Men golfers swing into new season with rare match play event

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Hollywood has staged many a shoot-out in these parts. The mountainous desert provided a dramatic backdrop as one cowboy faced down another. Now comes a different sort of Western showdown, featuring golfers instead of gunslingers.

The 1984 PGA tour opens here with the new million dollar Seiko-Tucson Match Play Championships. The tournament replaces the Tucson Open and will be played at Randolph Park Golf Course the week of Jan. 2-8.

Actually it is two tournaments in one, uniquely enough. An 128-man field from the regular tour makes up one bracket, while the senior tour will play its own 24-man runoff. The two winners will be rewarded with $100,000 each.

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The event marks the return of match play to the tour after an absence of more than 10 years.

''Match play is great,'' says Tom Kite, ''because that's what most weekend golfers play. For a long time we've needed to develop different formats to attract fans and this is a positive step.''

In a somewhat controversial move, Kite and seven other top qualifiers off the Seiko season points list have been seeded all the way into Saturday's round of 16. The next eight players drew byes into the second round.

To advance even as far as the top eight, an unranked player will have to win four matches. Then to win the tournament, he'd have to make it through two more matches, Saturday and again Sunday . . . an unlikely possibility at best.

''It may not be the most equitable format, but it's the best we can come up with right now,'' says Kite. ''The cold reality is that people want to watch the main players, in person and on television. This format rewards the best players on a points system that ran all year and encourages a strong field in the final matches.''

The ESPN network will telecast the last three days of the week-long festivities.

In addition to Kite, all the other seven top-seeded players have entered: Fuzzy Zoeller, Hal Sutton, Lanny Wadkins, Cal Peete, Gil Morgan, Ben Crenshaw, and Tom Watson.

Says Watson, the reigning British Open Champion, ''I've always been an advocate of match play. It's the original way golf was played and a great change of pace from the stroke play we see 40 weeks a year on tour.

''In match play, I have to use different strategy than in stroke play, where every shot counts. Many times in match play, the play of my opponent tells me when to be aggressive and when not to be. If he's in trouble, I play safely. If I'm in trouble, I play more aggressively.''

In head-to-head golf, the course becomes less a factor than the personality of the opponent. Walter Hagen, a master showman, won the PGA championship five times when it was contested at match play.

Hagen delighted in delicate little mind games that can spice match play. He would concede short putts early in a match, for instance. Then at a critical late juncture, he would surprise his unsuspecting opponent by making him putt a short one.

Sam Snead once said he preferred match play because he could look his opponent in the eyes and tell everything he needed to know about him.

At the least, a match play tournament should get the 1984 tour off to a refreshing start, even if it looks to be designed more as a grand finale to a recently concluded 1983 season that could use one. No one dominated golf in 1983 .

For the first time ever, no player won more than two tournaments. Winning twice were Sutton, Zoeller, Wadkins, Peete, Morgan, fast-improving Mark McCumber , Jim Colbert, and Spain's Seve Ballesteros, who won't be in Tucson but will be playing the United States tour as a regular in '84 for the first time.

Who would have guessed that none of the following players would attain a tour title in '83: Jack Nicklaus (who is expected to bypass the match play), Watson, Ray Floyd, Craig Stadler, and Jerry Pate.

Floyd had the lowest stroke average, but was only 20th on the money list, Nicklaus became the first to earn more than $4 million in his career, Watson the second to exceed $3 million, and Peete, the first black to make $1 million.

Sutton, winning a major championship (the PGA) and a near-major (the Tournament Players Championship) in only his second season, was the Player of the Year in an unfocused year.

All of that, of course, was at stroke play. If Hollywood will move over, its time now for match play, golfer against golfer at high noon.

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