Littered with upsets--none the top 20 seeds remain in contention--the knockout format drew a huge number of fans following the competition from their offices.
The news grabbed the headlines at major sports sites. SportsLine USA reported substantially higher traffic on its CBS SportsLine, and a 100 percent increase from Monday to Thursday on its GolfWeb site. GolfWeb usage normally jumps about 50 percent during tournaments, according to Sportsline vice president Andy Sturner.
In addition, users are staying an average of 21 minutes. "We're seeing a higher spike than we normally do and seeing some incremental 'hang time' as well," Sturner said.
Golfonline.com reported that Thursday's total was a single-day record of 460,000 pages, well above its previous best since the site's January relaunch. At times, the official PGA Tour site has been all but unreachable.
Unlike familiar stroke-play events, the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship eliminates half of the 64-player field each day over five days. In four-day PGA tournament events, by contrast, the field is pared once on Friday, and many players typically challenge for the title over the weekend, when prime time TV audiences tune in.
Besides the traffic, the buzz surrounding the World Match Play Championship is surprising because of the time of year. The U.S. golf calendar typically gets rolling in April, around the time of Masters.
"It's almost like a major, but it's so early in the season," said Julie Hansen, general manager of Times Mirror Interzine's Golf Group, which publishes GolfOnline.
"People are just very curious about this new format, but I think so much will depend on who's in the final on Sunday," she said, pointing out that it may lack star appeal.
Hansen expects GolfOnline's traffic to drop over the weekend, as fans switch to a more familiar medium. But she's encouraged about new golf enthusiasts coming online.
Like rivals GolfWeb and Golf.com, GolfOnline counts on news to draw traffic but offers e-commerce and instruction to retain viewers. Some 45 percent of those who visit golf sites go for professional tour reportage, according to an August 1998 USA Today poll.
GolfWeb is also further ahead on e-commerce and boasts superior promotional muscle thanks to SportsLine's strategic relationship with network broadcaster CBS and deals with America OnLine, Excite, and Netscape Communications. Golf.com, a product of TotalSports, partners with NBC Sports.
By contrast, until recently GolfOnline didn't much feature on fellow TMI property The Sporting News, which is much small than CBS SportsLine.
But GolfOnline ranks first among male golfers aged aged 25 to 54, according to market research firm Plan Syndicated Web Research. Its dynamically generated instructional content also draws readers of Golf Magazine, which has a monthly circulation of 1.4 million.
In fact, the second hole of GolfOnline's 18-hole navigational motif--right after tour news--leads to a "personal profiler" that dispenses tips. The feature keeps users on a single page, filling out a preliminary survey for an average of five minutes, Hansen said.
"They [users] are not going to read nine or ten articles per visit, but they're going to stick around if they think they can help their game," she noted.
GolfOnline also prides itself on covering women's and juniors' golf and offers a large database of courses inherited from last year's acquisition of iGolf.
Still, Hansen admits e-commerce is important and promotional power is key. "We're going to get a little more aggressive in our commercial efforts," she says, adding that a large strategic partner lies in GolfOnline's short-term plans too.