Weekly 18: The future is now for McIlroy

By Jason SobelFebruary 27, 2012, 4:30 pm

Call it golf’s most dangerous game.

The reason there aren’t more tournaments featuring a match-play format – and I’ll examine this at greater length later in the column – is the fact that the event always shrinks as it progresses and the final match is a nationally televised crapshoot, with potential for causing as many Sunday afternoon naps as edge-of-your-seat moments.

This year’s edition of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, however, clearly ranked among the latter, with Hunter Mahan outdueling Rory McIlroy in a match-up of young, affable superstars.

There were storylines galore during the 36-hole final day, most revolving around the increasing emergence of McIlroy. The Weekly 18 begins with the idea that this is only the start of much bigger things for him this season.

1. Movin' on up

In three starts so far this season, Rory McIlroy owns two runner-up finishes and a fifth place. A misanthrope may point to the fact that he has yet to add to his five career professional victories as proof that he can’t come through in the clutch, but the rest of are just waiting for the dam to burst and titles to start pouring through.

It’s becoming all too obvious that McIlroy is on the verge of very big things. Not that the reigning U.S. Open champion hasn’t reached such a level previously, but his occasional dominance now appears to have been joined by a high level of consistency, as well.

There are certain aspects of different players’ games which separate them from other tiers of their peers. When Tiger Woods was atop the golf world, what separated him was not only continued dominance, but that high level of consistency. Even on weeks in which he had only his “B” or “C” game, Woods would fail to contend for most of the week, only to finish in, say, a share of fifth place when the tournament was over.

Without question, Rory has enough expectations on his increasingly broad shoulders than to be saddled with constant Tiger comparisons, but it’s an appropriate allegory considering his recent elevation. Most players – even the upper 1 percent of the elite echelon – encounter cyclical ebbs and flows to their performance charts, but only the best of the best can find themselves on leaderboards week after week.

Tiger Woods separated himself from the pack by accomplishing that for years. Luke Donald did so last season. And we may be on the verge of witnessing Rory McIlroy enjoy a similar type of high-level consistency this year.

2. What I Learned

I learned that Rory McIlroy wasn’t ready to become the No. 1-ranked player in the world. No, that will have to wait another week or two or three, because I also learned that the youngster’s ascension to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking is now an inevitability. McIlroy has made no secret about his dogged determination to become No. 1 and now it appears only a matter of time before the devious formula calculates in his favor and adds up to a new level of achievement. He said earlier in the week that ranking notwithstanding Tiger Woods is still the game’s best player. After winning five of six matches in the desert, Rory may not find too many peers who agree with that statement. He’s right about the “best” and the “top-ranked” not always being one and the same, but when McIlroy reaches that level soon, those terms may actually be synonymous.

For a more complete look at What We Learned, click here.

Three Up

Hunter Mahan

3. Hunter Mahan

If the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is akin to the NCAA basketball tournament – at least in format – then what we witnessed this weekend was golf’s equivalent of the Big East or ACC having three teams qualify for the Final Four.

In this game’s variation on conferences, one equipment manufacturer saw three of its players reach the semifinals, as Ping stalwarts Mahan, Mark Wilson and Lee Westwood each made it to Sunday.

That news is especially pertinent for Mahan, as the champion employed a few equipment changes prior to the opening round. The one making headlines – and rightfully so – is his switch to the Nome putter, which occurred just prior to the event.

As one Ping staffer told me, “He put it in his bag on Monday after a session with senior PGA Tour rep Matt Rollins at Dove Mountain’s putting green. They put a laser device in front of the face of Hunter’s putter to check his alignment and it turned out Hunter was aiming a couple inches left of the hole with his putter. After experimenting with a few other models with different hosels, Matt put the Nome in Hunter’s hands and his alignment was square every time. He rolled a few putts and most went in, so he took it on the course for a nine-hole test and switched to it. This is a huge change for Hunter as he has used an Anser-style putter his entire career.”

Additionally, Mahan had switched out the shaft in his G20 driver two weeks earlier and put a new G20 3-wood into the bag on Tuesday.

Without a doubt, mental fortitude and technical precision were the most important tools in Mahan claiming a 6-0 record this past week. But some more tangible tools had a major impact on the final result, too.

4. Angela Stanford

Simply put, Stanford is too talented to have not won since the beginning of the 2009 season.

That’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment on her game. Since that win at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay to kick off the ’09 campaign, Stanford has pulled 28 top-10 finishes in 70 starts without another victory.

Until now.

Stanford outlasted three other competitors in what turned out to be a three-hole rain-delayed playoff at the HSBC Women’s Champions to claim her fifth career title.

“I haven't won a major yet, so this is the closest thing so far,” Stanford said about the importance of this win. “The best players in the world are here and they call it Asia's major, so it's the closest thing to me.”

5. Fake Ben Crane

The real Ben Crane is pretty cool. Four career wins, excellent putter, wears a mean unitard.

But his fake doppelganger may be a little more intimidating.

A mannequin dressed like Crane and brandishing a golf club in the Copenhagen, Denmark, headquarters of ShowMeGolfers thwarted a robbery last week. According to reports, burglars broke a window, but upon seeing what they believed to be a real person, they fled the scene without taking anything.

And that’s not even the best part.

According to a USA Today account, “upon arriving at the scene, police officers pulled their guns on the Crane lookalike and asked him to drop his gun before realizing it was a mannequin.”

All of which left the real Crane feeling downright proud at “his” achievement.

'I am pumped. This is awesome,' he told the newspaper. 'It's weird, I'll tell you that. But it's great news. And I technically saved a major robbery. When the cops got there, they soon realized I had it all under control.'

Three Down

Zack Miller at the McGladrey Classic

6. Zack Miller

In two rounds at the Mayakoba Golf Classic, Miller posted rounds of 81-92 that included a total of four double bogeys, four triple bogeys and a quad.

I’m not here to pile on, nor will I poke fun at a struggling young pro who undoubtedly already feels badly enough about what took place.

Allow me, though, to provide some details and put those two rounds into some perspective.

According to someone who witnessed every shot, Miller had what can only be described as swing yips and a two-way miss. After the second round, rather than retiring to the 19th hole or heading to the airport, he answered questions from reporters, then went straight to the driving range, where he received an impromptu lesson from Don Levin (Spencer’s father) and hit about eight bags of balls.

Miller should be commended for not only continuing to play through all 36 holes – his caddie asked if he wanted to withdraw after the front nine on Friday – but signing his scorecard, something many others in the same situation before him have avoided, but he felt was his “duty as a professional.”

It’s obvious the 27-year-old has some work to do before he recovers, but here’s hoping that time comes. And when it does, Miller will be able to look back on his results from this past week with a dismissive smile.

7. Tiger Woods

Let’s not make any grandiose proclamations about Woods’ second-round exit at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. After all, 48 of the 64 competitors exited the desert before Friday, so he should hardly come under full criticism for his loss to Nick Watney.

Of course, Tiger being Tiger his game is always more scrutinized than that of every other player in the field. I’m still bullish on his prospects for the remainder of the year, but allow me to reiterate a few observations about his game that were again on full display this week.

First, he needs a short-game instructor. Following the third round at Pebble Beach a few weeks ago, he once again explained that his father Earl – who passed away in 2006 – remains the sole putting coach he’s ever had. “When I have to make them, [when] it's a must-make putt,” he said, “I revert back to a lot of my dad's teachings.'

Not that he should ever forget the lessons of his father, but whether it’s a full-time guru like Dave Stockton or Stan Utley or just another set of eyes that can look at his putting stroke, it’s hardly a bad idea to get a fresh perspective. Sean Foley recently told me that while Woods’ former coaches Butch Harmon and Hank Haney would work with him on this part of his game, Foley keeps his input focused on the swing.

Tiger apparently understands the value of having someone else check his stroke, because as some of my Golf Channel colleagues noted prior to the Match Play, he was seeking advice from Steve Stricker both during and after their practice round together. That’s all well and good, but he can’t expect a fellow competitor – even a friend – to serve in that capacity.

Second, it’s time for Tiger to stop treating the par-5s like he’s a brash, long-bombing 21-year-old. Back then, he would patently go for every par-5 in two, often coming up on the right side of the risk-reward proposition, finding plenty of makable eagle putts.

That isn’t happening nearly as often anymore. Woods’ par-5 birdie-or-better percentage has declined mightily the past two-plus years. The good news is there’s an easy solution: Laying up. It may not be the macho thing to do, but Zach Johnson won a green jacket employing that strategy – and green jackets are eminently macho.

Woods is probably one of the best wedge players of all time and undoubtedly one of the best of this generation. In his two matches this week, though, he played the eight combined par-5 holes in just 2 under par, while mostly going for the green in two. I’d love to see his score had he simply laid up to a comfortable wedge distance each time, in effect turning each of these holes into a short par-3.

In each case, what worked early in his career hasn’t been working lately. And in each case, Tiger has the ability to make a change and adapt to life as a middle-ager in the pro game.

8. Luke Donald

He is still the world’s No. 1-ranked player, but his lead is quickly diminishing by the week.

On the bright side, Donald achieved his best result of the season at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Of course, that’s only because his T-33 finish for a first-round drubbing at the hands of Ernie Els usurped his T-48 in Abu Dhabi and T-56 at Riviera.

Despite the poor start for a man who was a veritable top-10 machine last year, this is hardly panic time for Donald, who has reached such lofty heights largely by outworking his fellow competitors.

The best players in the world often talk about having their games peak four times per year – and that number can be extended to five for Europeans and Americans during a Ryder Cup year.

If Donald can finally break through for that first career major championship victory, his slow start will forever be forgotten. If, however, the slow start leads to further sluggish play throughout the year, expect him to look back on the first few months to examine where it all went awry.

9. Fact or Fiction

There should be more than one match-play event on the annual PGA Tour schedule.

The cries of support ring out every year at this time. After watching five days of match play, fans question why there aren’t more events that employ this format.

Well, there are a few good reasons for that.

The first is due to the fact that television ratings don’t support the format. Unless a combination of two top players reaches the Sunday final, it’s a hard sell to casual fans. You may have been glued to the screen when Henrik Stenson beat Geoff Ogilvy or Kevin Sutherland topped Scott McCarron, but you’re in the minority.

The second goes hand-in-hand with the first. Purists may disagree, but watching two people play golf just isn’t very exciting. That goes double for a televised event when there’s nothing else to show in between shots. It’s a cruel irony of this event. Unlike every other one on the schedule, the most interesting and entertaining day comes first, then each subsequent day pales in comparison.

Don’t get me wrong. I love match-play events and encourage amateur golfers to partake in the format whenever possible. But there are certain reasons why they aren’t – and shouldn’t be – more of 'em on the PGA Tour. For those reasons, consider the above statement to be FICTION.

10. Quote of the Week

“I’d feel better if I could punch [Nick] Faldo flat on the back of the neck.” – Matt Kuchar after his quarterfinal loss.

Before you start bracing for an analyst/player brawl, consider the source. Kuchar is one of the PGA Tour’s nice guys and was simply cracking on Faldo – but as he explained afterward, it could have been anyone.

Sir Nick later tweeted: “Matt Kuchar sought me. Said, ‘I'm sorry, I was trying to say something funny. Didn't come out right,’ Hey, we are okay mate! #nostory!”     Click for more Quotes of the Week

11. Video Mailbag

The Grey Goose panel previews the Honda Classic and we discuss our expectations for Tiger Woods on his road to the Masters in this Grey Goose Internet Extra.

Three Wishes

Luke Donald drops at the WGC-Accenture Match Play

12. I wish we could retire the term “upset” when discussing the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Because of the integration of brackets and seeds, the Match Play often draws comparisons to March Madness. And so, victories by lower-seeded players are regularly considered “upsets” by the masses, when in fact that couldn’t be further from the truth.

If the 64th- and final-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament defeats the No. 1-ranked squad, now that’s an upset of David-over-Goliath proportions. (As proof, it’s never happened.) But for a player like Ernie Els to beat Luke Donald? Well, that may happen four times out of 10 – and this just happened to be one of those four.

For there to really be upsets in the Match Play, the tournament would probably have to be extrapolated tenfold. Which is to say, the No. 1 player would compete against the 640th-ranked player.

If that was the case and little-known David McKenzie of Australia knocked off Donald, well, then we have a real upset. But with the top 64 in the world so closely bunched together, the term under the current format simply doesn’t apply.

13. I wish every major winner “changed” like Charl Schwartzel.

We hear it all the time. Golfer wins his first major championship, then he’s later asked how the experience has changed him.

The response is always similar: “I’m the same person I’ve always been. I haven’t changed at all.” Then he grabs his wife, three kids and five nannies, hops into the awaiting limo and heads for his private jet.

Not so for Schwartzel. The defending Masters champion recently partook in a teleconference for this year’s edition of the event and once again reiterated his desire to barbeque meats for the upcoming Champions Dinner – with him manning the grill in his green jacket.

For more on Schwartzel, click here.

14. I wish the timing of the PGA Tour’s extension with FedEx made sense.

Two years ago, Tiger Woods came out of hiding after his personal scandal and held a one-man press conference during the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship a few thousand miles from the tournament site.

At the time, Woods was roundly criticized for taking away from the importance of the tournament, with some going so far as to claim that it was a prepared backlash against Accenture, which had dropped him as a client in the months prior.

Obviously we’re talking apples and oranges, but I still found it interesting that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s decision to announce the FedEx extension on Wednesday morning as the opening-round matches were about to begin didn’t claim any of the same accusations, even after he commenced the news conference by saying, “I know we have an early start and I know this is an inconvenient time for some of you getting ready to cover those matches.”

Good for Finchem and the Tour brass for getting FedEx to buy into a format that many of their own constituents still haven’t completely bought into. Fantastic business decision. That’s not the issue here. It just seems that for a news story so major – and one that was hardly a secret and couldn’t have had the ink dry that very morning – it need not have been squeezed in during the morning of golf’s most exciting Wednesday.

Weird call by the Tour. Probably even weirder in that Finchem acknowledged the poor timing and still chose to make the announcement that morning.

15. Stat of the Week

Some great research from Golf Channel coordinating producer and resident OWGR guru Alan Robison:

It’s moot now, but as mentioned ad infinitum throughout the week, if McIlroy had won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, he would have reached No. 1 in the ranking for the first time.

You knew that already. What you may not have known is that if McIlroy had skipped this week’s Honda Classic, he would have remained No. 1.

OK, that makes sense. But here’s something you probably didn’t know: With Rory in the field at the Honda, there was a decent chance that he could have lost that No. 1 status after just one week.

Because his divisor will increase from 50 to 51, McIlroy would have needed a top-20 finish or so in order to remain ahead of Donald, who isn’t playing. He would have needed something around a top 10 to stay ahead of Lee Westwood if he goes on to win this week’s event.

Like I said, though, it’s all moot now. Instead, we’re left with some other intriguing scenarios entering this week’s tournament.

According to the latest projection, McIlroy will need 34 points to surpass Donald and become No. 1. Based on last year’s points allocation at the Honda, a solo second-place finish should get it done. Westwood, meanwhile, will need 51 points to move into the top spot. He can get it with a victory – but only with a victory.

16. Photo of the Week

Paula Creamer at the HSBC Women

Ah, the old exploding-ball trick. Haven't seen that one since '83. View all Photos of the Week.

17. From the Inbox

On Thursday, after the opening round of the HSBC Women’s Champions, I tweeted the following in regard to the leader and another player well down the leaderboard:

Angela Stanford leads LPGA tourney after 6-under 66. Michelle Wie is 13 shots back. I believe that would be called flunking out of Stanford.

It was just an innocent joke. I tend to do that on Twitter.

Of course, being the polarizing figure that Wie is, it prompted some interesting comments about her, including this one:

@David Daniel: what's the most appropriate descriptor for wie's career to date? Bust? Unfulfilled potential? Circus sideshow? Waste of talent?

Actually, I’d go with “wildly impressive.”

No, her results have yet to outweigh the lofty expectations set upon her as a precocious teenager who was competing in PGA Tour events, but to label Wie as a “bust” is hugely inaccurate.

Instead, she’s won two professional events and established herself as a top-20 player in the world (she was No. 18 entering this past week), all while taking a full course load at Stanford University.

Think about it: If a 22-year-old male collegian already owned two titles and was ranked 18th in the world, not only would he not be a bust, but we would be ready to induct him into the Hall of Fame already.

Wie deserves the same courtesy, expectations notwithstanding.

18. And the Winner Is…

Graeme McDowell

This week’s Honda Classic begins on March 1, but Graeme McDowell will enter the year’s third month with a total of just one PGA Tour round under his belt, having lost in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship to Y.E. Yang.

Following his career year of 2010, McDowell struggled at times last season, earning just three top-10s in the U.S. One of those, though, came at the Honda, where he finished in a share of sixth place – and it should bode well for his chances this week, too.

He spoke in the offseason about not being able to live up to his own expectations last year (you can read about that subject here: McDowell hopeful for brighter future), but he sounds like a man determined to return to the winner’s circle soon.

The friendly – not to mention windy – confines of PGA National could afford his next great opportunity.

Getty Images

New dad Garcia removes shoes, wins match

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 12:48 am

AUSTIN, Texas – In one of the day’s most explosive matches, Sergio Garcia rolled in an 8-footer for birdie at the 18th hole to defeat Shubhankar Sharma, 1 up, at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

The duo halved just nine holes on Day 1 at Austin Country Club, with Garcia going from 2 up through four holes to 1 down with five holes to play.

But the Spaniard rallied with five birdies over his final eight holes and pushed his record to 20-17-1 in the Match Play. He also gave himself his best chance to advance out of pool play since the format began in 2015.

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

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

The victory continued what has already been a memorable week for Garcia, whose wife, Angela, gave birth to the couple’s first child last Wednesday.

“I already feel like I’m a winner after what happened on Wednesday,” Garcia said. “Obviously, it's something that we're so, so happy and proud of and enjoying it as much as possible.”

The highlight of Garcia’s round on Wednesday came at the 12th hole when he took a drop on a cart path. After considering his options, he removed his shoes and hit his approach from 212 yards to 29 feet for a two-putt birdie to halve the hole.

“I have spikes. So if I don't take my shoes off, I'm going to slip. It's not the kind of shot that you want to slip,” Garcia said. “I had tried it a couple of times on practice swings and I was already slipping a little bit. So I thought I would just take my shoes off, try to get a little bit in front of the hole and it came out great.”

Getty Images

On a wild Wednesday, DJ, Rory, Phil saved by the pool

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 12:39 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Call it black Wednesday, but then the one-and-done aspect of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was dulled three years ago with the introduction of round-robin play that assures every player at least three matches in pool play.

Otherwise Wednesday at Austin Country Club would go down as one of the championship’s darkest hours for the top of the dance card. In order, world No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson dropped his Day 1 match, 3 and 1, to world No. 56 Bernd Wiesberger; last week’s winner Rory McIlroy lost to PGA Tour rookie Peter Uihlein, 2 and 1, and Phil Mickelson, the winner of the last WGC in Mexico, dropped a 3-and-2 decision to Charles Howell III.

All told, 11 lower-seeded players pulled off “upsets” on Wednesday, although it’s widely held that the Match Play is more prone to these types of underdog performances than the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But if it wasn’t March Madness, it was at the least March Mayhem, particularly for those who shuffled around Austin Country Club in a state of mild confusion.

Although there were plenty of matches that went according to plan – with top-seeded players Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and Sergio Garcia all winning – it was still a tough day for chalk with three of the top 10 players in the world ranking either losing or halving (world No. 3 Jon Rahm halved his duel with Keegan Bradley) their matches.

At least McIlroy made things interesting after finding himself 5 down through 13 holes. The Northern Irishman played his last six holes in 5 under par to push the match to the 17th hole, but Uihlein closed out the bout with a par.

“If he birdies seven straight on you, hats off to him. It is what it is,” Uihlein said of McIlroy’s late surge. “I felt like if I just kind of kept giving myself a chance, I didn't want to give him any holes. He made me earn it, so hats off to it.”

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

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

Johnson couldn’t say the same thing.

After not trailing in any match on his way to victory at last year’s Match Play, Johnson hit a ball in the water, two out of bounds (on the same hole, no less) and began to fade when he made a double bogey-5 at the 11th hole. Although scoring is always skewed at the Match Play because of conceded putts, Johnson was listed at 9 over through 17 holes before his day came to a merciful end.

“We both didn't have a great day. I think we only made three birdies between us, which is not a lot out here,” Wiesberger said. “Obviously it wasn't his best day. It wasn't the best of my days. I think we both have to do a little bit of work this afternoon.”

Although not as scrappy as Johnson’s round, Mickelson has also seen better days. Lefty made just a single birdie and played 17 holes in even par to lose just his second match in pool play.

But then this event hasn’t exactly been kind to Lefty, who has advanced to the weekend just twice in 13 starts.

“I was fortunate today, obviously, to get past him,” said Howell, who is the second-lowest seeded player to advance out of pool play when he did it in 2017 as the 61st player in the field. “But with this pod play the way it goes now, you never know. You've got to keep playing good. Last WGC we had, he won. So he's never out of it.”

That will be the solace those high-profile players who find themselves on the wrong side of the round-robin ledger now cling to. There is a path back.

Since pool play began, just four players have lost their Day 1 matches and went on to win their group. One of those players is Johnson, who lost to Robert Streb on Wednesday in 2016 but still advanced to the quarterfinals.

But if that helps ease the sting for those who now embrace the Match Play mulligan, it did little to quiet the crowds on what turned out to be a wild Wednesday.

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Match-by-match: 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies, Day 1

By Will GrayMarch 22, 2018, 12:22 am

Here is how things played out on Day 1 of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, as 64 players take on Austin Country Club with hopes of advancing out of pool play:

Group 1: (52) Bernd Wiesberger def. (1) Dustin Johnson, 3 and 1: Down goes the defending champ. Johnson never trailed in any match en route to victory last year, and he won five holes against Wiesberger. But that wasn't enough as the Austrian turned an all-square affair into an upset victory by winning three straight from Nos. 15-17.

Group 1: (32) Kevin Kisner vs. (38) Adam Hadwin, halved: This was a tight one throughout, as neither player held more than a 1-up lead. Kisner held a lead for much of the back nine, but Hadwin birdied the 17th to draw even and the match was halved when they both made par on the final hole.

Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas def. (60) Luke List, 2 up: In perhaps the most entertaining match of the morning, Thomas edged List in a rematch of last month's Honda Classic playoff despite List spending much of the round putting with a wedge after bending his putter. Thomas was 3 up with four to play before List pushed the match the distance.

Group 2: (21) Francesco Molinari def. (48) Patton Kizzire, 3 and 1: Molinari turned a tight match into a victory thanks to a few timely errors from Kizzire. Pars on Nos. 14 and 17 were good enough to win the hole for Molinari, with the latter sealing his victory and moving him a step closer to a potential winner-take-all battle with Thomas on Friday.

Group 3: (3) Jon Rahm vs. (63) Keegan Bradley, halved: Rahm was a runner-up at this event last year, but he got all he could handle from one of the last men in the field. Bradley was 2 up with three holes to play, but bogeys on two of the final three holes opened the door for the Spaniard to escape with a draw.

Group 3: (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat def. (43) Chez Reavie, 3 and 2: Aphibarnrat took the lead in his group with a victory over Reavie during which he never trailed. The globetrotting Thai held a 2-up lead at the turn and closed things out with a birdie on No. 16. Reavie won only two holes all day.

Group 4: (4) Jordan Spieth def. (49) Charl Schwartzel, 2 and 1: The top seed in the group scored an early point in a battle between former Masters champs. Spieth never trailed and took control of the match with three straight wins on Nos. 12-14.

Group 4: (19) Patrick Reed def. (34) Haotong Li, 3 and 2: Reed's much-anticipated match with Spieth is still two days away, but he dispatched of Li in his opener by winning the opening hole and never trailing the rest of the way. Li got to within one of Reed after 10 holes but the American won three of the next five to separate.

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama def. (53) Yusaku Miyazato, 2 and 1: This all-Japanese battle went to the group's top seed, as Matsuyama poured in a birdie on the par-3 17th to close out the match. Miyazato got off to a strong start, holding a 2-up lead through six holes, before Matsuyama turned the tables with two birdies over the next three holes.

Group 5: (46) Cameron Smith def. (30) Patrick Cantlay, 2 up: Smith never trailed in the match, but it turned into a closer contest than it appeared when the Aussie held a 3-up lead with four holes to play. Uihlein won the next two holes, but he couldn't get any closer as Smith earned a critical victory as he looks to earn a Masters spot by staying in the top 50 in the world rankings after this week.

Group 6: (57) Peter Uihlein def. (6) Rory McIlroy, 2 and 1: McIlroy won last week at Bay Hill, but he's now playing catch up after a decisive loss to Uihlein. The American held a 5-up lead before McIlroy reeled off five straight birdies to cut the lead to 2-up, but a par from Uihlein on the 17th hole sealed the upset.

Group 6: (18) Brian Harman vs. (44) Jhonattan Vegas, halved: This was a tight match throughout, with Harman clinging to a 1-up lead for most of the back nine. But Vegas rolled in a birdie putt on the final green to salvage half a point, much to the delight of the Austin galleries who were out supporting the former Longhorn.

Group 7: (7) Sergio Garcia def. (62) Shubankhar Sharma, 1 up: Garcia and Sharma took turns leading this match throughout the day, with the Indian holding a 1-up advantage through 13 holes. But Garcia won the next hole to square the match, then earned a full point with a birdie on the 18th hole in his first competitive start since becoming a father last week.

Group 7: (20) Xander Schauffele def. (41) Dylan Frittelli, 1 up: The reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year got the best of the former Longhorn in a tight match that went the distance. Schauffele led for much of the afternoon before Frittelli drew level with wins on Nos. 14 and 15. But Schauffele won the next hole and held on from there.

Group 8: (8) Jason Day def. (56) James Hahn, 4 and 2: Day is a former winner of this event, and he separated from Hahn on the back nine to score an early point. Hahn offered a concession on No. 13 to fall 3 down, then conceded again on No. 16 to close the match.

Group 8: (25) Louis Oosthuizen def. (42) Jason Dufner, 1 up: Oosthuizen appeared poised for an easy point before Dufner rallied with three straight wins on Nos. 14-16 to square the match. But Oosthuizen regained a lead with a par on No. 17 and held on for a hard-fought victory.

Group 9: (58) Ian Poulter def. (9) Tommy Fleetwood, 3 and 2: The match between Englishman went to the veteran, as Poulter took his putter from the 2012 Ryder Cup out of the closet and put it to quick use. Fleetwood won only two holes during the match, none after the eighth hole, and he now faces the prospect of early elimination as the group's top seed.

Group 9: (33) Kevin Chappell def. (26) Daniel Berger, 3 and 2: Chappell and Berger were Presidents Cup teammates in the fall, but the opener went to Chappell. Berger won the 13th hole to draw all square, but Chappell reeled off three straight birdies on Nos. 14-16 in response to close out the match.

Group 10: (10) Paul Casey def. (51) Russell Henley, 1 up: Casey is making his first start since winning at Innisbrook, and he scored an early point after rallying back against Henley. The Englishman didn't lead in the match until the final hole, when Henley's tee shot found the hazard leading to an ill-timed concession.

Group 10: (45) Kyle Stanley def. (31) Matthew Fitzpatrick, 1 up: Stanley is making his first match play appearance since 2012, and he got off to a promising start by edging the Englishman. Fitzpatrick was 2 up with five holes to go, but Stanley won three holes the rest of the way including a birdie on the 18th hole to secure a full point.

Group 11: (64) Julian Suri def. (11) Marc Leishman, 3 and 2: Suri was the last man to get into the field following the withdrawal of Joost Luiten, but he's already on the board with an early point. Suri won each of the first two holes and never trailed in the match, closing out Leishman with a birdie on the par-5 16th.

Group 11: (35) Bubba Watson def. (23) Branden Grace, 5 and 3: Watson was absolutely unstoppable in the biggest rout of the day. The two-time Masters champ made seven birdies over his first nine holes, making the turn with a 6-up advantage. Grace never stood a chance.

Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton def. (55) Alexander Levy, 3 and 2: Hatton won the opening hole with a par and never trailed the rest of the way. Levy's win on the eighth hole proved to be his only victory of the day, as Hatton barely had to break a sweat after building a 3-up lead through five holes.

Group 12: (36) Brendan Steele def. (22) Charley Hoffman, 1 up: Steele never trailed in the match and at one point held a 4-up lead, but coming down the stretch it took everything he had to keep Hoffman at bay. Hoffman won four in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 13-17, but a par on the final hole was enough to give Steele the full point.

Group 13: (61) Kevin Na def. (13) Alex Noren, 4 and 2: The biggest upset from the early matches came here, as Na turned a close contest into a blowout. The two men were all square after 11 holes, but Na won three of the next four and then closed out the match when Noren conceded on the par-5 16th.

Group 13: (29) Tony Finau def. (39) Thomas Pieters, 2 and 1: Two of the longest hitters in the field squared off in this tilt, with Finau notching a full point despite losing two of the first three holes. The American birdied the 15th to take a 2-up lead, then closed out Pieters with a par on the 17th hole.

Group 14: (59) Charles Howell III def. (14) Phil Mickelson, 3 and 2: Mickelson is making his first start since his WGC win in Mexico, but he's now on the ropes after Howell put together a strong back nine that included three birdies in a four-hole stretch from Nos. 10-13 to take control of the match.

Group 14: (17) Rafael Cabrera-Bello def. (40) Satoshi Kodaira, 2 and 1: Cabrera-Bello made a run to the semifinals at this event two years ago, and he's off to another good start following a match in which he never trailed and lost only three holes. With the match tied through 11 holes, Cabrera-Bello's birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 proved pivotal.

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez vs. (50) Si Woo Kim, halved: The first match of the day ended up in a draw, as the top seed rallied from a deficit to salvage half a point. Kim won three of the first six holes and held a 3-up lead with seven holes to go, but Perez fought back with four birdies over the next six holes to draw even.

Group 15: (24) Gary Woodland vs. (37) Webb Simpson, halved: This group remains entirely up for grabs since nothing was decided on the opening day. Woodland took a 3-up lead at the turn, but Simpson rallied by winning four of the next seven holes, including a birdie on No. 17 that brought him back to all square for the first time since the third hole.

Group 16: (16) Matt Kuchar vs. (54) Zach Johnson, halved: This draw likely felt like a victory for Johnson, who was facing a 4-down deficit with four holes to play before closing with four straight birdies to steal half a point.

Group 16: (47) Yuta Ikeda def. (27) Ross Fisher, 2 and 1: Ikeda now holds the top spot in the group after ousting Fisher, who made the quarterfinals last year. Ikeda squared the match with wins on Nos. 6 and 7 before a pivotal birdie on No. 15 gave him a 2-up lead he would not relinquish.

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Aggressiveness pays off for Spieth vs. Schwartzel

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2018, 9:32 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – On Tuesday, Jordan Spieth said he hoped this week’s format would free him up and allow him to play more aggressively.

Although that wasn’t the case early in his Day 1 match against Charl Schwartzel, Spieth was able to get his week off to a solid start with a 2-and-1 victory.

After playing his first nine holes in even par, Spieth moved ahead in the match when Schwartzel made bogey at the par-5 12th hole and the American hit his approach at the par-4 13th hole to 3 feet, a shot he said was “pivotal,” and he added another birdie at the 14th hole to pull away.

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“I had a couple of iffy numbers and some swirly winds. I did not play aggressively,” Spieth said of his opening nine. “Once I got a couple numbers where I could put really nice, solid swings on, zeroed in at the target with no worry about anything else around, I did just that and it led to three or four birdies from the eighth hole on. You have to go at flagsticks to make birdies here.”

The early victory puts Spieth on a collision course with Patrick Reed, who also won his first-day match against HaoTong Li, 3 and 2. Spieth and Reed, who are a combined 7-2-2 when teamed together in the Ryder and Presidents Cup, will play each other in the final day of round-robin play on Friday.