Volvo World MatchplayThe World Matchplay Championship used to be the ladyboy of the professional golf circuit. It looked like the real thing, it sounded like the real thing and it even felt like the real thing, but the sad truth is, it wasn’t. For the uninitiated, there was a small surprise lying in wait under the skirt labelled “golf tournament” – the fact that this was, principally, a showcase for IMG’s stable of pros.

Despite the glorious setting of the West Course at Wentworth and the respectable prize-money on offer, the competition lacked the intensity – and star names – of other major tournaments which carried world ranking points and had professional fields drawn up on merit. Sadly, this always undermined what was probably the best tournament in Europe to be a spectator at, with its spell-binding duels fuelled by the death-or-glory matchplay format.

The World Matchplay became more “open” over the years with plenty of non-IMG players invited along, and in 2004 it introduced a qualification system based on performances in Major championships, but it’s only since the tournament evolved into the Volvo World Matchplay Championship, with a transparent qualification system drawn along geographical lines and from the world rankings that the tournament has really started living up to its billing.

This coincided with a move to the wonderful and palatial five-star resort of Finca Cortesin near Marbella on the Costa del Sol, Spain with its stunning luxury hotel and spa not to mention one of Europe’s best courses. The Championship has also  this year moved to a new spring slot and will be played from 19th to 22nd May.

Finca Cortesin

The field contains 24 of the world’s best players with eight groups of three players competing in the round robin stage and playing until Saturday morning, with quarter finals that same evening, while semi-finals and the final will be played on Sunday. All matches will be contested over 18 holes of traditional match play.

The prize fund now counts on the European Tour and for 2011 has been increased to an amazing €3.4 million with a first prize of €800,000, the highest on the European Tour outside of the Majors, World Golf Championship events and the Dubai World Golf Championship.

This year’s event is set to be a sizzler. The 7,700-yard Cabell Robinson-designed course is a cracker that will suit long-hitters like Ross Fisher, the defending champion, but has lots of strategic factors too with plenty of doglegs and water hazards. Along with Fisher, many of the world’s very best players have already qualified, including Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter , Retief Goosen and Charl Schwartzel.

Ryan Moore is also eligible, but as always Americans will be thin on the ground in this event. But, guess what? That’s not because, as in the old days, they can’t be bothered to travel half way across the world to play in a tournament carrying little international significance. It’s because they no longer dominate the game – so they haven’t qualified.

The fake smiles and wobbly bits have gone. The competition is real. At last, the World Matchplay Championship really does matter.