Match Play keeping things weird in Austin

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2017, 10:19 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – A few years ago the Austin Independent Business Alliance launched a unique campaign entitled, “Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town.”

For three days there has been no better example of the weird and odd than the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the PGA Tour’s annual version of March Madness that has been made infinitely more maddening with the addition of round-robin play three years ago.

In theory the concept is simple, with groups of four vying for points to advance to the round of 16, when the action reverts to the traditional one-and-done reality of match play. In practice, however, the format has all the clarity of a Leo Tolstoy novel, with Friday’s final edition of group play defined by outrageous scenarios, like the possibility of a four-man playoff to earn a Sweet 16 bid and 23 players with no chance to advance.

Weird and odd about sums it up.

That’s not to say Friday’s action was too convoluted to enjoy. There were moments of unmanufactured pressure, like the three-man playoff between Charles Howell III, Tyrrell Hatton and Rafa Cabrera Bello.

Hatton was bounced on the first extra hole after being penalized for not replacing his golf ball on the green after it moved.

Howell survived a vicious lip-out for par on the fourth extra hole when it appeared Cabrera Bello was on the ropes after finding a gully with his tee shot and bouncing his next attempt off a rock wall.

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

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

“Those are the things that happen in match play playoffs, right, where he makes a great up and down to make 4 and I three-putt and keep going,” said Howell, who won the playoff and advanced to the round of 16 with a birdie at the fifth overtime frame. “Like that shank I had yesterday to keep the match going, right, and you're just like, how does this happen?”

Or Kevin Na’s plight on Day 3 when he cruised out to a 4-up lead against Chris Wood needing only to earn a half point to advance to the Sweet 16, but watched as the Englishman went 5 under through his next six holes to win the match, 2 and 1.

Matthew Fitzpatrick completed Na's nightmare scenario by beating Justin Thomas, 2 and 1, to force the day’s second playoff.

“[Wood] made four birdies and an eagle in a nine-hole stretch and I couldn't keep up,” said Na, who birdied the first playoff hole to advance to the weekend. “On 16, I asked the walking scorer what happened to the match in front of me [Fitzpatrick and Thomas]. I knew if they halved, I would have still advanced with a loss today. I found out that Fitzpatrick came back and won. So my goal was I've got to put this behind me and go play one great hole.”

All total, there were five playoffs needed to complete the field of 16, with Bill Haas having the longest haul following a 4-and-2 victory over K.T. Kim in the morning and a six-hole playoff bout that ended with the American advancing after a 22-hole day.

By comparison, Marc Leishman needed only two holes on Day 3, a playoff with Lee Westwood and Pat Perez, to advance to Saturday after sitting out his Friday match because of Jason Day’s withdrawal earlier in the week.

Odd, indeed.

And that doesn’t even include those 23 players who arrived at Austin Country Club on Friday with no chance to earn a spot in the knock-out rounds, like Rory McIlroy and Emiliano Grillo, who found themselves involved in one of four meaningless matches between two players with no chance of advancing.

“It is odd whenever you have nothing to play for. I guess that's both of our faults. We didn't win our matches on the first day,” said McIlroy, who lost on Day 1 to Soren Kjeldsen, didn’t play on Thursday after Gary Woodland withdrew and was eliminated when Kjeldsen won his Day 2 match. “If it had been the old format [one-and-done match play], I would have already been home. It is what it is and I just needed to play better on that first day to at least have something to play for today.”

McIlroy was the highest seeded player to not make it to the weekend, and he was joined on the sidelines by Jordan Spieth who has now failed to advance out of round-robin play twice since it began in 2015.

In what was a devastating blow to chalk, the second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and ninth-seeded players all failed to make it to the Sweet 16, a statistical absurdity only partially explained by Day’s withdrawal.

If there was an outlier to that trend it was Dustin Johnson. The world No. 1 continued his dominate performance with a 5-and-3 victory over Jimmy Walker and enters the weekend having not trailed in any match.

“No matter what ranking I am, I feel like I should win. I'm playing well, but anything can happen in match play,” said Johnson, who is vying to join Tiger Woods as the only players to win back-to-back World Golf Championships following his victory earlier this month in Mexico City. “I feel like I've got a little bit of an advantage just because I'm playing really well.”

Given how weird the week has gone, it was no surprise that Johnson’s dominance has been rivaled only by Phil Mickelson, who hasn’t played the weekend at the Match Play since 2004 but rolled to the Sweet 16 with three easy victories. Odd, right?

But that’s the new-look Match Play, doing its part to keep Austin weird.

Getty Images

McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, four shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

Getty Images

Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

Getty Images

The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

Getty Images

Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation.