Match the Emperor

In my neighborhood in Chicago there’s a church built in 1903 by the noted architect Louis Sullivan. What many people are surprised to learn is that the client was the Tsar of All the Russias, Nicholas II, later on the receiving end of some nastiness. But I bring up Sullivan’s church on Day 3 of the Accenture Match Play, one of the World Golf Championships, not to show how “globalization” is older than we sometimes think. Rather, I bring it up because Sullivan, father of architectural modernism, invented the phrase “form follows function”—a phrase that many of us like because it seems to validate our sense that aesthetics are secondary, trifling. What matters, as the phrase goes, is the “steak and not the sizzle. That may be so for many things but not, as it happens, in this week’s headline tournament, because in match-play function follows form(at).

The reasons why are I think instructive: if last week I tried to illustrate how golf is best understood in the light of punk-rock band the Clash’s song, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” by describing a practical example, this week I’d like to discuss the more theoretical reasons behind the Clash’s profound insight. Match play is the exception that proves—in the old sense of tests—Sullivan’s rule. If nothing else, reading this essay might enlighten you as to the reasons why old golfers will tell you most bets are won long before the first ball is struck.

To understand why match-play is different first requires an understanding of that from which it differs: stroke-play, the format of 90% or more of all professional golf tournaments. In stroke-play, everyone goes out and plays—usually four rounds on the PGA Tour—and whoever has the fewest shots at the end wins. It’s straightforward. What isn’t as often realized, or at least not explicitly realized, is the effect that this has on the style—what Sullivan might call the form—of play: stroke-play rewards conservative decisions.

Tiger Woods’ driverless walk around Hoylake in 2006 wasn’t very punk, and neither was David Toms “lay-up heard ’round the world” at the PGA Championship in 2001, when Toms refused to risk rinsing his ball in the pond in front of the 18th green on the last day but still made a par to win. But these decisions, though unheroic, make sense in the stroke-play format because of something professionals understand and most amateurs don’t: stroke play creates an asymmetry.

Asymmetry in golf is hard for the amateur to understand: what it means, in a stroke-play tournament, is that a double-bogey is much more harmful than an eagle is helpful. This doesn’t make sense to most people—if you play two holes and make an eagle on one and a double-bogey on the other, then you have shot par for those two holes. Effectively then the one cancels out the other, because both are two strokes better or worse than par. In this view, golf scores look sort of like a bell curve: if par is the mid-point, then every score on one side of par is balanced by another score on the other side. So at least it would seem.

In a stroke-play tournament though the two scores are not actually equivalent. Why? Well, because in a stroke-play tournament all the scores matter: the winner is determined by the number of shots taken over the length of the whole tournament. Since the number of holes is limited (unless there is a play-off), that means there is a limited number of chances to make a good score on each hole. And what that means is that scoring a double-bogey not only adds two shots to the total score, but also uses up an opportunity to make a good score. Economists refer to this concept as opportunity cost. By making a double-bogey, not only are you that much further behind the rest of the field, but also you will need two other birdie holes to get back to par—instead of using those two holes to go under par. And now you are that much closer to the end of the tournament.

It might be objected at this point that, well, isn’t that what makes an eagle so valuable, because it instantly offsets the double-bogey? In a sense of course that’s true, but in another sense it isn’t. To see why, let’s look at an analogy: in this case, let’s suppose a professional golfer is like a corporation. Being under par is like being profitable, while being over par is like being indebted.

An eagle then can be likened to an unexpected windfall, while a double-bogey can be thought of as a loan. When a corporation makes a profit, it faces choices: for instance, to invest in more research in order to increase its chances of outperforming its competitors in the future, or to pay back its investors. Paying back investors sacrifices the future for the past; if a corporation gets too indebted it doesn’t matter what sorts of profits come in because they are all devoted to paying off the past debt. It’s a story that might sound familiar these days …

The killer is that a golfer has to post some score for every hole: there are no negative scores. It’s possible to score almost any number of scores worse than par on a given hole, but there isn’t any way to shoot a score better than one. Golf scores are not distributed like a bell curve: they’re more like the Nike swoosh, with a long tail.

With that in mind, it’s far more probable, even for a highly skilled golfer, that a score on a given hole will be worse than par than it will be better than par (there’s echoes here of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for anyone interested.) A double-bogey creates a debt that must be repaid in order to catch the rest of the field, while an eagle can be spent to advance ahead of the field. But as the proverb “one step forward, two steps back” suggests, debts create a bigger hole than profits create a bigger hill.

In a stroke-play tournament, therefore the correct strategy is usually to avoid the double-bogey rather than attempt the eagle. If a golfer makes an eagle it doesn’t benefit as much as a worse score will cost over the length of a tournament. In fact, it’s likely that even if the number of eagles and double-bogeys a golfer makes equal each other that likely means you aren’t looking at the winner of a stroke-play tournament.  As professionals say, “the big number is what hurts.” The friction of a double-bogey creates more “drag” than the propulsion of an eagle thrusts a golfer forward.

Tiger and Toms pursued the strategies they did, in sum, not because they didn’t think they could pull off those shots—they are two of the most skilled players in the world, after all—but rather because of how they thought about it. This is something very significant that isn’t understood by the average player. The difference between the professional and the amateur isn’t how they perform, but how they think.

That thought process, however, is muted in match-play because match-play is not cumulative in the same way that stroke-play is. Each hole is in effect its own separate tournament: what matters is who won or lost a given hole, not total score at the end of the round. Match-play thusly flips the calculation of value: scores under par on a given hole are suddenly much more valuable than they are in stroke-play, while conversely scores over par are much less costly. A score under par is valuable because it guarantees either progress (a win on that hole) or at worst is neutral (a tie), while any score over par is essentially the same (a likely loss).

The distribution of scores therefore becomes much more like a standard bell curve: all the scores at the far end of the scale are effectively the same, so there isn’t a long tail to the curve anymore. What that means is that the method of selecting (I mean this word in a Darwinian sense) a winner changes: whereas a player who made both a lot of birdies and a lot of bogies wouldn’t last long on in stroke-play tournaments (cf. the career of John Daly), such a player could survive, and even thrive, in a match-play environment.

Against Louis Sullivan then, in golf the form dictates the substance: what sort of golf we get is determined by the rules, the form, we select before the competition starts. Match-play would seem to make for more exciting golf: Bobby Jones’ “lilly-pad shot” at Interlachen in 1930, Gene Sarazen’s “shot heard ‘round the world” at the 15th at Augusta in 1935, and Gary Player’s “over-the-tree shot” at Hazeltine in 1970 were examples of heroic decisions to go rather than stay, and all of them are remembered more fondly than Tiger Woods’ performance at Hoylake or David Toms’ lay-up. Those shots, except for preceding the Sex Pistols by some years, were pretty punk. Why not then institute a format that rewards the high-risk shot more than it penalizes it?

Yet we don’t happen to live in that environment. Usually, things are said to be this way because match-play is “too random,” too volatile: because the effects of each hole are not cumulative, the inherent quality of a player like Ernie Els (a notorious folder in the Match Play) isn’t allowed to demonstrate itself, which leads to finals like the Kevin Sutherland vs. Scott McCarron opus in 2002. As Frank Chirkinian, the long-time producer of golf coverage at CBS who basically invented golf on television, once said,  “golf fans don’t want the underdog to win.” But what might be said is that this perception might be a species of question-begging: what it may be is simply that most if not all professional tournaments are conducted according to stroke-play, not match-play. The usual champions we see, then, have been selected to be stroke-play champions. If there were more of a balance between the two formats our perceptions of what makes a good golfer might change as well.

After all, back when the PGA Championship was conducted according to match-play, Walter Hagen had no problem winning it six times, and Jack Fleck did beat Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open—conducted according to stroke-play. It isn’t as though no-names don’t win stroke-play tournaments (Todd Hamilton, anyone?), nor is it the case that match-play gives too much of a handicap to lesser players (Tiger Woods has won the Match Play three times). The perception is that stroke-play is fairer because it supposedly produces the better player as the winner  more consistently. But that perception might just be a case of valuing the sizzle—the golfer-as-celebrity, you might say—over the steak, which is exciting golf.

On that note, I watched the Match Play yesterday and I have to say that I’ve seen few tournament rounds that were more thrilling. In the space of an hour, I saw two different players hit shots that hit the flagstick. I saw players dig themselves out of what looked like impossible situations with amazing shots from the rough or from bunkers to turn the tables on opponents sitting comfortably on the fairway. A couple of shots found the hole or lipped out from off the green. And yet, I have almost no memory of who hit any of those shots (though the Els-Goosen match was pretty dramatic.) In that way, maybe match-play is a more democratic kind of golf, because it makes what we watch more about the actual game, rather than who’s playing it.

Being more about who than what is, after all, what got Louis Sullivan’s church-building employer in trouble all those years ago. It’s an odd historical pun that the name of the magazine for the movement that eventually brought Nicholas II down was, loosely translated, The Match—i.e., the flame set to burn Nicholas and his empire down. All of which is fairly remote from golf, to be sure. What sort of trouble could golf get into by putting everything on the shoulders of one man?


Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at Thanks for reading!

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