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Top players commit to new-look Volvo Match Play

Arnold Palmer – the inaugural winner in 1964 (Photo: IMG)

WHEN ARNOLD PALMER won the inaugural World Match Play Championship in 1964, the event was essentially an exhibition competition involving eight of Mark H. McCormack’s stable of stars. Palmer, the first player McCormack signed to his fledgling management company IMG, beat Englishman Neil Coles for a £5,000 cheque from a total prize fund of £16,000.

Ross Fisher

This year, when the championship returns to Finca Cortesín, in the Costa del Sol municipality of Casares, 24 of the world’s top players will be teeing up for a winner’s share of €800,000 out of a €3.4 million prize fund.

Most of the biggest names in golf have won the championship, played continuously at Wentworth from that first edition up to 2007, including: Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, David Graham, Severiano Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh… (Tiger Woods was beaten in the 1998 final by Mark O’Meara.)

Ian Poulter

Francesco Molinari

During the latter years at Wentworth, however, the tournament’s prestige flagged as most of the top players, particularly the Americans, declined invitations and the WGC World Match Play attracted much stronger fields.

The tournament was not held in 2008, for the first time in its history, then Volvo – which had sponsored the Volvo Masters at Valderrama and Montecastillo for the previous 21 years – signed on with IMG and took the event to Finca Cortesín.

Graeme McDowell

Martin Kaymer

Paul Casey

The 2009 field was, to be brutally frank, fairly underwhelming for an event of such pedigree, with only two Grand Slam champions (Angel Cabrera and Retief Goosen); Paul Casey the highest world ranked player (fourth); just three others from the top 10 (Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson and Sergio García); and Ross Fisher (ranked 26th in the world) beating Anthony Kim (23rd) in the final.

A serious re-think was required and the Volvo team – to their credit – came up with a new plan. They convinced the European Tour to move the event to “a date it properly deserves” (19-22 May – one week before the PGA Championship at Wentworth); increased the field from 16 to 24 players; changed the qualifying criteria; and revamped the format (meaning 16 players will still be in the hunt on the weekend, unlike the rather paltry and spectator-unfriendly four in 2009).

YE Yang

Robert Karlsson

Whether by design or good fortune (European players are currently dominating the game at an international level) the plan has already reaped excellent results.

Lee Westwood

Rory McIlroy

As Volvo proudly noted at a press conference at Finca Cortesín, 13 players have qualified for the 2011 edition so far, and all 13 have accepted their invitations. They are: Ross Fisher (as defending champion); YE Yang (2010 Volvo China Open winner); Graeme McDowell and Søren Kjeldsen (first and second, respectively, in the 2010 Andalucía Valderrama Masters); Robert Karlsson (winner of the 2010 Dubai World Championship); Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Francesco Molinari (top four players, not otherwise exempt, from the 2010 European Tour Race to Dubai final standings); Rory McIlroy (leading player, not otherwise exempt, from the 2011 Abu Dhabi Golf Championship – he finished second behind Kaymer); Paul Casey (winner of the 2011 Volvo Golf Champions); and Paul Lawrie and Johan Edfors (champion and runner-up. respectively, of the 2011 Open de Andalucía).

Søren Kjeldsen

The other players to qualify after the US Masters will be: one player, based on his nationality, from each of four regions (Europe/Africa/Middle East; North America/South America; Asia; and Australasia); the leading player, not otherwise exempt, from the world ranking; and the two leading players, not otherwise exempt, from the Race to Dubai. They will then be joined by the leading player, not otherwise exempt, from the 2011 Volvo China Open; and one sponsor’s invitation from the top 50 of the world ranking.

The field currently comprises the top two ranked players in the world (Kaymer and Westwood), plus third-placed Luke Donald if, as expected, he qualifies and, as an IMG client, accepts the invitation; and three other players from the top 10 (McDowell, Casey and McIlroy). It also includes four winners of major championships (Lawrie, Yang, McDowell and Kaymer).

The “champions league-style” format, a novelty at the time, was well-received in 2009 but found wanting as interest waned on the weekend. This time, there will be eight groups of three players, with two from each group progressing to the knock-out stages on the Saturday. The quarter-finals will then be held in the afternoon; and the semi-finals and final on the Sunday, with no play-off for third and fourth. All matches will be 18 holes of traditional match play.

Pictures by Volvo in Golf

Volvo World Match Play Championship


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