Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 27, 2016

Day’s Matchless Play Continues At The Match Play

Even as the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments worked down to their respective Final Four, it wasn’t just hoops fans who were lamenting busted brackets this weekend. With its third sponsor, location and spot on the calendar in as many years, the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship gave golf fans their own taste of the madness of “win or go home” competition.

Actually the second year of a revised format meant that while the tournament started on Wednesday the single elimination aspect didn’t kick in until Saturday morning. While club golfers everywhere are familiar with match play and the PGA Championship used the format for more than four decades until the late 1950s, sponsors and television networks hate it. They abhor the possibility of marquee players losing an early match and being long gone from the premises when the bulk of fans and viewers arrive or tune in for the weekend.

So beginning last year the original format of the WGC Match Play, in which sixty-four golfers squared off in individual matches determined by their world ranking, was changed to one in which the field is divided into sixteen four-person pools for three days of round-robin competition. The golfer with the best record from each pool advances to the knockout stage for the weekend. At least in theory this format favors the top players, since superior talent should prevail over the course of three days of play. And in fact half of the golfers advancing to the weekend were the top-ranked player in their pool. This number included Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, the top three players in the world.

This no doubt pleased new sponsor Dell and NBC, as well as lots of fans; although the format did cause some grumbling from a few of the latter who complained that twenty-two of the players who went out for Friday’s final day of round-robin play had no chance of advancing. Given that more than that number tee it up every Sunday for the final round of a typical stroke play tournament too far behind to have any chance of winning, the complaints seemed a bit bizarre.

A more reasonable lament came from fans who pined for the days when the Match Play was contested at Dove Mountain in the high desert outside Tucson, Arizona. With its dramatic vistas and mix of risk-reward holes the course was a perfect setting for a match play event, even if play was delayed for a time in 2013 by an early spring snowfall. But no tournament would be played without a lead sponsor, and as a condition for committing to a four-year deal in that role, Dell mandated that the event be moved close to its corporate home in the Texas Hill Country.

Austin Country Club has been around for more than a century and in its current location in the shadow of the steel arches of the Percy V. Pennybacker Jr. Bridge since 1984. The club was the home of the legendary teaching pro Harvey Penick, and has ties to his two best-known pupils, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite. The two sides of the Pete Dye-designed golf course were reversed for the Match Play, moving the scenic holes along Lake Austin including a drivable par-4 to the back nine for the week. Still no one watching at home was going to confuse the weathered steel arches of the bridge named for a Texas Highway Department engineer with the Sonoran desert.

Born and raised in Dallas, a three-hour drive to the north, world number one Spieth was the overwhelming favorite of the galleries. But Saturday morning in the round of sixteen he never led against South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, who drew first blood when Spieth bogeyed the par-3 4th and went on to an easy 4 & 2 victory. Spieth’s top-ranked compatriots Day and McIlroy fared better, and in addition to Oosthuizen they were joined in the quarterfinals by four Americans and the unheralded Rafa Cabrera Bello from Spain.

Saturday afternoon the pairings lined up such that each of the four U.S. players was pitted against an international golfer; and like a Ryder Cup bad dream all of the Americans were shown the door, leaving Australia’s Day, Northern Ireland’s McIlroy and the two from South Africa and Spain still standing. It was a reminder that golf is an international game, and that the four WGC events are the creation of a federation of all the major men’s tours around the globe. When Adam Scott won the WGC – Cadillac Championship at the beginning of March it marked the first time that none of the four titles was held by an American. Before play even began on Sunday the international winning streak was assured of extending to five.

The tournament’s format means that those golfers who make it to the PGA Tour’s version of the Final Four must play seven matches over five days, with the potential for thirty-six holes on both Saturday and Sunday. For the game’s top pros, who are set apart from amateurs as much by their ability to focus mentally as by their physical superiority, it can be a long grind. That was apparent in both the semifinals and finals as one or another of the players hit some uncharacteristically poor shots.

Cabrera Bello played the first seven holes in 3-over par and found himself 3-down against Oosthuizen as a result. While the Spaniard staged a brief rally his deficit was too great, and he went down by a final tally of 4 & 3. Day and McIlroy staged a battle worthy of players who have held the number one ranking and triumphed at majors. But McIlroy let a chance for the lead slip away when he missed a six footer for birdie at the 11th, and one hole later Day moved in front, a position which he held to the last.

McIlroy, who recently switched to a left hand low putting stroke, missed several putts of similar length in the afternoon consolation match, giving Cabrera Bello by far his best finish in a PGA Tour event. Meanwhile Oosthuizen’s normally steady game abandoned him in the final. Struggling to find fairways off the tee and greens with his approaches, he played fourteen holes in even par. While that represented commendable scrambling, it was nowhere near enough to keep up with Day, who holed every putt of consequence in a 5 & 4 rout.

The tenor of the match was displayed on the par-5 6th hole. Both players put their drives in a fairway bunker. Oosthuizen advanced his second near the green, while Day’s clipped a tree and fell into deep rough. The Australian’s third then found a greenside trap. But the South African’s short approach failed to clear the green’s false front, rolling back into the rough, and the opening was squandered when both made par.

Day’s triumph is his second in as many weeks after his gutsy finish at Bay Hill, and his sixth victory worldwide in his last thirteen starts. It means he will overtake Spieth for top honors in the rankings on Monday, and sets him up as the favorite at Augusta National in two weeks’ time. That’s when the golf season officially begins for casual fans, meaning those whose broken brackets have nothing to do with golf and who weren’t pining this weekend for views of the high Arizona desert instead of the Pennybacker Bridge.

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