Match Play at Harding Park is test of character 

click to enlarge The World Golf Championships Cadillac Match Play comes to TPC Harding Park on Tuesday.
  • The World Golf Championships Cadillac Match Play comes to TPC Harding Park on Tuesday.
San Francisco? Herb Caen’s cool, gray city of love? Rudyard Kipling’s town of mad people? Golf capital of the universe? Indeed, all of the above.

Last week, it was the ladies at Lake Merced Golf Club, the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic. Thanks, girls, you were great, and mostly, in this place of wind and chill, so was the weather. Please, no reference to the comment Mark Twain never made, that the coldest winter he ever spent was, well, enough already.

Now the men get their star turn, in the World Golf Championships Cadillac Match Play at TPC Harding Park, a mile or so from Lake Merced. Lydia Ko departs. Justin Spieth, Rory McIlroy and that venerable guy with the bizarre backswing but wonderful achievements, Jim Furyk, arrive. Match play is when golf is like boxing without literal punches. When you play head-to-head, hole-by-hole.

When a 10 on a hole may not hurt you any more than a 5 and your cumulative score isn’t worth anything.

When you’re eliminated if you’re further behind than holes remaining, thus a score may be 3 and 2, 3 up with two holes unplayed.

Then again, this WGC Cadillac isn’t pure match play. Until the fourth day. It was a philosophical, and quite talented, Irishman named Joe Carr, a three-time winner of the British Amateur, who said out, “Stroke play is a better test of golf, but match play is a better test of character.”

Meaning that when some guy who can’t hit out of his own shadow knocks in a snaking 40-foot putt to get you 1 down, we’ll find out how you respond. If it’s like the Warriors, when they were behind 20 to the New Orleans Pelicans. Then you’re mentally tough, a champion.

That said, this event is trying something new, mainly because through the years, the golfer seeded No. 64, or last in the field determined by the world golf rankings, occasionally eliminates the guy seeded first, as was the case in 2002 when Peter O’Malley of Australia beat Tiger Woods.

Those billboards, those TV and newspaper ads? Hello, sweetheart. Give me rewrite. How are we going to get fans when the names are missing? Not a problem for the Cadillac.

The 64 pros are placed in 16 groups of four — Spieth, the No, 2 seed, is with Lee Westwood, 27, Matt Every, 41, and Mikko Ilonen, 68 — and starting Wednesday, they each play a match a day against one of the other three. Instead of going home — you mean United doesn’t fly from San Francisco to Finland? — the loser goes on.

After Friday, the golfer in each pod with the most wins advances to the quarterfinals, which are at classic, old-fashioned, unmodified, “Tough luck, kid” match play. If McIlroy, Spieth, Sergio Garcia and defending champ Jason Day get bounced then, well, at least they had time to find Harding can put its best fog forward.

Furyk, who two weekends ago won the first time in 100 starts, taking the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head, knows Harding. And knows the Olympic Club across the way. It was there, in 2012, en route to trying to win a second U.S, Open, he hooked his drive behind a tree on the par-five 16th. The hole had been reduced 100 yards in length for the final round, and Furyk attempted to hit a hybrid wood instead of a driver. “I didn’t close the door,” he recalled, all but staring toward Olympic, a half-mile away. Furyk will open the door to the modified match-play format, if not fully. “Have to see how it works,” he said. “I understand what they’re trying to do.”

They’re trying to keep the big guys, the headliners, around. Tiger and Phil Mickelson aren’t entered, so losing, say, McIlroy and Spieth in an instant would remind us why for so long the PGA Tour didn’t like match play.

John Daly, the wild thing, isn’t around either, but one of his comments when the WGC American Express Championship was held at Harding in 2005 has a very long shelf life.

Daly lost a playoff to Woods that week, and he was told during the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club that Harding was used to park cars. “They should have had the U.S. Open at Harding,” he said, “and parked cars on Olympic.”

A diplomat he’s not. Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com. Email him at typoes@aol.com.

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Art Spander

Art Spander

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Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.bleacherreport.com. Email him at typoes@aol.com.
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