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.
Rose (64) peaking just ahead of the U.S. Open
A former U.S. Open champion appears to be finding his form just three weeks ahead of the year's second major.
Justin Rose ascended to the top of the leaderboard Friday at the Fort Worth Invitational, with rounds of 66-64 pushing him to 10 under par for the week.
Through 36 at Colonial, Rose has marked 12 birdies against just two bogeys.
"Yeah, I did a lot of good things today," Rose said. "I think, you know, the end of my round got a little scrappy, but until the last three holes it was pretty flawless. I think I hit every fairway pretty much and obviously every green to that point. ...
"Yeah, the way I played through, I guess through my first 15 holes today, was about as good as I've played in a long time."
Rose won in back-to-back weeks last fall, stunning Dustin Johnson at the WGC-HSBC Championship and riding that victory right into another at the Turkish Airlines Open.
Now the 2013 U.S. Open winner at Merion feels himself once again rounding into form ahead of this year's Open at Shinnecock. A final-round 66 at The Players gave Rose something to focus on in his recent practice sessions with swing coach Sean Foley, as the two work to shore up the timing of Rose's transition into the downswing.
As for his decision to tee it up at Colonial for the first time since 2010, "It was more the run of form really," Rose explained. "I feel like if I didn't play here it was going to be a little spotty going into the U.S. Open. I felt like I wanted to play enough golf where I would have a good read on my game going into Shinnecock.
"So rather than the venue it was more the timing, but it's obviously it's just such a bonus to be on a great layout like this."
For whatever reason, Rose does tend to play his best golf at iconic venues, having won PGA Tour events at Muirfield Village, Aronimink, Cog Hill, Doral, Merion and Congressional.
Koepka (63): Two wrist dislocations in two months
Brook Koepka's journey back from a wrist injury that kept him out four months hasn't been totally smooth sailing, even if his play has suggested otherwise.
Koepka on Friday fired a 7-under 63 to move up the leaderboard into a tie for third, three shots behind leader Justin Rose through the end of the morning wave at the Fort Worth Invitational.
After a slow start Thursday saw him play his first 13 holes 3 over, Koepka is 10 under with 11 birdies in his last 23 holes at Colonial.
"It doesn't matter to me. I could care less. I'm still going to try as hard as I can," Koepka said. "I don't care how many over or how many under I am. Still going to fight through it."
Just like he's been fighting his wrist the last two months or so. Koepka reinjured his wrist the Wednesday of The Players when he was practicing on the range and had to halt mid-swing after a golf cart drove in front of him. He nonetheless managed to finish T-11.
And that's not the only issue he's had with that wrist during his return.
"We had a bone pop out of place. I didn't tell anybody, but, yeah, they popped it back in," Koepka admitted Friday. "Luckily enough we kind of popped it back into place right away so it wasn't stiff and I didn't have too, too many problems.
"Yeah. I mean, I've dislocated my wrist twice in the last two months. You know, different spots, but, I mean, it's fun. I'll be all right."
Twitter spat turns into fundraising opportunity
Country music star Jake Owen, along with Brandt Snedeker, has turned a spat on Twitter into a fundraising campaign that will support Snedeker’s foundation.
On Thursday, Owen was criticized during the opening round of the Web.com Tour’s Nashville Golf Open, which benefits the Snedeker Foundation, for his poor play after opening with an 86.
In response, Snedeker and country singer Chris Young pledged $5,000 for every birdie that Owen makes on Friday in a campaign called NGO Birdies for Kids.
Although Owen, who is playing the event on a sponsor exemption, doesn’t tee off for Round 2 in Nashville until 2 p.m. (CT), the campaign has already generated interest, with NBC Sports/Golf Channel analyst Peter Jacobsen along with Web.com Tour player Zac Blair both pledging $100 for every birdie Owen makes.
Noren so impressed by Rory: 'I'm about to quit golf'
Alex Noren won the BMW PGA Championship last year, one of his nine career European Tour victories.
He opened his title defense at Wentworth Club in 68-69 and is tied for fourth through two rounds. Unfortunately, he's five back of leader Rory McIlroy. And after playing the first two days alongside McIlroy, Noren, currently ranked 19th in the world, doesn't seem to like his chances of back-to-back wins.
McIlroy opened in 67 and then shot a bogey-free 65 in second round, which included pars on the pair of par-5 finishing holes. Noren walked away left in awe.
"That's the best round I've ever seen," Noren said. "I'm about to quit golf, I think."
Check out the full interview below: