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.
Newsmaker of the Year: No. 5, Sergio Garcia
This was the year it finally happened for Sergio Garcia.
The one-time teen phenom, known for years as “El Nino,” entered the Masters as he had dozens of majors beforehand – shouldered with the burden of being the best player without a major.
Garcia was 0-for-72 driving down Magnolia Lane in April, but after a thrilling final round and sudden-death victory over Justin Rose, the Spaniard at long last captured his elusive first major title.
The expectation for years was that Garcia might land his white whale on a British links course, or perhaps at a U.S. Open where his elite ball-striking might shine. Instead it was on the storied back nine at Augusta National that he came alive, chasing down Rose thanks in part to a memorable approach on No. 15 that hit the pin and led to an eagle.
A green jacket was only the start of a transformative year for Garcia, 37, who heaped credit for his win on his then-fiancee, Angela Akins. The two were married in July, and months later the couple announced that they were expecting their first child to arrive just ahead of Garcia’s return to Augusta, where he'll host his first champions’ dinner.
And while players often cling to the notion that a major win won’t intrinsically change them, there was a noticeable difference in Garcia over the summer months. The weight of expectation, conscious or otherwise, seemed to lift almost instantly. Like other recent Masters champs, he took the green jacket on a worldwide tour, with stops at Wimbledon and a soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The player who burst onto the scene as a baby-faced upstart is now a grizzled veteran with nearly two decades of pro golf behind him. While the changes this year occurred both on and off the course, 2017 will always be remembered as the year when Garcia finally, improbably, earned the title of major champion.
Green jacket tour
Man of the people
Ace at 17th at Sawgrass
Departure from TaylorMade
Squashed beef with Paddy
Victory at Valderrama
Newsmakers of the Year: Top 10 in 2017
GolfChannel.com is counting down the top 10 Newsmakers of the Year as voted on by Golf Channel’s writers, editors, reporters and producers. Check out the list below, including future release dates:
No. 4: Dec. 13
No. 3: Dec. 14
No. 2: Dec. 15
No. 1: Dec. 18
Montana parents can't watch kids play high school golf
Well, this is a one new one.
According to a report from KTVQ in Montana, this line in the Montana State High School Association rule book all but forbids spectators from observing high school golf in that state:
“No spectators/fans are allowed on the course except for certain locations as designated by the tournament manager and club professional.”
Part of the issue, according to the report, is that most courses don't bother to designate those "certain locations" leaving parents unable to watch their kids compete.
“If you tell a parent that they can’t watch their kid play in the Thanksgiving Day football game, they would riot,” Chris Kelley, a high school golf parent, told KTVQ.
The report lists illegal outside coaching as one of the rule's chief motivations, but Montana State women's golf coach Brittany Basye doesn't quite buy that.
“I can go to a softball game and I can sit right behind the pitcher. I can make hand signals,” she is quoted in the report. “I can yell out names. I can do the same thing on a softball field that might affect that kid. Football games we can yell as loud as we want when someone is making a pass or a catch.”
The MHSA has argued that unlike other sports that are played in a confined area, the sprawling nature of a golf course would make it difficult to hire enough marshals to keep unruly spectators in check.
Meanwhile, there's a lawyer quoted in the report claiming this is some kind of civil rights issue.
Worth note, Montana is one of only two states that doesn't allow spectators on the course. The other state, Alaska, does not offer high school golf.
PGA Tour suspends Hensby for anti-doping violation
Mark Hensby has been suspended for one year by the PGA Tour for violating the Tour’s anti-doping policy by failing to provide a sample after notification.
The Tour made the announcement Monday, reporting that Hensby will be eligible to return on Oct. 26, 2018.
The statement reads:
The PGA Tour announced today that Mark Hensby has violated the Tour Anti-Doping Policy for failing to provide a drug testing sample after notification and has been suspended for a period of one year. He will be eligible to return on Oct. 26, 2018.
Hensby, 46, won the John Deere Classic in 2004. He played the Web.com Tour this past year, playing just 14 events. He finished 142nd on the money list. He once ranked among the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking but ranks No. 1,623 today.
The Sunshine Tour recently suspended player Etienne Bond for one year for failing a drug test. Players previously suspended by the PGA Tour for violating the anti-doping policy include Scott Stallings and Doug Barron.
The PGA Tour implemented revisions to its anti-doping program with the start of the 2017-18 season. The revisions include blood testing and the supplementation of the Tour’s prohibited list to include all of the substances and methods on the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited list. As part of this season’s revisions, the Tour announced it would also begin reporting suspensions due to recreational drug use.
The Tour said it would not issue further comment on Hensby's suspension.