In the spirit of match play—and the drama and entertainment the format generates—here’s a look at my top five favorite golf matches of all-time.
Rory McIlroy vs. Patrick Reed—2016 Ryder Cup, Hazeltine National
In what may be one of the most energy-charged matches in Ryder Cup history, Reed and McIlroy’s dual at Hazeltine will be remembered for the theatrics more than anything else. With the Americans leading by three points heading into Sunday singles matches, Team USA captain Davis Love III sent out “Captain America” in the leadoff spot against the now No. one player in the Official World Golf Ranking.
What transpired was a ridiculous hour of golf. The two match-play heavyweights combined to play the 5th through 8th holes in nine-under par, exchanging birdies like uppercuts. The excitement reached a crescendo on the 8th hole when McIlroy drained a 40-foot birdie putt and cupped his hand to his ear telling the Hazeltine crowd, “I can’t hear you!” Reed promptly answered, rolling in a 25-foot birdie putt of his own, shaking his finger at McIlroy as if to say, “Not so fast.” Reed would eventually win the match 1 up, helping the Americans secure the 2016 Ryder Cup.
Tiger Woods vs. Stephen Ames—2006 WGC Dell Match Play, La Costa Resort and Spa
Tiger Woods’ 2006 9&8 win at Match Play over Stephen Ames https://t.co/KlB39aNUZB
— Skratch (@Skratch) March 20, 2018
2006…the year the golf world learned that you should never talk smack to Tiger Woods. In what should have been a benign first round match in the WGC Dell Match Play, Ames chose to poke the Tiger prior to arriving at La Costa’s first tee.
In a pre-tournament interview, Ames was asked about his chances of beating Woods and said, “Anything can happen, especially where he’s hitting it.”—and those eight words ended up fueling the biggest beatdown in the event’s history.
Woods birdied the first six holes of the match, winning every single hole on the front nine. The match was completed on the 10th green, when both players made par, giving Woods a resounding 9&8 victory. After the match, Tiger was asked if Ames’s comments had motivated him—Woods smiled and said, “Nine and Eight.”
Justin Leonard vs. Jose Maria Olazabal—1999 Ryder Cup, The Country Club
“I’m going to leave you all with one thought. I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this.”
Those were the parting words from U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Ben Crenshaw on Saturday night of the 1999 Ryder Cup. Down 10–6 entering Sunday, an American victory at Brookline was going to require the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history, but Captain Ben was telling anyone that would listen, “I believe.”
The Americans mounted a furious comeback on Sunday at The Country Club, retaking the lead by mid afternoon. Just a half point from their first victory since 1993, Leonard’s match versus Olazabal was the focus. The Spaniard held a 4-up lead with seven holes to play when Leonard began a charge, winning four consecutive holes to erase the deficit. Leonard then rolled in a 40-foot birdie bomb on the 17th hole which ignited a rowdy American celebration. Olazabal had to wait out the chaos and then attempt a birdie putt to keep Team Europe’s hope alive, which he ultimately missed—guaranteeing a U.S. win and completing the greatest team comeback in Cup history.
Tiger Woods vs. Ernie Els—2003 Presidents Cup, The Links at Fancourt
After four days at the 2003 President’s Cup in South Africa, the U.S. and International teams were deadlocked at 17 points. The tie set up the most dramatic of endings—a sudden death playoff between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. The two players had been selected by team captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and had just squared off in Sunday singles, with Woods winning 4&3.
Now with the South African sun quickly setting, Tiger and The Big Easy would go head-to-head with the Cup on the line. Both players made par on the opening hole, and then the putting fireworks began. Els rolled in a 12-foot putt to extend the match on the 2nd playoff hole. On the 3rd hole of sudden death it was Tiger’s turn, burying a 15-foot par putt forcing Els to make a six-footer, which he promptly did.
With daylight gone and faced with the idea of returning to finish the match the following day, Nicklaus and Player decided to finish the Cup with an act of goodwill—ending the matches in a tie.
Suzann Petterson vs. Marina Alex—2019 Solheim Cup, Gleneagles
MONUMENTAL. 😱 @suzannpettersen
— The Solheim Cup (@TheSolheimCup) May 16, 2020
The idea of walking off into the sunset for an athlete is usually just a fantasy, unless of course you’re Suzann Petterson. After a long layoff from playing competitive golf following the birth of her first child, the 38-year-old Norwegian had been a debatable pick to make the European Solheim Cup team and entered the 2019 edition with some baggage.
In 2015, Petterson had refused to concede a short putt to American Alison Lee—firing up a seemingly dead and buried U.S. squad that came back to win the Cup in singles play.
Fast forward four years: Petterson stood over a seven-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole with everything on the line. Her match with Marina Alex was all square, and the Solheim Cup was tied at 13 ½. Petterson calmly rolled in the putt to win the Cup and later declared it the final moment of her professional career—retiring from the game and walking off after her greatest achievement.
What are your favorite matches of all-time? Let us know in the comment section.