The PGA FedEx Cup playoff opener goes from stroke play to match play

Golf’s version of the playoffs began last week. It seems every sport now has some kind of playoff system including Nascar, which will start theirs after races at Darlington and Richmond.

As for the PGA Tour, golfers competed for positions throughout the course of the year. The top ones played at the Northern Trust in New York. The numbers will be reduced as the playoffs move forward. A champion will be crowned at the Tour Championship in Atlanta in three weeks.

Like most events on the Tour, the playoffs are stroke play events. The Northern Trust became a match play event however, as Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth went to the 17th tee tied at the top. No one else had a chance, so it was the equivalent of match play to the end.

Now I like to watch match play because it is different. In stroke play a golfer mainly competes against the course trying to post the lowest number possible. In match play many decisions are made based on what your opponent is doing. It leads to some great shots and also to some very disappointing ones. For sure, it will be entertaining.

Most amateurs that play the game do so in some form of stroke play. I haven’t played match play since I was in a league. One of the funniest moments I have experienced on a golf course took place in a match play format.

I was playing in a foursome though my opponent was Mike Arbogast. By the time we reached the seventh green it was neck and neck. Long Tall Arby is what we called him to differentiate between him and his shorter brother. Now Long Tall and I have had our problems reaching the green and I am trying to figure out how many strokes he has taken thus far as that may determine whether I will lag my shorter putt.

As he is getting ready to putt, I can’t stand it any longer. I need to know if this putt is for par or bogey or what. So I asked him a sensible question: “Arby, what are you putting for?”

He quickly turned around and quipped: “Because it’s my turn!”

I had trouble even hitting my putt as I was laughing the rest of the round.

Match play leads to moments like this and now I get to watch two of the best golfers in the world go head to head for at least a couple of holes.

Johnson has the honors on the 17th tee, a par 3 that is playing a buck seventy something. A lengthy hole for Long Tall and me, relatively short for the pros. The shot calls for a slight fade to a pin located on the right side of the green. The “can’t” make mistake is to go right and find the greenside bunker. Johnson does exactly that — advantage Spieth.

All Jordan has to do is hit the center of the green and he will likely leave the green with a 1-shot lead. So what does Spieth do? He promptly follows Johnson into the sand! I told you, match play brings out the best and worst in a golfer.

Spieth has the tougher of the two bunker shots and leaves himself a 20-foot downhill par putt with a break. Johnson, not known for stellar bunker play, hits a good one — three feet below the hole — advantage Johnson.

So naturally Spieth rolls in his “you can’t make this” putt. Johnson reciprocates and the score is still tied heading to the 18th. Johnson slices his drive into some nasty rough and Spieth finds the fairway. DJ decides to layup because going over the green cannot happen under any circumstances. Again all Spieth needs to do is hit the center of the green and he is a likely winner.

Spieth’s approach is a near shank and he finds himself off the putting surface some 60 feet away from the pin with a nasty big breaking putt. Johnson however is still a wedge away back in the fairway. When he hits to 20 feet the stage is set. If Spieth can get up and down he is probably going to win.

His putt from off the green is a good one. The ball cozies up to within a foot and a half.

Can you say advantage Spieth? Now Johnson has to make it to force a playoff in this playoff. He does just that. Maybe there is no such thing as an advantage in match play.

On the same 18th hole in the playoff, Johnson mashes his drive. He is near the same spot he was in moments earlier only this time in one. He hits his wedge within three feet and makes it for the win.

This was great TV watching at least in part because of the match play feeling. I think I need to set up a match play round of golf as they are so much fun to play in. Hey Long Tall, what are you doing this week?

Al Stephenson is the golf columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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