With the first major of the year, the Masters, around a fortnight away, pundits and punters alike are sticking pins in the names of the players they believe can contend for the green jacket at Augusta National from April 5th-8th.
The usual candidates will of course be touted, but one name that would have been absent from the list – until the weekend, anyway – would have been Rory McIlroy.
The Irishman’s recent form has been pretty poor by his own high standards, and a formline of MC-59-MC-20 hardly gets the juices flowing. McIlroy was being swerved by all and sundry on the betting floor.
But then something crucial happened: Rory lightened up. Instead of worrying about his errant putting stroke, he just went with the flow. “I freed up with my putting this week. I didn’t worry too much about mechanics,” he said in the immediate aftermath of his three-stroke victory at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. McIlroy is back to his best, and the trophy was the icing on the cake….the cream in the middle is the fact he ranked first in the field for Strokes Gained: Putting.
So the four-time major winner is in fine fettle at the moment, and he will be looking to complete the career grand slam at Augusta. The bookmakers have him pegged as the 9/1 favourite to do just that.
There is a more pressing concern in the interim, and that is the WGC Dell Match Play from Austin, Texas. Ironically, McIlroy is the favourite to win this one too, although the unique match play format will make his task rather tricky.
Match Play Format
So matchplay golf is different to strokeplay in that only one hole is ever up for grabs: you can win it, lose it or halve it. It doesn’t matter whether you make a hole-in-one or shank your drive into the lake, only one hole is on the table at any point.
You win the match when you have an insurmountable lead; so, if you are four up with just three holes to play then the spoils are yours. If you are still level after 18 holes then the match is halved (or, as is the case in the knockout phase of the Match Play, a play-off commences).
The world’s top 64 players will compete for the $1.8 million prize; well, in theory anyway. The likes of Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson have withdrawn, while US Open champion Brooks Koepka is still nursing a wrist injury. Otherwise, the great and the good are in town.
Those 64 players are split into 16 groups of four, and they each play each other in a round robin format. After those sets of matches the group winner proceeds to the knockout stage of the event, which starts at that last 16 stage.
Players to Watch
Naturally McIlroy is of interest to punters, and why not: he’s won this tournament before, and has been drawn in an agreeable bracket against Brian Harman, Jhonattan Vegas and Peter Uihlein. His pre-event odds of 8/1 could look generous come Sunday.
But competition is fierce, and remember that the semis and final are both played on Sunday – that means a possible 36 holes for the winner.
For those reasons, backing tried and tested sorts like Dustin Johnson (10/1) and Jon Rahm (14/1). They met in the final here 12 months ago – DJ winning on the eighteenth – and both have the physical and mental strength to succeed in this format.
Indeed, the aggressive approach of Rahm really does lend itself to match play success, and another who gets uber competitive is Patrick Reed (30/1), who boasts an exceptional Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup record. His group features Haotong Li, Charl Schwartzel and Jordan Spieth, who surprisingly has a pretty poor CV when it comes to match play singles encounters.
Branden Grace (60/1) broke all sorts of records when he earned five points for the Rest of the World team in the Presidents Cup of 2015, and he also has form in the windy conditions of Texas to call upon. The match play format calls upon players with a bit of an X Factor to thrive, and the South African showed he has that in spades when carding a record low of 62 in The Open last summer.
And if you are looking at the groups you would argue that Zach Johnson has had a good time of it, having been paired with Matt Kuchar, Ross Fisher and Yuta Ikeda. A two-time winner in Texas, Johnson’s odds were slashed from 100/1 to 70s after the draw was made!