It has been seven years since conversations began about introducing match play at the men’s NCAA Championship. For the women, that should have been the first sign that this might be something coaches should prepare for – or at the very least, think about.
Even after match play was introduced in 2009, to much excitement as Texas A&M defeated Arkansas to win the national title, a survey of the top 50 women’s coaches revealed that they wanted no part of match play at their championship. After a roundtable discussion a week ago at the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship in Fort Wayne, Ind., involving college coaches and the NCAA Women’s Golf Championship Committee, those thoughts haven’t changed much.
“I feel like we’re not broken,” said USC head coach Andrea Gaston, whose team won the 2013 NCAA Championship.
The current championship format – 72 holes of stroke play – certainly isn’t broken, but some argue that the current format is not good for television and hard for fans to follow. One of the major reasons the men made the format change was to make the NCAA Championship more attractive for television. That was not something the women seemed concerned about, and certainly not a reason to reconstruct the format of their championship.
With the announcement a little over a year ago that the NCAA Championships would be held at the same site in 2015 – The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla. – and televised by The Golf Channel, the women’s side should have seen the writing on the wall. If the men were playing match play and the women playing stroke play, it likely would confuse the casual golf fan.
At the root of it all, it’s hard to argue that television won’t be a good thing for college golf which gets very little attention as it is. But how much of a difference will it make?
“Is it going to help grow our sport? That’s an unanswered question,” Gaston said.
It can’t hurt, but is it the right thing to do when it is a format that is rarely used? Last year, less than 1 percent of all men’s regular-season events featured match play.
Coaches on the women’s side may not be totally against it – it could be the perception that they weren’t consulted about the change or involved in the process.
“I don’t like the fact that we were told this is what’s going to happen,” Vanderbilt head coach Greg Allen said. “I wish we’d had more of a say.”
Gaston agrees: “Felt we (coaches) weren’t at all involved with the process. That’s the thing that’s disappointing.”
Still, the women had the benefit of watching as the men transitioned to match play. They saw what worked and what didn’t while their national championship remained unchanged. If change is inevitable, then selecting the right format is a key factor in making it work. In that case, the women had an opportunity that the men didn’t.
My recommendation for a national-championship format for women’s golf would start with 72 holes of stroke play to determine an individual champion and the four teams that would advance to match play. Then again, I’d also like to see the men take on this format. The only downside is fewer teams make it to match play, which eliminates the possibilities of that Cinderella story.
According to what coaches were told, the committee will recommend the same format the men will use. That means the women did not get to benefit from what they witnessed with the men.
Then again, we aren’t trying to manufacture March Madness in college golf, or are we? The goal has always been to see the best teams go head-to-head, and 72 holes of stroke play certainly should determine those teams, as well as a worthy individual champion.
Where are we now? The NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Committee will submit to the NCAA Championship/Sports Management Cabinet a recommendation that match play be incorporated into the 2015 NCAA Championship. This will be reviewed at a meeting in September, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t pass.
The suggested format is identical to the format the men will use next year – one that has never been used. There were three significant changes to the men’s championship that will go into effect at the 2014 event.
• A fourth round of stroke play has been added to the championship as an individual-only day. The top 40 players and ties will play that fourth round to determine an individual champion. This day follows three previous rounds of stroke-play qualifying, at which point the match-play bracket of eight teams will be determined.
• The quarterfinal and semifinal matches will once again be played on the same day. This is how it was played in 2009, but that format was immediately changed for 2010. At the last four championships, teams have played just one match per day.
• The tournament schedule will be changed so that college golf will have the spotlight during the three days of match play. Stroke-play qualifying will begin on a Friday and completed on Sunday, and the next three days will be televised.
Another recommendation the committee is making, unrelated to the championship, is the creation of a fourth regional site. Each regional would consist of 18 teams and six individuals, with the top six teams advancing and the top three individuals not on one of those teams also advancing. Seventy-two teams still would advance to the postseason.
South Carolina head coach Kalen Anderson prefers match play, but will deal with any changes.
“I hate to see it change to match play, I like it as stroke play,” Anderson said. “The Golf Channel’s involvement in promoting women’s golf is definitely a positive. It’s a different compromise. We will adapt and move on.”
The NCAA Women’s Championship rarely results in an underdog winner. This format certainly opens the door for a non-favorite to have a better chance, which should make it more popular among the majority of coaches. It also nearly guarantees more excitement.
I have always suggested the women’s game was about 15 years behind the men in many areas. It appears that time has almost been cut in half with this subject. I just wonder what both championships will look like in seven or eight more years?