Hunter Mahan will defend his title this week at the Accenture Match Play, the first of the four annual World Golf Championships to be staged once again in Marana, Ariz., at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain.
This will be the 15th playing of the WGC event and the fifth at this venue in the hills north of Tucson. While the course can be stretched to over 7,800 yards, the elevation of the property and changing tee positions will make the yardage play shorter. The layout offers interesting options and lines for the bombers and the undulating greens and surrounding mountains offer an advantage for the short game gurus. The course proves to be a fantastic match-play venue as 73 percent of last year’s matches were decided on the final three holes.
Contrary to popular belief, even though this even is taking place in southern Arizona, weather may be a factor. Mother Nature normally has quite an effect on the outcome of the matches. Ian Poulter weathered the cold, rain and wind in 2010, while Luke Donald bested Martin Kaymer and a light blanket of snow in 2011. This week’s forecast of a cold front stampeding through the high Sonoran Desert Tuesday night into Wednesday morning should make the first couple rounds of this edition of the Accenture Match Play quite intriguing.
In this field, these brackets, this tournament, is challenging. In this tournament, a No. 1 seed is no free pass into the round of 32. In this tournament, weather is a factor. And in this tournament, mental and physical toughness will be tested over the span of five consecutive days.
As beguiling as the weather will be for some players this week, the format itself will pose a challenge to some, as well. The two players that reach the finals will have played upwards of 100 holes of golf in the span of five days — including 36 on Sunday. The elevation of the course combined with the number of holes to be played will test the physical endurance of even the fittest players in the field. Aside from the physical nature of this unique event, the mental fortitude needed to be successful this week is paramount. The mental grind that comes with this format will test the players that advance through the rounds. For most of these players, this is the only match-play format they will play all year — a format that requires a totally different mind-set from a normal tournament and exposes those that lack the mental toughness to weather an opponent holing out from a bunker or draining a long par putt. Any player that arrives in Tucson this week in a less-than-optimal physical or mental state will be tested. Those that are in a positive state of mind and body will surely have an edge as the week wears on.
The strength of golf worldwide has greatly increased, and so too has the number of participants in this tournament that represent countries other than the United States. Not only have the foreign players been qualifying for the matches, but they’ve been very successful. In the last three tournaments, only one-third of the final eight players have hailed from the U.S. The four top seeds this year represent four different flags — Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, England’s Luke Donald, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Tiger Woods.
Although Woods has walked away with the title in this event three times (2003, 2004, 2008), Americans have only won two of the previous seven trophies. There is, however, a new contingent of fearless, talented young players representing the red, white and blue. Their games are as brash and intriguing as their names — Rickie, Keegan, Dustin, Bubba and Hunter. These fresh American faces will battle each other as well as the stalwarts coming from all around the globe. The cold-blooded Ian Poulter and fellow Englishmen Lee Westwood and cool-hand Luke Donald are always fierce match-play competitors. McIlroy looks to improve on his runner-up finish here last year and disappointing 2013 debut in the Middle East.
Even some of the more unheralded players in the field have tremendous resumes. Nicolas Colsaerts brings Ryder Cup experience with him from Belgium while South African Branden Grace brings multiple European Tour wins in 2012 alone. Every player in this field has earned his spot and is capable of beating anyone else. The seeding of these players can be very deceiving. In the last three years’ worth of matches, eight No. 14 players have won first-round matches and two more took their games to 20 holes. Six 15-seeds have upset their first-round opponents and two more took their matches to 19 holes. Four players seeded No. 1 have been beaten by their No. 16 seeded counterparts — including Woods in 2011. This field of 64 presents no respite for any player, no matter what the seeds may indicate.
The talent of the players in this field makes this an extremely difficult tournament to predict. But with the great talent will come great excitement and surely produce high drama in the high desert.
NBA Great Byron Scott explains why Charles Barkley’s golf game deteriorated
It’s the season for basketball and golf, and NBA great Byron Scott had some interesting takes on each when he joined our latest episode of “The 19th Hole with Michael Williams” podcast.
When asked who would win a matchup between his Showtime Lakers — consisting of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy — and the current Golden State Warriors, Scott left no doubt on the outcome.
“I give [the Warriors] a lot of credit for the way they playy the game,” Scott said. “They play a very unselfish brand of basketball and it’s all about winning for them. None of the players have agendas and I admire that. But if we go a a seven game series, we in our heyday and those guys playing the way they play now, we would look at them and say ‘we win this series in five or six games.'”
Scott did recognize the fact that the way the game is refereed would have a bearing on the outcome, however.
“Are we going to play 80’s rules or are we going to play 2018 rules where you can barely touch anybody?” Scot said. “If we play the 80’s rules where you can have the physicality in the game, where we can really get after you, then the series is going to be a pretty short one.”
Scott also talked about playing golf with Charles Barkley and his attempt to cure his now-famous swing issues.
“I played with Charles when he was about a 8-handicap; that was the first time I played with him…he had a really good swing,” Scott said. “Two years later I played with him [at the American Century Celebrity Pro-Am] in Lake Tahoe. That’s when he had the swing that he has today. I was shocked! I was like, ‘Man, what happened?’ He told me the story about hitting somebody (in the gallery) and that he just couldn’t pull the trigger anymore. And I said to him, ‘Are you that mentally weak that you hit someone in the gallery and now you can’t pull the trigger? C’mon, Charles; you’re supposed to be tougher than that.'”
Scott’s motivational speech was well-intentioned, but not especially well-received by Sir Charles.
“He proceeded to curse me out because he didn’t appreciate the way I said that,” laughed Scott. “It was funny, though because the first time he had that really good swing, but ever since then he’s been awful. And he continues to be awful and I don’t think there’s a cure right now for Charles besides just putting it down for a year or two and trying to pick it back up.”
We’d need a time machine to see that Lakers-Warriors matchup, but a Scott vs. Barkley match play on the links sounds like it would be most entertaining.
Listen to the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!
Fantasy Preview: 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play
The second World Golf Championship of the year begins this week for what will be the final stop before The Masters for the majority of players in the field. As always with WGC events, the field is stacked — only Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose are missing from the world’s top-10. With an earlier start than usual, 16 groups of four will battle it out in a round-robin format starting Wednesday. The winner of each group will advance to the last 16, which will complete in a straight knockout format from there on in.
Austin Country Club has held the event since 2016, and it’s been a course that has offered up lots of excitement so far. Expect more of the same this week, with four reachable Par 5s on offer as well as a drivable Par-4. The Par-71 course is a modest 7,043 yards with plenty of elevation changes and a mix of tight, tree-lined fairways on the opening nine. The fairways on the back 9 are more generous. Some of the key stats that I’m focusing on this week include Par-5 Scoring, Proximity to the Hole Inside 125 yards and Birdie or Better Percentage, which is always important in match play. Last year, a red-hot Dustin Johnson beat Jon Rahm in the final 1 up, which was his third-consecutive victory at the time.
Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)
- Rory McIlroy 7/1
- Dustin Johnson 8/1
- Justin Thomas 10/1
- Jon Rahm 12/1
- Jason Day 14/1
- Jordan Spieth 20/1
- Phil Mickelson 20/1
For me, this is the most difficult event on the calendar to predict. Over 18 holes, any player in the field is capable of beating anyone else. We saw just that last year when Hideto Tanihara defeated Jordan Spieth 4&2 and Soren Kjeldsen took down Rory Mcilroy 2&1. For that reason, it’s certainly an event that I’d advise to play conservatively, especially before we reach the knockout phase. Despite the unpredictability of some of the results, however, recently it’s been an event that has been won by the world’s elite. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day (twice) have claimed the title in the past four years.
From the top of the board, it’s multiple champion Jason Day (14/1, DK Price $9,200) who gets my vote. The Australian has played a limited schedule so far this year, and he seems to be flying under the radar for the year’s first major. I find the lack of attention surprising. He has a win and a second-place finish to his name already in only three starts this year. Last week at Bay Hill he finished T22, where he appeared a little rusty on the opening couple of days before shaking it off and shooting an impressive 67 on Saturday.
Austin Country Club is a course that undoubtedly suits Day. He dominated the event in 2016 when he was playing his absolute best golf, and he was very unfortunate that he was unable to defend last year on account of his mother’s health. It was an issue that appeared to effect his entire season, but there is no doubt that the signs are very good for Day in regards to 2018. Mainly, because he has the magic touch back with the putter. In 2016, he had one of the greatest putting years of recent times, and albeit early on in the season, he is currently on course to match it. Day leads the field in putting for the season by a decent margin, and on the slick bermuda greens of Austin Country Clubs, where he has memories of holing just about everything two years ago, it could play a huge factor yet again this week.
Along with the Queenslander’s fabulous form on the greens, Day is dominating the Par 5’s, where he sits second in the field over his last 12 rounds. Day loves to play aggressive golf, and it’s one of the reasons the match play format suits him so much. The odd blow-up hole is not the disaster that it would be in stroke play, and he has the ability to rack up birdies fast. So far this season, Day is third in this field for birdie or better percentage.
Day will be the favorite to advance from Group 8, which contains James Hahn, Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Dufner, but the unpredictability of the match play format means it will be far from easy. Should he do so, however, he may be an extremely difficult man to stop, and 14/1 is not a bad price on him repeating his heroics of 2016.
Patrick Reed’s (30/1, DK Price $7,700) return to form has been long overdue. With back-to-back weeks finishing in the top-10, he should be feeling confident in a format that in the past he has blown hot and cold in. Despite his colossus performances in the Ryder Cup, the WGC-Matchplay has been a frustrating event for the Texan. He has yet to make it past the Round of 16, but he seems to be rejuvenated by the return of his idol, Tiger Woods, to the PGA Tour. We’ve seen a far more aggressive Patrick Reed as of late.
With the top seed in his group being Jordan Spieth, there’s speculation that their matchup could be a fiery one. Last week, Patrick Reed was recorded saying that he guessed he needed to be Jordan Spieth to get a free drop after he was left fuming by a ruling. Personally, I don’t think there will be any hostility from either player, but perhaps the attention it has received over the last day will fire up Reed, who seems to produce his best when in the spotlight.
All facets of Reed’s game are firing at the moment. He is fourth in this field for Strokes Gained Tee to Green, Strokes Gained Around the Green and Strokes Gained Total over his last eight rounds. Not withstanding the volatility of 18-hole matchups, there is a sense that Spieth may be a little vulnerable right now. Reed will be relishing the opportunity to take him on in what could possibly be an important Game 3. At 30/1, there is a confidence about Reed at the moment that I like, and it could see him finally deliver in a format that he has adapted to so well in The Ryder Cup.
The star name in Group 7 is the current Masters Champion Sergio Garcia, but I’m willing to take him on this week with Xander Schauffele (66/1, DK Price $7,400). The 2017 Rookie of the Year has been playing well as of late with three-consecutive top-20 finishes. From that period, he scores well in the key statistics, which should bode well for him this week. The Californian is 10th for Strokes Gained on Par 5s for his last 12 rounds, and on a course where wedge play is vitally important, his short irons seem to be in excellent shape. Over the same period, Schauffele is 15th in the field for Proximity to the Hole from 100-125 yards and 16th from 75-100 yards.
He will have to overcome Garcia, as well as Shubhankar Sharma and Dylan Frittelli to advance to the next phase. Garcia has never looked comfortable at Austin Country Club, however, and I think Schauffele may be the best option to pounce on any weakness he shows. Schauffele does not rank outside 30th in this field for his last 12 rounds in any major statistic, and he is eighth overall for Strokes Gained Total.
Last but not least is Webb Simpson (100/1, DK Price $7,800), who is in Group 15 alongside Pat Perez, Gary Woodland and Si-Woo Kim. I think it’s fair to say that this looks to be one of the most unpredictable of the lot. Yet at 100/1, it was an easy enough decision to add Simpson to my stable this week, who just like Xander is performing well in the key statistics.
The former U.S. Open Champion is 17th in this field over his past 12 rounds on Par 5s, but it’s been his wedge play that really got my attention. Over the same period, Simpson ranks seventh for proximity to the hole from 100-125 yards and 15th from 75-100 yards. Some other good signs for Simplson include his putting, as he currently sits 11th for the season in Strokes Gained Putting. His scoring average for the season is also an impressive 69.5, which is seventh on the PGA Tour. At 100/1, it seems worth a small investment in what I’m expecting to be another roller coaster of an event with plenty of surprises.
- Jason Day 14/1, DK Price $9,200
- Patrick Reed 30/1, DK Price $7,700
- Xander Schauffele 66/1, DK Price $7,400
- Webb Simpson 100/1, DK Price $7,800
Paige Spiranac explains her decision to pose for the 2018 SI Swimsuit
During the PXG 0311 Gen2 iron launch event, I caught up with Paige Spiranac to talk about a variety of topics including her advice to young girls in the golf world, how her life has changed since becoming a golfing celebrity, her relationship with PXG, her decision to stop playing professional golf, and she explains why she wanted to pose for the SI Swimsuit issue.
Enjoy my interview above!
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