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Match Play future allows for a fresh start - assuming it even needs fixing

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MARANA, Ariz. - It's easy to love the format at the Match Play Championship on Tuesday.

Opinions can change quickly Wednesday on the way out the door.

Thomas Bjorn flew halfway around the world to La Costa in 2005 just to play 13 holes. He took the next year off with a neck injury, then came all the way to Arizona in 2007 and again lasted only 13 holes.

Tiger Woods won three times. And then there was the year he lost to Peter O'Malley in the opening round, walking from the 17th green all the way to the clubhouse at La Costa with an army of reporters walking behind him, no one saying a word.

There is no such thing as an upset in Match Play. That doesn't mean there aren't 32 guys who are plenty upset when they lose in the first round. They call Ernie Els the "Big Easy." They might as well call him "Heisman" when he loses on Wednesday and sees a reporter approaching.

The do-or-die nature of Match Play is what makes it so compelling to fans — and so maddening to sponsors and fans.

This tournament operates in reverse. Any other event, the drama builds toward the back nine on Sunday. Wednesday is one of the most exciting days in golf at Match Play. Thursday is not far behind. Friday is pretty good, too. On Sunday, there are only two possibilities — one guy wins, one guy loses, and it's like that for four hours.

Now might be the best time for a change.

Accenture is in the final year of a title sponsor. This most likely will be the final year at Dove Mountain. With the never-ending, globe-trotting nature of the golf schedule, there's not even a guarantee the Match Play Championship will be at the end of the West Coast Swing on the PGA Tour.

As one top tour official said, the future of this World Golf Championship is wide open.

The tour is talking to one potential title sponsor, and so much would depend on that. It's not as simple as finding a great golf course to host 64 of the world's best players. The modern era of professional golf is about entertainment, and that includes a company that pays some $10 million a year to entertain clients.

There was chatter about Harding Park, but it was nothing more than that, especially after one potential sponsor was not interested. Colombia is at least in the conversation — the country in South America, not the golf club that hosted the 1921 U.S. Open outside the nation's capital.

Of more interest is the format.

Woods gets all the attention, and rightly so, as the player everyone hates to see leave on Wednesday. That has happened three times (though he didn't leave until Thursday last year because the first round was postponed by snow). And it doesn't help when he has company — three of the top four seeds lost in the first round last year.

The European Tour has a blueprint for its World Match Play Championship — four groups of four players, each playing 18-hole matches, and then players advancing out of those groups. But that's only 16 players. This WGC has 64 players. But if the tournament can move to a 36-hole complex, then there are more options. It's not about the course in match play. You're only trying to beat your opponent.

"You can have lots of fun with it," two-time winner Geoff Ogilvy said. "The format can be better, don't you think? Some guys are there for three hours and you go home. You can see why some guys don't want to go. I've been 5-under on the 14th hole and shaking hands. You're driving home saying, 'How fair is that?' I beat 30 of these guys and I'm going home."

Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els raised the idea of 36 holes of stroke-play qualifying, with the top 32 players advancing to match play. That's how the U.S. Amateur works (it uses two courses). That would keep players around for at least three days, and eliminate some of the luck factor.

"I see nothing wrong with that," McIlroy said.

Lee Westwood is among those — and it's a longer list than some might realize — who like it the way it is. His one beef is the consolation match for third- and fourth-place. The difference is $120,000, along with world ranking points (both important in a Ryder Cup year). But as Westwood points out, the points and money is easily split.

No one cares about the consolation match. It just gives TV something to show between shots of the championship match. One year, the consolation match was moving so slowly that it actually held up the main event.

Woods has lost in every round except the semifinals. Imagine him on the golf course Sunday playing for the third place. Who are the fans following? Who is TV showing?

We won't find out this year. Woods isn't around, and Dove Mountain plays no small part. Woods only saw the weekend one time in Arizona, and that was the year he won. He won't have to worry about that next year as the Match Play is sure to move — at least off the mountain.

As far as changing the format? That would be assuming it's actually broken.

"If you get defeated, you should be packing your bags and going home," Poulter said. "That's how I've always known match play, rather than a round-robin affair where you get a couple of bites of the cherry. The loser should go home. I think it's perfect. I think it's a great format."

He plays the opening match Wednesday against Rickie Fowler.

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