Match Play final four not as different as they appear

By Rex HoggardFebruary 23, 2014, 12:39 am

MARANA, Ariz. – And then there were four.

Old and young, established star and newly minted phenom – the semifinalists smorgasbord at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is as eclectic a final four as this event has seen since the experiment ventured Down Under for the first edition in 1999 (for the record, that would have been Jeff Maggert, Andrew Magee, John Huston and Steve Pate).

In what appears to be the final World Golf Championship atop lonely Dove Mountain, mercurial match play delivered Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Ernie Els and Victor Dubuisson to the most intimate Sunday on the PGA Tour.

For the first time all week, Els finally made it look easy. That he did against one of the hottest players in the game only serves to add to the South African’s legend this week.

Before Saturday’s quarterfinal bout against Jordan Spieth, Els was a combined 5 over par in his previous three matches and had, by his own admission, played well only in fits and starts. But on Saturday he birdied two of his first three holes to take a 2-up lead and never trailed on his way to a 4-and-2 victory.

“At times I haven't played my best, as you guys (the media) have well documented,” smiled Els, who last advanced to the semifinals at the Match Play in 2001. “But it is match play. It's a match-play event. I've just done enough to get through.”

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Els will play Dubuisson (pronounced dew-BWEE-shon) who robbed the week’s preeminent bandit, Graeme McDowell. G-Mac, who had not hit a tee shot with a lead all week, finally ran out of magic when his 23-footer at the last slipped past.

The subdued Frenchman has been the wild card at this week’s event, a mystery who at this point last year was 140th in the world and has now crashed the most exclusive game in town.

If American galleries are unaware of Dubuisson’s accomplishments, his deeds are sure to become the stuff of legend. His victory last year against the likes of Tiger Woods and Henrik Stenson at the Turkish Airlines Open ignited a run that will likely land him on this year’s European Ryder Cup team.

“(Turkey) gave me some confidence to win, but you always want more and more. In any event there is this kind of stress because you want more all the time,” Dubuisson said.

With all respect to the mystery man and the old man, relatively speaking, the compelling half of Sunday’s shootout will be Day and Fowler. Combined the two would barely qualify for the Champions Tour – Day is 26, Fowler 25 – and they are considered poster players for the circuit’s Gen X set.

They can also relate to the sometimes unrealistic expectations dolloped onto players in the Tiger Woods era who are still a half-decade shy of their prime. Pegged early in their Tour careers as can’t-miss kids, the scrutiny has flowed since each won his lone Tour event.

For Fowler, who defeated Jim Furyk, 2 up, on Saturday, it’s what drove him to Butch Harmon last year. He wanted to be known for more than just his flat-billed hat and long hair, so he cut his hair and began cutting his teeth with the swing legend.

“I’m putting a lot more work in the last few months,” said Fowler, who teamed full time with Harmon in November. “He’s easy to listen to when he’s taken two guys to No. 1 in the world.”

Day also had a more intense offseason, with a particular focus on his putting, which has been stellar this week at Dove Mountain.

“He worked harder than ever,” said Day’s caddie/swing coach Colin Swatton. “The best thing that’s happened to him was winning (the World Cup in November). He was getting to the point where he was thinking, ‘When am I going to win again?’ It was good for him to get that.”

For Day – who took down an ailing Louis Oosthuizen, 2 and 1, in the quarterfinals – his climb to the final four was predictable following his runner-up finish at the Farmers Insurance Open a few weeks ago and his Match Play record. He was a semifinalist last year, losing to eventual champion Matt Kuchar before beating Ian Poulter in the consolation match.

Fowler, however, had never advanced past the third round at this event and arrived at Dove Mountain fresh off three consecutive missed cuts. He’s also had the most difficult road to the final four, having beaten Poulter (a perennial Match Play contender), Jimmy Walker (who with three wins this season is the game’s hottest player) and Sergio Garcia to reach the quarterfinals.

But then there is no history that matters in match play, particularly when the four semifinalists have endured a week’s worth of Sunday pressure before even arriving at the final turn.

As eclectic as the final four may seem, they all have one thing in common – resilience.

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.

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Ortiz leads LAAC through 54; Niemann, Gana one back

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 8:15 pm

Mexico's Alvaro Ortiz shot a 1-under 70 Monday to take the 54-hole lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship in Chile.

At 4 under for the week, he leads by one over over Argentina's Jaime Lopez Rivarola, Chile's Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann, and Guatemala's Dnaiel Gurtner.

Ortiz is the younger brother of three-time winner Carlos. Alvaro, a senior at Arkansas, finished tied for third at the LAAC in 2016 and lost in a three-way playoff last year that included Niemann and Gana, the champion.

Ortiz shared the 54-hole lead with Gana last year and they will once again play in the final group on Tuesday, along with Gurtner, a redshirt junior at TCU.

“Literally, I've been thinking about [winning] all year long," Ortiz said Monday. "Yes, I am a very emotional player, but tomorrow I want to go out calm and with a lot of patience. I don't want the emotions to get the better of me. What I've learned this past year, especially in the tournaments I’ve played for my university, is that I have become more mature and that I have learned how to control myself on the inside on the golf course.”

In the group behind, Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who is poised to turn professional, unless of course he walks away with the title.

“I feel a lot of motivation at the moment, especially because I am the only player in the field that shot seven under (during the second round), and I am actually just one shot off the lead," he said. "So I believe that tomorrow I can shoot another very low round."

Tuesday's winner will earn an invitation to this year's Masters and exemptions into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, and final qualifying for The Open.