This column took the week off last time round due to the Cheltenham Festival, and in the meantime we missed a sizzling return to form for Jason Day, who lifted the Arnold Palmer Invitational trophy to claim his first silverware of the calendar year.
The Aussie is in the field for this week’s event, the WGC Match Play sponsored by Dell, which is the first of the non-strokeplay tournaments of 2016. For those unaware, match play sees two players take each other on across 18 holes, with the winner proceeding to the next round. It doesn’t matter whether you shoot -5 or +5, as long as you fire lower than your opponent it’s all good.
It’s more like a traditional competition than the standard strokeplay event, and means that a player is afforded the luxury of playing badly and yet still winning (assuming their opponent is even worse). This psychology is an intriguing betting angle in.
The WGC Dell Match Play will be held for the first time at the Austin Country Club; in fact, it’s the first time that Austin CC has hosted a PGA Tour event. The bad news is that this gives us very little to go on statistically. Factor in the match play format and we’re up the creek without a paddle betting wise, but that’s no reason to throw in the towel.
The course is made up of two separate nines designed by Pete Dye, with Lake Austin dissecting the stretch and adding to the number of water hazards there for the hitting. Other than that, we have very little to go on: although at 7,073 yards it’s not the longest course around, and so the advantage of driving distance will be neutered.
Quite simply, the field is made up of the top 64 players on the planet according to the Official World Golf Rankings. We are missing a few due to injury or simply because they couldn’t be bothered, but most of the best players in the world are here.
Each has been allocated a seeding for the initial round robin group phase; where four players will battle it out per stanza with only the leader progressing. This is key, as the higher-ranked player wins in about 66% of matches according to the historical data here.
Rory McIlroy is the defending champion here after he defeated Gary Woodland in last year’s final, and the Irishman will be hoping to become the first back-to-back winner of the event since Tiger Woods in 2003-04.
Jordan Spieth – the number one seed but terribly out of form – is here, the red hot Adam Scott is here, the prolific Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler are here, the enfant terrible Patrick Reed is here….we could go on. The upshot being that this should be a tournament of the highest quality.
So what are we looking for in our picks? Well, current form is a bonus, obviously, as is an aptitude for match play style golf; which is a unique skill in itself. While it is a format that is rarely dusted off on the PGA Tour, we can look to the Ryder Cup – loosely – as one example of high pressure ‘one v one’ golf.
Without further ado:
Rory McIlroy (12/1 e/w)
It would be remiss of us to suggest that McIlroy is back to his best – a string of form reading 11-20-MC-3-27 suggests otherwise – but the green shoots of recovery were very much in evidence during his immaculate final round of -7 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the weekend.
He would have won the WGC Cadillac Championship in truth a fortnight ago, but a final round meltdown cost him dearly. But with match play comes a greater margin for error, and that lessening of the pressure will surely play into the fragile Irishman’s hands this week.
He’s got great form in match play golf to call on – he’s taken a combined six points for Team GB & Ireland in the Ryder Cups of ’12 and ’14 – and having claimed the trophy here last year he clearly enjoys the format. No group in this tournament is easy, but it could be a lot worse than Kevin Na, Smylie Kaufman and Thorbjorn Olesen.
We believe this could be the week where all of the pieces of the McIlroy jigsaw fall into place.
Danny Willett (35/1 e/w)
The Englishman took to this tournament like a duck to water in 2015; recording a third place finish after reaching the semi-finals before taking out Jim Furyk in the third/fourth place play off.
With the Ryder Cup forthcoming, Willett will be looking to show off his match play credentials here, and he comes to Texas on the back of a fine run of form Stateside, with two top five finishes complimented by a 22nd at the ultra-competitive Valspar Championship.
Thanks to his decent world ranking, Willett has been named as one of the top 16 seeds and he will be looking to take full advantage of that in a group that contains Brooks Koepka, Billy Horschel and Jaco Van Zyl. That’s a heady triumvirate and no mistake, but last year Willett defeated Patrick Reed, Andy Sullivan and Ryan Moore on his way to the knockout phase, so we’re happy to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Louis Oosthuizen (40/1 e/w)
We’ll be honest: it was Oosthuizen’s bracket that captured our attention. As groups go, Andy Sullivan, Bernd Wiesberger and Matt Jones are there for the taking (he beat the likes of Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley last year).
There’s a pleasing run of form – 44-14-7 – to call on too, as well as that European Tour win in Asia in February, and the South African has also reached the last eight of this tournament in the past two years; so he clearly relishes the format.