When a match play golf tournament bracket is released, competitors and fans scan the names to project potential encounters in later rounds. The masters of match play have earned a reputation that precedes them and should be avoided, if possible. There are many routes to their head-to-head success. They are wedge wizards and fairway finders. They are powerful drivers and iron play assassins. They are scary opponents to face. Here they are in alphabetical order, spanning the generations. Happy Halloween, golf fans.
The dashing Spaniard won five Wentworth World Match Play titles from 1981 to 1991. While his Ryder Cup singles record is less than stellar (2-4-2), Ballesteros’ magical short game touch and fiery competitive will was a potent combination in match play. He could, literally, get up-and-down from a paved road and those heroics can rattle even the most stoic of pros.
Thanks to Adam Sarson’s fine website, we know Day’s career singles record is 22-8 as a professional. He won the title at the 2014 and 2016 WGC - Match Play, defeating Victor Dubuisson and Louis Oosthuizen in the respective finals. Day is one of the longest drivers in pro golf. He has the highest apex on his iron shots in the game, so any pin is accessible. And he’s finished sixth and first in strokes gained putting on the PGA Tour the past two seasons. That’s a winning recipe in any format.
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Don’t let the Big Easy’s smile and demeanor fool ya. He’s a killer inside. While his physical talents are obvious, the South African possesses above average mental toughness and an oversized clutch gene as well. Els tore through the Wentworth World Match Play as well, winning a record seven titles from 1994 to 2007, burying countless clutch putts along the way. According to Sarson’s site, Els is 35-24 in singles, but the record doesn’t include three of his match play titles, due to insufficient data from those events.
No list of great match play competitors is complete without the great Haig, who won five PGA Championships in the format from 1921 to 1927, including four consecutive years unbeaten. A former caddy at the Country Club of Rochester, he was a revolutionary figure in the game of golf, paving the road for the modern pro. History tells us he wasn’t afraid to practice gamesmanship on occasion to keep his playing companions off balance.
Halloween and golf have both been around for a long time. Jones dominated opponents during an era when match play and amateur golf dominated the headlines. The attorney from Atlanta won five U.S. Amateurs and one British Amateur at match play, crushing finalists by ridiculous scores like 10 & 9 and 9 & 8 in 36-hole finals. He had a string of Walker Cup routs also. It would surprise no one if the Great Britain & Ireland side drew straws to see who must face Jones.
The wee South African weighed just 140-150 pounds in his prime but was wiry strong due to an intense exercise regimen. Player won five World Match Play titles from 1965 to 1973 and during that span the best players in the game were always in the field. Being the first to play an approach shot into the green can be an advantage as Player’s match play prowess proves.
The wild-eyed Englishman’s list of career accomplishments doesn’t compare to any of the aforementioned golfers on this list. But his career singles record as a pro is 36-16-5, including the 2010 WGC-Match Play title. And, let us not forget that with his brilliant putting and emotional outbursts he ignited Europe’s comeback at Medinah in 2012, sending a jolt of energy through the entire team.
The youngest player on our list (25) is off to an incredible match play start. He’s already defeated Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and last month at Hazeltine, Rory McIlroy, in the opening singles match on Sunday that propelled the U.S. team to victory in the Ryder Cup. Reed’s match play excellence dates back to his college career at Augusta State, where he defeated Harris English and guided his squad to an improbable NCAA Championship. He loves the format and it shows in his performance.
Like Duke basketball, Alabama football or the New England Patriots, for more than a decade it was only news when Woods lost. That’s why we recall the loss to Darren Clarke in the WGC-Match Play finals, the loss to Nick Watney or the Two! defeats at the hands of Australian journeyman Nick O’Hern. Some haters may choose to dwell on his indifferent team record in Ryder Cup action. But here are the facts: Woods has a 50-16-2 singles record as a pro. He won the WGC-Match Play in 2003 and 2004. Oh, and from 1991-1996, he was 36-0 in match play in winning three U.S. Juniors and three U.S. Amateurs. Scary, indeed.