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International stars fail to shine on Day 1

By Rex HoggardSeptember 29, 2017, 12:01 am

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Officials rerouted Liberty National for this week’s Presidents Cup, moving the picturesque closing hole up in the lineup to No. 14 in order to assure matches reached the signature par 4.

At the rate things are going for the International team, just making it to the re-designated 14th will be a challenge. The day’s opening foursomes match ended on No. 14, a 6-and-4 rout for the American tandem of Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas over Hideki Matsuyama and Charl Schwartzel.

Moments later, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed finished off the wildly over matched pair of Si Woo Kim and Emiliano Grillo, 5 and 4, at the 14th hole.

It wasn’t the start International captain Nick Price envisioned, but it’s not as though he hasn’t been here before.

The U.S. has now won its 27th consecutive session, a streak that stretches back to Day 3 of the 2005 matches, and will take a 3 ½-to-1 ½-point lead into Friday’s fourball matches.

After those two early blowouts, things got better for Price’s crew, but only slightly.

Adam Scott and Jhonattan Vegas at least pushed the U.S. duo of Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar to the 18th hole only to drop a 1-up decision.

It’s as regular as the Staten Island ferry at the PGA Tour’s biennial member-member; captains and competitors talk of how evenly matched the two teams are and yet as soon as meaningful shots start to fly it’s largely only American flags that find their way to the leaderboard.

Foursomes isn’t the International team’s forte, observers note. The format, which features 30 available points, doesn’t favor the Rest of the World’s top-heavy lineup, the reasoning goes.

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Valid concerns, to be sure, but it ignores the central elephant in the International team room.

For the last decade the Rest of the World’s best and brightest have largely been a bust at the biennial event.

On Thursday at blustery Liberty National, the International side needed better from their big guns. All told, Matsuyama, Jason Day and Marc Leishman – the team’s top three ranked players – went winless on Day 1, with the two Australians halving a sloppy duel with Phil Mickelson and Kevin Kisner.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this - the International team, which is mired in a 1-9-1 slump, struggles from the top down – with the notable exception of Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace, who are 5-0-0 in the last two Presidents Cup as partners.

Matsuyama, the side’s top-ranked player, is now 3-5-2 in the matches and managed to make just two birdies on Day 1 on his way to the session’s most lopsided loss.

“I think he still may be reeling a little bit from the PGA [where Matsuyama tied for fifth place] and that. And also he's had such a huge year,” Price said of his Japanese star. “I think he's probably a little tired but he played so well in the practice rounds.”

To be fair, Thomas and Fowler were a combined 4 under par through 14 holes against Matsuyama and Schwartzel, which was the alternate-shot equivalent of a format haymaker; but tired or not it just wasn’t enough for a team that has proven incapable of coming from behind.

Scott wasn’t any better.

The Australian has seven cups etched into his bag this week, one for each match he’s played and the most of any active player, and they are all half empty and hopelessly beyond the benefit of perspective.

Scott, who endured perhaps his most inconsistent season on Tour in 2017 and has a 13-18-5 record in the matches, has lost with Stuart Appleby as a partner, Retief Goosen, K.J. Choi, Geoff Ogilvy and Ernie Els. On Thursday, it was Vegas, a Presidents Cup rookie, along for the walk; but it was Scott who looked like the first-year player with shots like the one he hit on No. 10, a chippie 7-iron that sailed long and into a hazard that led to the U.S. team tying the match.

Although Day and Leishman, ranked seventh and 16th in the world, respectively, appeared to be Price’s strongest duo, they failed to play like it down the stretch.

Day found the water with his tee shot at the 12th hole, missed an 8-footer for par at the 17th hole that would have won the match, mis-hit his tee shot short of the 18th green and didn’t touch the hole with his 18-footer for par at the last for the halve.

Some might say the Australians ran into the better team, but that ignores the fact that Kisner and Mickelson failed to make a birdie on the closing nine. Some might say the International core simply got beat by better play, but that ignores years of history.

Earlier this week Ernie Els, one of Price’s four assistants, was asked what it would take for the International team to do what they haven’t done since Bill Clinton occupied the White House – win.

“There’s always a core of guys that have to play well, there’s always quality guys on the team, I would say five guys and we need points from those guys and they are going to have the toughest matches,” Els said. “We need points from our star players.”

Els, a lock to captain his own International team someday, wasn’t calling anyone out, but we all know who those stars are and they know what they must do on Friday to keep this from being another blowout.

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Reed: 'Back still hurts' from carrying Spieth at Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 10:48 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Friday’s marquee match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play between Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, who are both undefeated in pool play, just keeps getting better and better.

Following his 1-up victory over Charl Schwartzel on Thursday, Reed was asked what makes Spieth, who defeated HaoTong Li, 4 and 2, so good at match play.

“I don't know, my back still hurts from the last Ryder Cup,” smiled Reed, who teamed with Spieth at Hazeltine National.

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The duo did go 2-1-1 at the 2016 Ryder Cup and have a combined 7-2-2 record in Ryder and Presidents Cup play. Reed went on to explain why Spieth can be such a challenging opponent in match play.

“The biggest thing is he's very consistent. He hits the ball well. He chips the ball well. And he putts it really well,” Reed said. “He's not going to give you holes. You have to go and play some good golf.”

The winner of Friday’s match between Spieth and Reed will advance to the knockout stage.

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Reed vs. Spieth: Someone has to go

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 10:11 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The introduction of round-robin play to the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was a necessary evil. It was needed to stem the tide of early exits by high-profile players, but three days of pool play has also dulled the urgency inherent to match play.

There are exceptions, like Friday’s marquee match between Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, which is now a knockout duel with both players going 2-0-0 to begin the week in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

That the stars aligned so perfectly to have America’s most dominant pairing in team play the last few years square off in a winner-take-all match will only add to what promises to be must-see TV.

Sport doesn’t always follow the script, but the pre-match subtext on this one is too good to dismiss. In one corner, professional golf’s “Golden Child” who has used the Match Play to wrest himself out of the early season doldrums, and in the other there’s the game’s lovable bad boy.

Where Spieth is thoughtful and humble to the extreme, Reed can irritate and entertain with equal abandon. Perhaps that’s why they’ve paired so well together for the U.S. side at the Ryder and Presidents Cup, where they are a combined 7-2-2 as a team, although Spieth had another explanation.

“We're so competitive with each other within our own pairing at the Ryder Cup, we want to outdo each other. That's what makes us successful,” Spieth said. “Tiger says it's a phenomenon, it's something that he's not used to seeing in those team events. Normally you're working together, but we want to beat each other every time.”

But if that makes the duo a good team each year for the United States, what makes Friday’s showdown so compelling is a little more nuanced.

The duo has a shared history that stretches all the way back to their junior golf days in Texas and into college, when Reed actually committed to play for Texas as a freshman in high school only to change his mind a year later and commit to Georgia.

That rivalry has spilled over to the professional ranks, with the twosome splitting a pair of playoff bouts with Reed winning the 2013 Wyndham Championship in overtime and Spieth winning in extra holes at the 2015 Valspar Championship.

Consider Friday a rubber match with plenty of intrigue.

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Although the friendship between the two is genuine, there is an edge to the relationship, as evidenced by Reed’s comment last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he was denied relief on the 11th hole on Sunday.

“I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said.

While the line was clearly a joke, Reed added to Friday’s festivities when he was asked what makes Spieth such a good match play opponent. “I don't know, my back still hurts from the last Ryder Cup,” smiled Reed, a not-so-subtle suggestion that he carried Spieth at Hazeltine.

For his part, Spieth has opted for a slightly higher road. He explained this week that there have been moments in the Ryder Cup when his European opponents attempted some gamesmanship, which only angered Reed and prompted him to play better.

“I've been very nice to [Reed] this week,” Spieth smiled.

But if the light-hearted banter between the duo has fueled the interest in what is often a relatively quiet day at the Match Play, it’s their status as two of the game’s most gritty competitors that will likely lead to the rarest of happenings in sport – an event that exceeds expectations.

Both have been solid this week, with Speith winning his first two matches without playing the 18th hole and Reed surviving a late rally from Charl Schwartzel on Thursday with an approach at the 18th hole that left him a tap-in birdie to remain unbeaten.

They may go about it different ways, but both possess the rare ability to play their best golf on command.

“I’m glad the world gets to see this because it will be special,” said Josh Gregory, Reed’s college coach who still works with the world No. 23. “You have two players who want the ball and they aren’t afraid of anything. Patrick lives for this moment.”

 Where Reed seems to feed off raw emotion and the energy of a head-to-head duel, Spieth appears to take a more analytical approach to match play. Although he admits to not having his best game this week, he’s found a way to win matches, which is no surprise to John Fields, Spieth’s coach at Texas.

“Jordan gave us a tutorial before the NCAA Championship, we picked his brain on his thoughts on match play and how he competed. It’s one of those secret recipes that someone gives you,” Fields said. “When he was a junior golfer he came up with this recipe.”

Whatever the secret sauce, it will be tested on Friday when two of the game’s most fiery competitors will prove why match play can be the most entertaining format when the stars align like they have this week.

It was a sign of how compelling the match promises to be that when asked if he had any interest in the Spieth-Reed bout, Rory McIlroy smiled widely, “I have a lot of interest in that. Hopefully I get done early, I can watch it. Penalty drops everywhere.”

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Watch: Bubba casually hits flop shot over caddie's head

By Grill Room TeamMarch 22, 2018, 9:20 pm

We've seen this go wrong. Really wrong.

But when your end-of-year bonus is a couple of brand new vehicles, you're expected to go above and beyond every now and then.

One of those times came early Thursday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, where Bubba Watson’s caddie Ted Scott let his boss hit a flop shot over his head.

It wasn’t quite Phil Mickelson over Dave Pelz, but the again, nothing is.

And the unique warm-up session paid off, as Watson went on to defeat Marc Leishman 3 and 2 to move to 2-0-0 in group play.

Hey, whatever works.

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Spieth explains why he won't play in a 'dome'

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 9:01 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – No one at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was as excited about Thursday’s forecast as Jordan Spieth.

Winds blew across Austin Country Club to 20 mph, which is typical for this time of year in Texas, and Spieth put in a typical performance, beating HaoTong Li, 4 and 2, to remain undefeated entering the final day of pool play.

The windy conditions were exactly what Spieth, who never trailed in his match, wanted. In fact, demanding conditions factor into how he sets his schedule.

“I have, and will continue to schedule tournaments away from a dome, because it's just unusual for me. I like having the feel aspect,” said Spieth, who attended the University of Texas and played Austin Country Club in college. “Places with no wind, where it's just driving range shots, it's just never been something I've been used to. So I don't really know what to do on them.”

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Spieth used the CareerBuilder Challenge as an example. The Coachella Valley event rarely has windy conditions, and as a result he’s never played the tournament.

“I played in a dome in Phoenix, and I didn't strike the ball well there. Actually I've had quite a few this year, where we didn't have very windy conditions,” said Spieth, who will face Patrick Reed in his final pool play match on Friday. “I don't go to Palm Springs, never have, because of that. Look at where you can take weeks off and if they match up with places that potentially aren't the best for me, then it works out.”