Group of Death! Over-analyzing Match Play

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2017, 7:52 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Don’t try to convince Justin Thomas there’s a Group of Death this week at Austin Country Club. Nor does the American want to hear arguments that his group at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, or any group for that matter, should be considered an “easier” draw.

“I understand that Golf Channel, they need things to talk about, but to look at some groups and be like, oh, that's an easy group,” Thomas said on Tuesday. “Everyone here is really, really, really good, and it is funny how it's like, this is the Group of Death or this is that. Let's all just calm down and go play golf.”

Keep calm, play on.

We get it, but that ignores the best part of round-robin play at the Match Play. In exchange for the head-to-head drama of true match play, officials introduced group play in 2015, a twist that screamed for just this kind of micro-analysis.

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

At first brush there are certain groups that stand out among the 16 foursomes. Rory McIlroy’s group, for example, includes the Northern Irishman, who finished tied for fourth last week at Bay Hill; Emiliano Grillo, who was seventh last week; and Gary Woodland, who has a pair of top-5s in his last two starts.

Similarly, defending champion Jason Day’s pod of Marc Leishman, winner last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Lee Westwood and Pat Perez holds some intrigue for those looking for the path of most resistance.

But with the bracket for this week’s event based on the Official World Golf Ranking, each group is mathematically equal at least as it applies to the relative strength or weakness of a particularly group, so any suggestion that a particular pod is more daunting than the next is based on recent form, historical match play performances and hunches.

Thomas has a valid point that none of the 16 groups is a particularly appealing draw, but if any pod were to qualify as the Group of Death it would be the foursome of Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm, Kevin Chappell and Shane Lowry.

“I don't think there's any easy groups out there, but obviously I'm in a group with guys that are great players,” Garcia said. “It's not an easy group. It's a challenging one. But the good thing is, the way I look at it, is if I can get out of this group, it means that I'm playing really well because none of those guys are going to give anything away.”

Garcia is playing his 14th Match Play this week, has an 18-17 overall record and won earlier this year on the European Tour in Dubai; while Rahm is making his first start at this event but is one of the hottest players in the game right now following his first Tour victory at the Farmers Insurance Open and top-10 finishes in last two starts.

Although Chappell is winless on Tour, he finished runner-up four times last season and Lowry has something of a penchant for upsetting higher-seeded players in this event, like he did when he beat McIlroy in ’13 and Graeme McDowell two years ago, both on Day 1.

Higher-seeded players have historically lived up to that billing at the World Golf Championship, but there are exceptions, like in 2015 when McIlroy, the No. 1 seeded player, beat Woodland, from the 11th group, in the finals; and last year when Day defeated Louis Oosthuizen, the 16th overall seeded player, in the championship match.

Thomas’ point is valid. Professional golf’s version of March Madness doesn’t exactly fit the bracket-ology narrative and maybe all groups are created equal, but where’s the fun in that?

Getty Images

Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.

Getty Images

One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

Getty Images

DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

Getty Images

Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.