In new Match Play format, winning isn't everything

By Rex HoggardMarch 23, 2017, 12:11 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Oakland Raiders legend Al Davis built a franchise around the concept – just win, baby.

In sports, style points are often overrated and moral victories are the athletic equivalent of the outrageously backhanded comment, “Bless his heart.”

Golf is certainly not immune to the concept. Sometimes you win “ugly,” but that doesn’t make the hardware shine any less and no one has ever lamented their poor play during a victory speech.

But as Monday’s action unfolded at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the concept of a bad win and a good loss had a slightly less ridiculous hue.

Consider Charl Schwartzel’s 6-and-5 thumping of Byeong Hun An on Day 1 at Austin Country Club. To the casual observer, the South African was dominant, but a closer inspection reveals that he was just 1 under par through 13 holes and offset two early bogeys with a pair of clutch late birdie putts.

It’s the nature of match play, a format that sometimes identifies the fortunate as much as it does the in-form. In Schwartzel’s case, An struggled mightily on Wednesday with seven bogeys and not a single birdie.

“That's the thing. I didn't play that well in the beginning but afterwards I made the shots I needed to hit,” Schwartzel said. “I was backing off and just hitting shots in the fairway, on the green and applying a lot of pressure, because it made him force the issue. And he sort of kept making mistakes.”

On the other side of that capricious reality was Rory McIlroy, the second-seeded player this week who ran into a 5-foot-8 Danish buzz saw named Soren Kjeldsen.

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Kjeldsen did everything right: a birdie at the first for an early lead, just a single bogey for 17 holes and a torrid finish that included four birdies over his last four holes for a 2-and-1 victory.

“I played well. If I had played anyone else I might have won,” said McIlroy, who was 4 under for 17 holes. “Soren played great. I think I have to give him credit. He played really, really well, from the first hole.”

It should have been no surprise that McIlroy, who won this event in 2015, didn’t seem utterly crushed by his loss to the 68th-ranked player in the world. This wasn’t Mt. St. Mary’s upsetting Villanova on Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament and McIlroy still has two more days to make it right thanks to the transition to the round-robin format in ’15.

And McIlroy, who is every bit as competitive as the next guy, also understands the nature of match play, which in golf can create a unique gray area when it comes to hashing out the relative winners and losers.

“I was thinking about it last night, would you rather lose at 5 under or win at level par?” Kjeldsen said. “Obviously, you would like to win. At the end of the day when you go away from this tournament you want to feel like you've played well and you've got some momentum in the game.”

It’s an interesting concept, whether losing with style and substance can somehow rival winning with grit and good timing. Paul Casey, who beat Joost Luiten, 2 and 1, quickly smiled when asked which option he’d prefer.

“I’d rather play poorly and win. A win is a win,” Casey said. “I’d rather take the wins and 1-under [rounds] if I can see light at the end of the tunnel. But if you are in desperation and you're trending in the wrong direction and shooting the 1-unders and winning, you are going to be thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m lucky to be winning.”

We get it, you are what your record says you are, and winning is the objective, or, as Tiger Woods famously maintained, second sucks. But pressed further, Casey’s point becomes a bit more vague.

Asked if he can recall ever winning with something less than his best stuff in any of the 34 matches he’s played at the Match Play, the Englishman’s answer was telling.

“I don’t remember many of those,” Casey admitted. “I do remember the year it was straight knock out [2008], I played Robert Karlsson and I think he shot something like 64 and lost to me. He went through every other match, all the other 31 matches on the course and figured out he would have beaten every other player in the field except me. He wasn’t happy.

“Those I remember. I have a selective memory. I erase the other ones. I don’t remember the ugly stuff.”

But isn’t that the point, the less-then-stellar rounds – be they clutch victories or crushing defeats – fade to memory, but the days when everything is clicking, regardless of outcome, endure?

“Yeah OK, you’re right,” Casey allowed.

Davis’ simple premise remains true, in sports it’s always about winning, but at the Match Play there are always varying shades of success and failure.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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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.