaky round. If they make the cut, the galleries can catch them in action even though they're out of contention. Medal play also leaves the door open to making a comeback and winning, allows for a more compact tournament format, and spreads out the crowd over 18 holes. (Can you imagine 30,000 spectators trying to follow Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus around the entire course in match play?)

Still, match play has merit, and the head-to-head competition it affords needs to be brought into the pro game in one way or another.

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