SEC men switch to match play for conference championship

Golfweek/Tracy Wilcox

SEC men switch to match play for conference championship

Men

SEC men switch to match play for conference championship

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the April 10, 2017 digital issue of Golfweek

The NCAA in 2009 moved to match play to decide its national men’s golf champion, and the women switched from stroke play to match play in 2015. With the format lending itself to more teams having a chance to win and the event being televised, the championship has garnered more attention.

However, the format has not funneled down to many conference championships, where the head-to-head format would seem to be more compelling with built-in rivalries. Match play could possibly attract a larger onsite audience, and sites would geographically be more easily accessible for many fans to enjoy the format than is the national championship.

Only two conferences out of the 31 leagues that have an automatic qualifier into the postseason have used match play to determine their men’s champion. None of the women’s conferences have converted. Conference USA was the first and is in its third season with men’s match play. The Sun Belt is in its second year using the format for men. No member from either of those leagues have advanced to match play at the men’s NCAA Championship.

Now, add one more conference to that list willing to try match play. The SEC men will use match play at their conference championship April 21-24 at Sea Island Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Ga.

“We wanted to have a championship that replicates our NCAA Championship,” Vanderbilt coach Scott Limbaugh said. “That’s really the reason behind making the change. Our conference has had a good bit of success at NCAAs, and all of our coaches love the match-play experience. I think the student athletes love it as well.

“It will definitely be different at Sea Island next month, and I am sure some will miss the old format because we have always had worthy champions, but this is a move that will benefit everyone.”

The SEC format includes 54 holes of stroke play the first two days with the top eight teams in the 12-team league advancing to match play the final two days. This format closely mirrors the NCAA Championship – the only difference is 18 fewer holes of stroke-play qualifying and two fewer days of competition.

Eight years ago, following the men’s NCAA Championship at Inverness Golf Club in Toledo, Ohio, there was much speculation match play would be seen more often in the regular season, but that hasn’t happened much, largely because of time. A college tournament can last three days with 18 holes each day, and if there are 18 teams in that event that equals 17 head-to-head competitions using stroke play. At most, match play could tally five or six head-to-head matches in that time span.

There have been a handful of match-play events in the regular season, and some of those used stroke-play qualifying as well, but it was done more just to get a feel for the format rather than becoming a norm.

The conference championship seems like a logical place to experiment more with the format. As long as NCAA champions are determined by match play, more conferences likely will make the switch.

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