Golf needs more match play and the Ryder Cup's wildest shot proves it
Words by Travis Hill Art by Geoffrey Cunningham
Light / Dark
The milk bottles could be heard clanging from way off the green. Fred Robson eyed his putt on the fourth hole, then looked over to where all that racket was coming from. Gene Sarazen, the other member of his group, was in a refreshment stand with his caddie and the offending bottles, staring down at his ball, which he had somehow hooked in there. The rules were different back then, including no free relief from man-made obstacles. Were this a standard, stroke-play event, Sarazen would be facing a situation where the shots could pile up higher than the hot dogs in the refrigerator that sat in the way of his backswing. It would require some cautious action to manage.
But this was match play in the 1931 Ryder Cup, and damned if that refreshment stand didn’t have an open window facing the green. Which meant Sarazen and his caddie had a refrigerator to move.
Stroke play is and will remain the preferred format to decide golf’s champions. From major championships to member-guests, it is generally agreed that it’s the ideal way to determine an event’s best player. It rewards consistency, ironing out the game’s capricious nature to produce a winner.
You know what else stroke play can eliminate? The fun. Good fortune, rotten luck, tree branches, cart paths, wild animals and even the occasional appliance are all part of our beloved game, and match play celebrates it all. As Bernard Darwin—a noted match-play stud himself—wrote in his 1955 book The World That Fred Made, “These matches aroused a genuine patriotic excitement very different from the languid interest in which we now read in the newspaper of the winner of the Sausage Maker’s tournament.”
Match play has delivered some of professional golf’s most indelible moments. From Justin Leonard’s bomb at Brookline to Rory McIlroy’s mighty roars at Hazeltine, match play at the Ryder Cup rarely fails to deliver. Somebody should make a movie about Suzann Pettersen’s spine-tingling, tear-jerking heroics at the 2019 Solheim Cup. And it may now be legally required for every person who wins big ever again to taunt their opponent by bringing up Tiger Woods’ famous 9&8 demolition of Stephen Ames.
The lone match-play event on the PGA Tour’s schedule is not returning for 2024, which is a tragedy. Players like Jon Rahm recognize what the game will lose.
“As a player, it’s just an opportunity to play a different kind of golf, right?” Rahm said earlier this year at the 2023 WGC Dell Technologies Match Play event. “It’s really the only time throughout the year, besides maybe the Ryder Cup, where you’re playing truly against the person in front of you, which is much more relatable to every sport we play in the world. Usually [on Tour], it’s very much about you minding your own business and hopefully beating the other 150 players in the field. [Match play is] fun. It’s a lot more aggressive. You see more birdies. You see a lot of things happen.”
Indeed, some of the strangest things on a golf course have happened in match play. “How about a dude dropping golf balls out of a plane versus a golfer?” said Connor T. Lewis, who runs the Society of Golf Historians.
I asked how that could even work.
“Well, the airman won handily,” he said of the 1930 match played in the U.K. “And don’t ask me about the particulars, because I have no clue how the pilot did it. He did shoot 29, though. Probably the course record!”
I had asked Lewis about some of his favorite match-play scenarios, and he didn’t even need to consult his extensive archives. He began rattling all kinds of crazy matches off the top of his head.
“Your pickings will be plush,” he said happily, then launched into a story about how Young Tom Morris once faced off against one of Britain’s most celebrated archers. In the late 1860s or early 1870s, Young Tom, four-time Open champion and one of the game’s great pioneers, played his usual game while the archer took to the skies and holed out by shooting quivers into each hole.
“I wish I could tell you that Young Tommy won,” Lewis said, “but he did not. He was defeated by the air game.”
Lewis and I share a love for the antics and brilliance of Walter Hagen; some historians consider the Haig, who won five of his 11 major titles at the PGA Championship back when it was a match-play event, the sport’s greatest head-to-head player. He was a master of match play’s dark arts, becoming a rich man by winning an untold number of high-profile, big-money matches throughout his career. But in 1941, he couldn’t beat a guy playing with a shovel and a rake.
John “Mysterious” Montague was a golfer/hustler who toured the country for decades conning people out of their honest money. George Von Elm, who defeated Bobby Jones in the 1926 U.S. Amateur, once called Montague the world’s greatest golfer. (“To be fair,” Lewis said, “Von Elm really disliked Jones, so that might have also been a shot across the bow.”) In 1941, Hagen agreed to play Montague in a nine-hole match at Breezy Point Golf Course in Minnesota. Hagen was allowed to use his full bag, while Montague toted his gardening tools. They went back and forth, finally ending in a draw, both shooting 33 along the way. Knowing that neither man ever missed an angle, Lewis suspects that while no one claimed victory, both walked away with pockets full of cash.
Listen, I’m not asking to turn the U.S. Open into a survive-and-advance affair. But one of the reasons we all love the U.S. Amateur is because of its match-play finish. And golf, as a whole, would benefit from the pro ranks adding even a little more match play. Another heads-up event at the highest levels would be a blast. Who wouldn’t watch teams of PGA and LPGA stars battle it out? Closer to home, match play at the muni is always more fun than battling par.
Because what if Gene Sarazen was just trying to protect a number at Scioto Country Club in Columbus back in 1931? Well, he might not have moved those milk bottles and that fridge. He might not have grabbed his mashie niblick and taken aim through that window 6 feet off the concrete floor. And he certainly wouldn’t have executed one of the greatest shots of his life, pitching the ball to a mere 7 feet from the cup. Poor Fred Robson might not have three-putted, been forced to watch Sarazen make his putt to actually win the hole, then go on to get whipped, 8&7. No sausage maker’s stroke-play tourney could ever top that.