Players staking out their territory at Match Play
The series enters its 13th year when the Accenture Match Play Championship gets under way Wednesday at Dove Mountain with Lee Westwood of England as the fifth player to occupy the No. 1 seed in the 64-man field.
There are players from 15 countries, which is not unusual or even a record. But as the boundaries of golf become more blurred, there is a certain vibe in the high desert north of Tucson that a rivalry is taking shape – not between two players, but two continents.
The Americans have the most players in the 64-man field with 25.
The Europeans have the highest-ranked players – eight of the top 16 seeds, led by Westwood and Martin Kaymer.
And it was only last year when Ian Poulter defeated Paul Casey in an all-England championship match, the first year that no Americans reached the semifinals since the Match Play Championship began in 1999. That kicked off a golden year for Europe, in which it won the Ryder Cup and had two players win majors.
“It might have been a surprise to some, but it certainly hasn’t been a surprise if you look at the rankings over the last couple of years, at how well the European players have played,” Poulter said. “It would surprise me at all to see something similar happen this year with how you look at the world rankings. European players are very, very strong.”
Fueling the seeds of a rivalry were the decisions of Westwood, Kaymer and Rory McIlroy – all among the top 10 in the world – not to take up PGA Tour membership this year. Westwood and McIlroy later said they wouldn’t not go to The Players Championship, the richest tournament in golf with traditionally the strongest and deepest field.
Graeme McDowell thinks some of it is overcooked.
“Of course, the European Tour is very protective of their tour, and the PGA is very protective of their tour, and they should be,” he said. “Everyone has their personal preferences of where they want to play and how much they want to play. I think there’s maybe been a little bit of media blowing it up into something it’s not.
“I don’t think there’s any antagonism there,” McDowell said. “The best players in the world want to play against each other as often as possible.”
The players are going about their own business this week, and Kaymer spoke well when asked if he were representing Germany or the European Tour at the Match Play Championship.
“Representing myself,” he said, sitting behind four small, German flags. “I belong to both, obviously more to Germany.”
And while players are worried only about getting past the match in front of them, there is no denying a certain pride among Europeans to get as many players as deep into the tournament as they can. It means more to Europe than it does the United States, mainly because the PGA Tour is a melting pot of just about every golfing nation.
If there is a rivalry, it will be difficult to ignore on opening day at Dove Mountain.
The 32 matches on Wednesday starts off with Poulter, the defending champion, taking on Stewart Cink, who has reached at least the quarterfinal round in each of the last three years.
That will be the first of 10 matches that pit the United States against Europe, which includes Tiger Woods against Thomas Bjorn, and McIlroy against Jonathan Byrd, who has won twice in the last five months.
Woods did not arrive to play The Ritz-Carlton Club at Dove Mountain until Tuesday afternoon. He has not been here in two years, when he lost to Tim Clark in the second round in his first tournament back from knee surgery.
“Got to take it one match at a time, one opponent at a time,” Woods said. “I have got Thomas tomorrow. He won a tournament, what, three weeks ago? He’s obviously playing better.”
Westwood opens with Henrik Stenson, who got into the field as the first alternate when Toru Taniguchi withdrew. Kaymer faces South Korean sensation Seung-yul Noh, while Phil Mickelson, the No. 4 seed, opens with Brendan Jones of Australia.
Westwood has never made it beyond the second round in all his years playing this event, which he figures is more a matter of coincidence. Even so, he realizes this could be one of the shortest weeks of his year if he isn’t sharp, or he happens to run into an opponent who never misses a putt. Stenson won the Match Play in 2007, the first year it moved to Arizona.
“I’m wondering what Friday looks like in this tournament,” Westwood said.
Predictions are never more hopeless than at the Match Play Championship.
Three years ago, two reporters studied the brackets and challenged each other to find one match they could bank on. Without conferring, both settled on Vijay Singh over Peter Hanson.
Singh won – in 19 holes.
“Seriously, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it may have made a difference if you were No. 1 or No. 64 in the world rankings,” Kaymer said. “But these days, I don’t think it will make any difference. If he’s from Korea, from Sweden, from England, from America, it doesn’t really matter, I think.”
But if it’s the United States against Europe, it carries a little more edge these days.
Spieth, Thomas headline winter break trip to Cabo
Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Really good at golf. Really good at vacationing.
With #SB2K18 still months away, Thomas and Spieth headlined a vacation to Cabo San Lucas, and this will shock you but it looks like they had a great time.
Spring break veteran Smylie Kaufman joined the party, as did Thomas' roommate, Tom Lovelady, who continued his shirtless trend.
The gang played all the hits, including shoeless golf in baketball jerseys and late nights with Casamigos tequila.
In conclusion, it's still good to be these guys.
Awards season: Handing out the 2017 Rexys
After careful consideration and an exhaustive review of 2017 we present The Rexys, a wildly incomplete and arbitrary line up following one of the most eventful years in golf.
There will be omissions – just keep your calls, concerns and even e-mails to yourself. We appreciate your patronage, but not your feedback.
It’s Not You, It’s Me Award. You know the deal: You can’t be a part of two until you’re a better one; but on this front it’s really just a desire to find a better two.
It was a tough year for caddies, and not just any caddies. In June, Phil Mickelson split with longtime bagman Jim “Bones” Mackay. Both player and caddie cited the need for “change,” but the move reverberated throughout the game.
“The fairytale is over,” mused one caddie when told of the high-profile split.
In the wake of the Lefty/Bones break, Rory McIlroy split with his caddie J.P Fitzgerald, and Jason Day replaced looper/swing coach Colin Swatton on his bag. It all proves yet again that there are only two kinds of caddies, those who have been fired and those who are about to be fired.
Run for the Rose Cup. Sergio Garcia got the green jacket, a lifetime exemption to the game’s most coveted member-member and a long-awaited major, but Justin Rose took home the slightly less prestigious “Rose Cup.”
Following a frenzied afternoon at Augusta National in April, Rose lost to Garcia on the first playoff hole, but he won so much more with his honesty and class.
“You're going to win majors and you're going to lose majors, but you've got to be willing to lose them,” Rose figured following the final round. “You've got to put yourself out there. You've got to hit the top of the leaderboard. There's a lot of pressure out there and if you're not willing to enjoy it, then you're not ready to win these tournaments. I loved it out there.”
Few have made losing look so dignified and fewer still are as easy to root for.
Half-Empty Cup. It was the perfect setting, with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline and the promise of the Tristate masses descending on this fall’s Presidents Cup.
If only all those rowdy New Yorkers had something to cheer.
For the sixth time in the last seven matches, the U.S. team rolled to a victory of at least three points. This particular edition was even in danger of ending on Saturday afternoon thanks to a particularly dominant performance by a young American squad led by Steve Stricker.
Officials spoke of the purity of the competition and the attention the ’17 cup generated, but however you spin the 19-11 rout, this cup is half empty.
Enigma Award. The actual hardware is simply an oversized question mark and was sent directly to Tiger Woods’ South Florida compound following the most curious of seasons.
While it’s become customary in recent years to consider the uncertain path that awaits the 14-time major winner, this most recent calendar brought an entirely new collection of questions following fusion surgery on his lower back in April, his arrest for DUI on Memorial Day and, finally, a glimmer of hope born from his tie for ninth at the Hero World Challenge earlier this month.
When will he play again? Can he compete against the current generation of world-beaters? Can his body withstand the rigors of a full PGA Tour schedule? Should Jim Furyk make him a captain’s pick now or wait to see if he should be driving a vice captain’s golf cart instead?
Little is certain when it comes to Woods, and the over-sized question mark goes to ... the guy in red and black.
After Further Review Chalice. In April, Lexi Thompson endured a heartbreaking loss at the ANA Inspiration, the byproduct of a surreal ruling that arrived a day late via a viewer e-mail and cost the would-be winner a major championship.
The entire event was so unsavory that the USGA and R&A made not one but two alterations to the rules and created a “working group” to avoid similar snafus in the future.
That working group – it turns out the U.S. Ryder Cup team has some sort of copyright on “task force” – initially issued a decision that introduced a “reasonable judgment” and a “naked eye” standard to video reviews, and last week the rule makers kept the changes coming.
The new protocols on video review will now include an official to monitor tournament broadcasts and ended the practice of allowing fans to call in, or in this case e-mail, possible infractions to officials. The USGA and R&A also eliminated the two-stroke penalty for players who sign incorrect scorecards when the player is unaware of the penalty.
While all this might be a step in the right direction, it does nothing to change Thompson’s fate. The AFR Chalice won’t change the harsh reality, but at least it will serve as a reminder of how she helped altered the rulemaking landscape.
Nothing Runs Like a Deere Award. Nothing gets fans fired up like officials turning fields of fescue rough into hay on the eve of a major championship, and the USGA’s decision to do some 11th-hour trimming at Erin Hills in June certainly caught many by surprise.
Officials said the nip/tuck on four holes was in reaction to a particularly foreboding forecast that never materialized, and the maintenance drew the ire of some players.
“We have 60 yards from left line to right line,” Rory McIlroy said. “You’ve got 156 of the best players in the world here; if we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home.”
The record low scoring at the U.S. Open – winner Brooks Koepka finished with a 16-under total – didn’t help ease the fervor and had some questioning whether the softer side of the USGA has gone a bit too far?
Podcast: Daly takes big pride in 'Little John'
John Daly is a two-time major champion, but the newest trophy in his household belongs to someone else.
That’s because Daly’s son, 14-year-old Little John “LJ” Daly, rallied to capture an IJGT junior golf event over the weekend. The younger Daly birdied the first extra hole to win a five-person playoff at Harbour Town Golf Links, site of the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage.
Daly recently sat down for a Golf Channel podcast to describe what it’s like to cheer for his son and PNC Father-Son Challenge partner, share the unique challenge presented by the upcoming Diamond Resorts Invitational and reflect on some of the notable highs of a career that has now spanned more than 25 years.
Sneds starts slowly in Masters invite bid
Brandt Snedeker flew halfway around the world in search of a Masters invite, but after one round of the Indonesian Masters it appears he'll likely return home empty-handed.
Snedeker made only two birdies during his opening round in Indonesia, shooting an even-par 72 that left him in a tie for 77th and 10 shots behind leader Justin Rose. This is the final OWGR-rated event of 2017, and as a result it has drawn several notable entrants, including Snedeker, who hope to crack the top 50 in the world rankings by year's end to secure a trip to Augusta National.
Snedeker started the year ranked No. 28, but after missing five months because of injury he entered the week ranked No. 51 and is projected to slip even further by the end of the month. As a result, he likely needs a top-3 finish in order to secure a return to the Masters, which he has missed only once since 2007.
World No. 55 Dylan Frittelli also struggled, shooting a 4-over 76 in the opening round, while No. 56 Kiradech Aphibarnrat is tied for 14th at 4 under. Yusaku Miyazato, currently 58th in the world, is tied for ninth and five shots behind Rose.
Should Snedeker and the other hopefuls fail to crack the top 50 by the end of the year, two paths to the Masters remain: win a full-point event on the PGA Tour in early 2018 or be inside the top 50 in the world rankings when the final cutoff is made on March 25.