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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.”


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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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More than form, Garcia brings the Ryder Cup intangibles

By Will GraySeptember 26, 2018, 10:55 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Among the eight men who arrived at the Ryder Cup thanks to a captain’s pick, Tiger Woods will garner the most attention. Ian Poulter will receive the most raucous applause. But with his on-course credentials suddenly lacking, it’s Sergio Garcia who is under the biggest microscope.

The Spaniard boasts an impressive resume in the biennial matches, having stormed onto the scene at Brookline in 1999 and has returned seven times since. But after enduring one of the most difficult seasons of his career, even he had doubts about whether he’d have a spot this week at Le Golf National.

Let Garcia explain it and suddenly the Ryder Cup takes on the form of an ethereal being.

“You know, when things don’t go exactly as you plan or as you want it, and you are playing a lot in the summer and you keep missing cuts by one, it feels like it’s kind of getting a little farther away,” Garcia said. “You still kind of see it, but it starts to get too far away, and you want it to come back.”

Surely when Garcia left Augusta National wearing a green jacket last April, his standing on Team Europe was anything but in doubt. So, too, when he won in January in Singapore to return to the top 10 in the world rankings.


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But then there was his Masters title defense, complete with a cringe-inducing 13 on the 15th hole in the opening round. He missed that cut, then the U.S. Open cut as well. By the time he slammed the trunk at Bellerive he had missed five straight major cuts and was en route to missing the FedExCup Playoffs for the first time in his career.

The form that guided him to a career year in 2017 had vanished in a matter of weeks, leaving his Paris plans in limbo as Thomas Bjorn combed through worthy candidates with only four picks at his disposal.

But the burly Dane ended up adding Garcia to his roster, giving him a chance to build upon his impressive 19-11-7 individual record. Although according to Bjorn, Garcia’s spot on the squad was as much for what he can do in the team room as how he might perform on the course in front of thousands of fans.

“I think just everyone loves Sergio, at least in our team room. He has been the heartbeat of our team for a while, and he has been a constant,” said Rory McIlroy. “He never lets the environment or the atmosphere get too serious, and I think that’s one of the big things about European Ryder Cups over the past few years.”

Nearly two decades removed from his breakthrough duel with Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, Garcia has experienced on-course lows before. His form also disappeared in 2010, when he was relegated to a vice-captain role on Colin Montgomerie’s victorious team at Celtic Manor.

But since returning to an elite level, it’s never been quite as lean as it was this summer. Garcia missed seven of 11 cuts through the heart of the season, with a T-8 finish at this week’s venue during the French Open proving to be a lone bright spot.

After he was selected by Bjorn earlier this month, Garcia opted to add last week’s Portugal Masters to his schedule to ensure he didn’t enter the matches off a six-week layoff. That trip netted a T-7 finish, offering some promise that perhaps he would be able to bring some game with him to Paris. But it still left him 28th in the world rankings, behind every American participant and ahead of only Ian Poulter and Thorbjorn Olesen among his European teammates.

Garcia’s spotty 2018 led some to draw parallels to 2016, when Darren Clarke selected Lee Westwood for his veteran presence and despite a lack of recent form. That selection backfired in grand fashion, as Westwood went 0-3 including a missed 3-footer on the last green of his Saturday fourball match that cost the Euros half a point.

But Garcia doesn’t appear to have any apprehension about how he fits on the team this week, a veteran presence on a squad that boasts five rookies. In fact, the lack of apprehension is apparently one of his strongest attributes amid one of the biggest pressure-cookers the game has to offer.

It has also helped Garcia to embrace a role that will extend beyond his win-loss record.

“I think that probably, to be totally honest, is one of the reasons why the vice captains and the captain decided to have me on the team,” Garcia said. “What I’m going to do is just do what I do best, and try to make sure that everyone feels good, comfortable, happy, enjoying themselves. And if we can do that, then it’s much easier for everyone to play their best game.”

Once the youthful visage of the next generation, Garcia is now one of the elder statesmen for the Europeans. His presence here bridges a gap between eras, considering he faced American captain Jim Furyk during singles play in his 1999 debut.

But while the hair may have thinned and the face might bear a few extra creases, Garcia retains a familiar twinkle in his eye whenever the Ryder Cup is at stake. It’s visible again this week, even if the heartbeat of the home team ends up making his biggest impact behind closed doors.

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Furyk on Tiger-Phil pairing: 'Probably not too likely'

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 26, 2018, 10:40 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – So much for the possibility of a Tiger-Phil pairing.

A day after Mickelson said that both he and Woods would “welcome” the opportunity to team up 14 years after their disastrous Ryder Cup partnership, U.S. captain Jim Furyk all but squashed the idea Wednesday.

“I guess nothing’s out of the realm,” Furyk said during his news conference. “I think they both mentioned it would be a lot better pairing than it was in the past. I won’t ever say it wouldn’t happen, but it’s probably not too likely.”


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Woods and Mickelson have grown closer since they both were part of the Ryder Cup task force. In 2004, U.S. captain Hal Sutton made the unprecedented move of pairing the top two players in the world – at that time, rivals who were not particularly close – to disastrous effect, as they went 0-2 together en route to a blowout American loss.

Mickelson said he’d welcome another pairing with Woods, then added, “I do have an idea of what Captain Furyk is thinking, yeah.”

And apparently he’s thinking no.

Furyk made similar remarks earlier this year, when he said that putting Woods and Mickelson together again "wouldn't be a good idea as a captain."

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Reed match taught McIlroy the need to conserve energy

By Rex HoggardSeptember 26, 2018, 10:18 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – One of the most memorable Ryder Cup singles matches in recent history was also one of the most exhausting.

Rory McIlroy was asked on Wednesday at Le Golf National about his singles bout with Patrick Reed two years ago at Hazeltine National, when the duo combined for eight birdies and an eagle through eight frenzied holes.

“I could play it for nine holes, and then it suddenly hit me,” said McIlroy, who was 5 under through eight holes but played his final 10 holes in 2 over par. “The level sort of declined after that and sort of reached its crescendo on the eighth green, and the last 10 holes wasn't quite as good.”


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In retrospect McIlroy said the match, which he lost, 1 down, was educational and he realized that maintaining that level of emotion over 18 holes isn’t realistic.

“It looked tiring to have to play golf like that for three days,” he said. “I learnt a lot from that and learnt that it's good to get excited and it's good to have that, but at the same time, if I need and have to be called upon to play a late match on Sunday or whatever it is, I want to have all my energy in reserve so that I can give everything for 18 holes because I did hit a wall that back nine on Sunday, and it cost me.”

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U.S. team gives Tiger 'cold shoulder' after Tour Championship win

By Rex HoggardSeptember 26, 2018, 10:08 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Tiger Woods was one of the final members of Team USA to make it to the team room late Sunday in Atlanta after his travel plans were delayed by his victory at the Tour Championship.

As the team waited, captain Jim Furyk concocted a plan for Woods.

“I ran into Jim Furyk and he said, ‘We were thinking about giving Tiger the cold shoulder like they do in baseball when the guy hits his first home run.’ He asked, ‘Do you think Tiger will be OK with that?’” Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava told Ryder Cup Radio on Sirius/XM. “I was like, ‘Of course he would. He’s got a sense of humor.’”


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The U.S. team had plenty to cheer on Sunday with vice captain Steve Stricker also winning on the PGA Tour Champions. But it was Woods’ reception following his 80th PGA Tour victory and his first in five years that provided the best reaction.

“Tiger shows up about a half-hour later and is looking for some high-fives from everybody and they wouldn’t give him the time of day. They weren’t even looking at him, they all have their backs to him,” LaCava said. “He’s looking at me like what’s going on? He’s not a guy who is looking for fanfare, but these are his boys. He’s looking for 11 guys to run up and give him a good hug.”

LaCava said the team ignored Woods for about two minutes before breaking the silence with cheers and congratulations.