Monday, April 10, 2006

Next Year's Masters: Match Play Between Tiger & Phil

Yesterday Phil Mickelson won his second green jacket with a two-stoke victory at the Masters. Mickelson replaced Tiger Woods as champion, with Tiger having captured his fourth title at Augusta National last year. Knowing that one or the other will inevitably triumph next year, tournament officials have made a ground-breaking decision. Only Phil and Tiger will be invited to the 2007 Masters, with the title to be decided by match play.

The two players have combined for the past three Masters championships and five of the last six. Tiger and Phil look like shopping buddies, as they take turns putting green jackets on the other. Still, the decision to include only those two is a radical departure from the standard proceedings. Augusta National Golf Club chairman Hootie Johnson responded, “We’re all about change. Nobody’s real big on tradition here.”

The match play showdown will be a one-day affair on Sunday, April 8. Asked why the first three days of competition have been eliminated, Johnson replied, “You’ve watched the past few years. It’s just gonna rain on those days, anyway.” Masters officials also acted in response to an old cliché about the tournament. If you watched much of the CBS coverage this weekend, you heard “They say The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday” enough times to make a drinking game out of it. Tournament officials decided that since so many people say that, it must be true. However, for television purposes Phil and Tiger are still scheduled for 18 holes.

Next year’s format change will allow Augusta National to remain true to one of its hallmarks: exclusivity. The tournament is annually one of the toughest tickets in sports. Also, most people’s chances of joining the club are equivalent to the Best Picture odds on “The Benchwarmers.” By restricting the tournament to two players, Augusta National will take exclusivity to the next level. There is no word yet on whether Vijay Singh and Ernie Els will ask Martha Burk to rally on their behalf.

Johnson did emphasize that other players can still attend next year’s tournament, even if they are not competing. Past champions will receive coveted seats in Butler Cabin for a Texas Hold’em tournament. Rules for appropriate terminology will be in effect, similar to how club members insist on “second cut” instead of “rough” and “patrons” rather than “fans.” Therefore, participants will play for the “financial pool,” not the “pot.” Also, there will be no “flushes” within Butler Cabin. Instead, players will hope to have a “plumbing activity” in their hands.

In the meantime, top golfers can still look forward to the next major tournament – the U.S. Open in June. Last year’s edition, captured by Michael Campbell of New Zealand, was the only major in the last five that was not won by Mickelson or Woods. Like Augusta National, the host Winged Foot Golf Club will also feature an Amen Corner. That’s where golfers will be praying to beat Phil and Tiger.