Match Play Primer

Jun 1, 2021

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So, you wake up, 3-day weekend behind you, you're at your desk, full email inbox, but you're curious about this elusive national title that Illini Golf is chasing. You click on IlliniBoard and look, there's an article with everything you need to know. Or, like, here's an article with everything you need to know.

What is match play?

Think Ryder Cup. Instead of playing total strokes, it's one-on-one golf. And it's a bit controversial because the best team almost never wins.

That's a clunky way to say that. I'll say it this way: match play eliminates the best team's ability to win easily. If you've been following golf scores online the last four days, you know how blow-up holes can just destroy a team's (perceived) momentum. Team is rolling along nicely and then someone pumps two in the water and takes an 8 on a par-4. Your team was two strokes ahead and now they're two strokes behind. The teams that avoid blow-ups are the teams that rise to the top of the leaderboard.

But in match play, an 8 is basically a 5. The blowup doesn't cost you four strokes - it just costs you 1 hole. Losing a hole when you make a bogey-5 and your opponent pars the hole is the same as losing a hole when you make a quadruple bogey and your opponent pars. It's just one hole. So in match play, one guy can shoot a 72, the other guy a 77, and the guy who shot a 77 can win if he wins more holes. I'm sure you'll see a match tomorrow where one guy goes par-par-par-par and the other guy goes par-birdie-triple bogey-par and the match is all square. One guy is E and the other guy is +2 but they're tied.

(Worth noting - that player won't really ever get to that triple bogey. If his opponent is lying two on the green and he just finally got onto the green surface with his fifth shot, he'll concede the hole because his opponent could three-putt and still win that hole. But the point is the thing that made these eight teams rise to the top the last four days - consistency - is kind of tossed out the window when 4-3-9-4 is the "same" as 4-3-5-4. You just have to win more holes than your opponent.

Wouldn't the best team still win that most of the time?

You'd think, but that hasn't been the case. The NCAA went to match play in 2009, and only once has the 1-seed won the match play (and that was when Oklahoma State was playing on their home course in 2018). Once you reach the Tuesday-Wednesday match play portion, anything can happen.

Just look at the women's NCAA Championship last week (on this same course). Stanford dominated the stroke play portion of the event. Rachel Heck won the individual title and Stanford was the only team under par. At the end of four days of stroke play, Stanford was -10 and Arizona (the final team to make match play, and only by a single stroke) was +21. According to math, 31 strokes separate the two teams.

So what happens in the 1 vs. 8 match play quarterfinals on Tuesday morning? Arizona beats Stanford 3-2. 31 strokes better than Arizona over four days, out in the first round.

So is Illinois having the 5-seed a good thing or something?

It doesn't really matter. To me, when looking at this bracket, I wanted to avoid Oklahoma State. Illinois has gone head-to-head with OSU a couple times this year (in stroke play) and OSU just dominated. Even though Arizona State is the 1-seed here, I still think OSU is the team to beat. So I'm happy to be on the other side of the bracket.

If you'd like to know the seed that has won match play the last decade, well, here are all the finals (and the match play seeds) since 2011:

2011: Augusta State (7) beat Georgia (5)
2012: Texas (3) beat Alabama (1)
2013: Alabama (3) beat Illinois (5)
2014: Alabama (2) beat Oklahoma State (4)
2015: LSU (7) beat USC (5) - Illinois was the 1-seed this year but lost to USC in the semifinals
2016: Oregon (6) beat Texas (1)
2017: Oklahoma (2) beat Oregon (5)
2018: Oklahoma State (1) beat Alabama (6)
2019: Stanford (6) beat Texas (5)
(No tournament in 2020 due to Covid.)

So the top seed has only reached the final three times (and has only won once). The two-seed has only reached the final twice. So yeah, throw out the seeds.

How has Illinois done in match play?

Glad you asked. I can do this without much research.

2013 was the run to the final. The semifinals were incredible. Illinois was up against #1 Cal (and Cal was not just #1 - they were considered the greatest college team ever and had won like a bazillion tournaments). Illinois took them down in the semifinals with Thomas Pieters (currently #96 in the world) going up against Max Homa (currently #42 in the world) in an epic match. It went to extra holes, and Pieters won in extras, and Illinois moved on to the title match. Illinois then lost to Alabama, led by some sophomore named Justin Thomas, in the final.

2014 was when Illinois barely snuck into the match play. I remember refreshing 150 times at the end of the final round. Illinois snuck in over South Carolina by a single shot. The Illini lost to 1-seed Stanford in the quarterfinals (I want to say it was Patrick Rogers who put the match away?).

2015 was the dominant year. Illinois was #1 most of the season. And Illinois came out of stroke play as the 1-seed, meaning had this been 2008 or any year prior (before match play was put in), Illinois would have won a national title. In the semifinals, Illinois lost to USC. I will forever remember the name Rico Hoey from that match. Freakin' Rico Hoey won the match for USC.

2016 was so very close. Illinois matched up with Oregon in the semifinals (on Oregon's home course) and Charlie Danielson needed a putt on 18 to extend his match. It doesn't just lip out - it horseshoes and rolls back towards him. I'll forever believe that if that putt fell, Charlie D would have won in extras, defeated Oregon, and Illinois, not Oregon, would have won the title the next day.

2017 was the home game. The NCAA's were held at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove. Illinois got revenge on USC in the quarters but lost to eventual champ Oklahoma in the semifinals. The name I curse from that Oklahoma team (for whatever reason): Brad Dalke.

2018 Illinois finished 11th at the NCAA's and missed match play. 2019 was a bottoming out of sorts, with the Illini finishing 28th out of 30 team at the NCAA's. And then 2020 didn't happen.

So how do we match up with Oklahoma?

This one is very interesting. Coming in, Oklahoma was the #1 team in the Golfstat rankings. But Oklahoma barely made the NCAA's, needing a few birdies on 18 at their regional to slide into the 5th spot and qualify as the final team to get in.

Then, at this tournament, Oklahoma's #1 player (Garret Reband) falls apart. 80 players played all four rounds at Grayhawk the last four days (half the teams are cut after the third day), and Reband finished 80th out of those 80. As a result, he's now sent to the bench. Each team brings a sixth guy as their alternate, and Oklahoma is going with their sixth guy instead of Reband tomorrow morning.

Two ways to look at that. On one hand, you kind of wanted to face Reband when he just went 76-75-75-80 on this course. Kinda hate facing the wild card guy instead. On the other hand, the reason Oklahoma was ranked #1 was because Reband was their anchor, and he's not out there, so this isn't really the #1 team we're facing.

If you're into rankings - and golf easily has the best ones because it's just a "who you beat and who you lost to over the course of an entire season" statistic - here's the matchups in the morning (individual player rankings come from Golfstat):

Jonathan Brightwell (20) vs. Giovanni Tadiotto (94)
Patrick Welch (72) vs. Adrien Dumont de Chassart (15)
Logan McCallister (32) vs. Jerry Ji (52)
Quade Cummins (45) vs. Tommy Kuhl (NR)
Ben Lorenz (NR) vs. Michael Feagles (22)

So that's quite interesting, especially when you consider how it was chosen. I confirmed with a guy at the course how the selections work for the coaches, and the higher-seeded team picks first, third, and fifth. So here's how it went:

Oklahoma coach Ryan Hybl led with his main guy (now that Reband is out) - Jonathan Brightwell. Mike Small paired Giovanni Tadiotto with him (interesting). Then Small puts up ADdC and Hybl counters with the guy who hasn't played this week, Patrick Welch. Then Hybl puts up Logan McCallister and Small counters with Jerry Ji (that's probably the most even matchup). Small puts up Tommy Kuhl and Oklahoma's Hybl has a choice. Put his unranked guy (Lorenz) against our unranked guy (Kuhl), or put one of his best players against Kuhl and let Lorenz take on our best (Michael Feagles, who just finished 4th in the chase for the individual title)? He chose to go with Cummins against Kuhl, putting his only unranked guy (Lorenz) against Feagles.

This match tees off at 9:10 am CDT tomorrow, so it occurs to me that you might have plowed through 35 emails and then took a break around 10:00 to read IlliniBoard. Well, if that's the case, get thee to this link. If it's 10:00 am, the matches are already underway.


illini_dave34 on June 1, 2021 @ 01:43 AM

Thank you!

IBFan on June 1, 2021 @ 07:32 AM

Thanks Robert!

firet92 on June 1, 2021 @ 08:13 AM

Go Low!

O&B4life on June 1, 2021 @ 09:00 AM

Nice summary. The other thought I had is match-play neutralizes one dominant player (ie shooting 8 shots better than everyone else) that could potentially carry a team to the title. Now would be just 1 win (of 3 needed) in match play. But also neutralizes the one poor player that could really hurt a team's score.

escot on June 2, 2021 @ 03:36 PM

Does match play encourage golfers to take riskier shots? If you put one in the water, it only affects the current hole, so it seems like it's more worth it to go for your shots in match play.

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