For decades, the Wisconsin State Golf Association match-play championship has been the one event in which the name didn't always fit the format.
Only golfers who reached the Round of 16 were guaranteed to play more golf in the match-play format than they did playing stroke-play qualifying rounds to score one of the 64 berths on the way there. Seriously, it was crazy math.
Take the 2019 championship process, for example.
There were 252 golfers who signed up to play 18 holes of stroke-play qualifying at five sites around the state for the 111 spots available in the main draw of the championship at West Bend Country Club (after 57 exempt golfers had submitted their entries). With 64 match-play spots available in the 168-golfer field via 18 holes of stroke-play qualifying, 39 of those went to golfers who got to West Bend CC via the five qualifiers, meaning they had to play 36 holes of stroke play to play even one round in the match-play format. Moreover, they would also have to survive at least two rounds in the match-play bracket to match the volume of golf that got them there (six did).
By the time all was said and done, the WSGA had 282 golfers trying to play in its state match-play championship and only 64 ever got to play a match (or 23 percent). Of course, under the previous single-elimination format, 32 golfers were sent home after one match, 16 more after a second and so on. In some way, match play was harder to get into than Augusta National.
"Here you had a ton of people (218 in 2019) trying to play in the state match play and never playing one round of match play," said Bill Linneman, the director of rules and competition for the WSGA. "We are following suit – I'd like to say (the idea) is original, but it's not – and taking the route that the PGA Tour took with their World Golf Championship Match Play Championship."
In other words, the WSGA is doing away with any stroke-play competition at the site of its state match-play championship beginning this June at The Club at Strawberry Creek near Kenosha. This year, it will grant exemptions to the top 16 eligible and available golfers from the 2019 WSGA player-of-the-year points standings plus defending champ Benjamin Shafer of Brookfield, who finished the year No. 19 on that list. The remaining 47 spots in the 64-player match-play bracket will be determined by qualifying at five sites statewide.
Whereas stroke play is an aggregate of strokes over 18 holes (or more), match play is a format in which golfers win, lose or halve holes against an opponent in a head-to-head concept that often levels the playing field. What the WSGA has done to tweak its championship is a great change for a great format that gets even better.
Like the PGA Tour's popular WGC Dell Technologies Match Play, each of the 16 four-player groupings will be anchored by one of those 16 exempt golfers off the previous year's player-of-the-year standings. The remaining golfers will be thrown into a hat and randomly drawn Friday, June 19, on a WSGA Selection Show broadcast live via social media to finish off each four-player pod.
"Once the 64 players show up at the state match play, every single one ... is going to be playing three matches – guaranteed," Linneman said, with two matches scheduled for Monday and one more Tuesday morning, with Tuesday afternoon reserved for any sudden-death playoffs to determine pod winners.
"They're going to play each of the other three players in their four-player pod, just as they do on the PGA Tour. Once you've determined who wins each pod over those three rounds, from Wednesday on it's nothing more than the Round of 16 in the state match play as it has always been. It's going to be 16 players, single-elimination right through a bracket (to the championship)."
Golfers will earn one point for a victory and a half-point for a tie in their pod matches. The golfer with the most points advances to the 16-player bracket, with the Round of 16 and quarterfinals Wednesday and the semifinals and finals Thursday with all matches played until a winner is determined.
"We think it will be a good change," Linneman said. "It'll be a tough event to get into in terms of just the numbers. But once you're into it, I have to believe that the 64 players are going to enjoy playing three rounds of match play, guaranteed, even if they lose all three matches."
And, remember, these are amateur golfers. Many, if not most, of them take time off of work to compete in WSGA events and now all 64 qualifiers in 2020 can figure on spending at least a day-and-a-half at Strawberry Creek.
"If you think of the old way, we had 168 players show up and, you could argue, the majority of them didn't know if they were going to need to take off on Tuesday or even Wednesday," Linneman said. "Under the new format, 'Guess what? I'm going to be there Monday all day and Tuesday morning at the very least.' They can set their schedule accordingly.
"In the old format, the runner-up or champion would have played seven rounds total. Guess what? The 2020 state match-play (finalists) are going to play seven rounds total. He's going to play three pod matches, the Round of 16 is one, the quarterfinals are two, the semis is three and if he's the runner-up or champion is four. Four plus three is seven so you're still playing the same number of rounds; it's just all seven rounds are (in) match play."
The change was teased last month when Linneman talked about a 2020 WSGA schedule highlighted by the Wisconsin State Amateur going to iconic Milwaukee Country Club. The WSGA posted a primer on the new format to its Twitter account over the weekend and at least one prominent amateur – 2019 State Am runner-up Phillip Johnson of Colgate – gave it a thumbs-up.
Linneman hopes others are as enthusiastic about the change. They should be. With more than a half-dozen major stroke-play events and qualifiers for golfers of all ages (and even more for juniors and seniors), it makes sense for the WSGA to take the bold step of distinguishing its match-play showcase.
"(WSGA assistant director of rules and competitions) Geoff Pirkl was the one who really pushed for this so I have to give him credit; it's a bold change, but I think it's a great change," Linneman said. "We felt we want to have it be a great experience at Strawberry Creek whether it's the old or new format. We felt this is the right time to do it. It's a new decade, a fantastic host course (suited) ideally for the match-play format.
"At some point, that change was going into effect so why not right away? I have to believe it is going to enhance the experience of playing in the state match play and really brings meaning to the aspect of playing in the state match play."