World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play (Thurs 27th – Sun 31st March)
Austin CC, Texas
The PGA Tour trades in its decipherable formbook for a random lottery this week in the shape of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. The tournament pits 64 of the world’s finest players against each other over five days. And, put succinctly, anyone can beat anyone on any given Sunday – or Wednesday in this case. Just take the WGC’s inaugural outing way back in 1999, where rank outsiders Jeff Maggert and Andrew Magee contested the final. So while Tiger Woods has won this event three times, alongside the in-form likes of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson in more recent history, this is generally not the place to be taking short prices about the game’s top dogs who invariably get shut out, howling in the cold.
As for the perennial master of matchplay, Ian Poulter, pay him no heed, even at 45-1. In golf, most players wear a questionable sweater. In matchplay, though, Poulter supposedly wears an aura. However, this widespread notion that matchplay somehow improves his game is complete bunkum. Sure, Poults usually performs in the Ryder Cup, and has those two matchplay titles in 2010/11 under his belt. Yet this record of results is only as beguiling as the numbers relating to the previous spins on a roulette wheel. The casino provides them, but they make zero difference to the next spin. They are simply there to delude your mind that there’s meaning in the chaos and build a story where there is none.
Indeed, in subsequent global matchplay outings since his glory days, Poulter has invariably been an early-stage casualty. Therefore, rather than log the hits and disregard the misses, we should resolve that it is matchplay – with its capricious, knockout format contrasting sharply with the typical 72 holes of strokeplay – which is the game-changer here. It’s not Ian Poulter, or any other “matchplay maestro” for that matter. After all, there’s an inherent danger to making your name in a fickle format which is no respecter of reputation: few people can maintain the charade.
Instead, more consequential characteristics should chiefly concern compatibility with Austin Country Club, a throwback tree-lined Eighties design from that dreadfully dull dinner-party couple, Pete and Alice Dye. This unique 7,100-yard layout rises from six opening holes on the plains to 12 elevated holes in the hills, requiring a careful dissection across demanding carries, deep water hazards and uncanny valleys. Each par-five is accessible in two, even for the shorter hitters, while at least one par-four is driveable. So it’s time to make a case for big bombers with blistering birdie averages. But before we do, it’s wise to remember that fatigue could also be a factor in this five-day marathon in which the four eventual semi-finalists will be asked to play seven competitive rounds.
Then again, golf is hardly an aerobic activity, so let’s not get too bogged down in comparative fitness regimes. Instead, it’s on to the staking plan…
Jon Rahm 18-1
Rahm has it all: phenomenal cosmic powers, the ability to close when he’s in contention… and the ability to unravel from nowhere. Unfortunately, he’s done more of the latter so far this year, culminating in his 11th hole implosion and at The Players where he showed scant regard for his caddie’s cautionary advice by picking a fight with a taunting lake. After winning the Hero Challenge at the end of November, though, Rahmbo has posted six top tens in eight events and is bound to hit his marks soon. Rahm showed his liking for this track with a second here in 2017, and can forget his final-round demons by free-rolling in this format to good effect.
Byeong-Hun An 125-1
Just missed out on the places for us when top-tenning at the API, and is growing more and more secure with his ball-striking every week, to the extent that it will soon be back up to Tour-leading standards. An’s Achilles heel remains his short-range putting, but he’s shaken the yips and is progressively solid from three feet and in. Matchplay will allow him to swing – and putt – with a good deal more abandon than strokeplay, although if I were his opponent, I wouldn’t tell him to pick it up too often. At 51st in the world rankings, big Benny also lies just outside the top-50 criterion for next month’s Masters, whose qualification limit cuts off this Sunday. He is not alone among those golfers trying to sneak in or hold on to a berth, and the battle for Augusta’s golden ticket provides an interesting sideshow this week. In short, in-form An won’t lack for motivation.
Tyrrell Hatton 125-1
Like Jason Kokrak, last week’s runner-up at Copperhead, Hatton is becoming something of an early column regular, and here’s hoping he can go one better than JK this week at some fancy prices. The 27-year-old seems to have tamed his temper a little this year, even if he’s still posting some frustratingly erratic performances round-by-round. As we’ve already discussed, however, you can get away with the odd stinker in matchplay, if you’re opponent’s also on a down-tools day, so let’s hope Hatton can wind back the clock a couple of weeks to Bay Hill where his trademark bullseye putting was hitting its targets.
Gary Woodland 60-1
Few heavy artillery players bomb it better than Woodland who has threatened to make the leap from good to great in recent seasons. Towering and talented enough to have made it as a pro on the basketball court, Woodland has already registered two runner-up spots this term and rides high in the yawn-fest more commonly referred to as the FedEx Cup rankings. Pay no attention to his recent indifferent form. After all, Woodland can get away with the odd big number in matchplay, while Austin CC appears tailor-made to his skills set and ball flight. Working with Phil Kenyon, the modern-day Dave Pelz of putting, won’t hurt either.
Lays of the week:
Dustin Johnson 10-1
We’ve just about called Johnson right so far this season, backing him strongly at 11-1 for WGC–Mexico victory, before swerving him over the past fortnight, where he’s come up a wafer shy despite being reliably in contention. Austin is another venue which should suit, but we’d rather keep our DJ powder dry till Augusta, and are very happy to take him on at some miserly quotes here.
Rory McIlroy 10-1
Along with DJ, McIlroy remains the planet’s form horse, while the high-trajectory demands of Austin Country Club will again fit his eye. That said, his putting stats were still mediocre at Sawgrass and the suspicion endures that at least one rival will glow white-hot with the flat-stick here and put Rors’ oh-so dependable ball-striking to the sword. As with Johnson, 10-1 is far too stingy for this format.
The FSB blog will return for The Masters at Augusta National (11th – 14st April)