There’s nothing like a good matchplay tournament, and at times this was nothing like a good matchplay tournament. The WGC/Dell Technologies Match Play at the Austin Country Club in Texas concluded last evening, although it concluded for many players way earlier than that, and unfortunately well ahead of schedule. The defending champion and recent world No. 1, Jason Day, pulled out before the off in order to spend time with his mother, who is undergoing treatment for lung cancer. Gary Woodland did likewise after playing one match, citing personal reasons. Francesco Molinari withdrew after two matches, suffering with a wrist injury. Thank goodness Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm were able to hold themselves together long enough to contest the title.
And the final was fabulous. Johnson sprinted away – he was never headed all week – and when he won the 8th to lead by 5 up it seemed the match was as good as over. Rahm took the 9th and 10th but Johnson won the 12th. Now he was 4 up with six to play. Rahm drove the green on the par-four 13th: 3 down. He then won the 15th and 16th. Still one down playing the last, another shortish par-four, he drove over the back of this one but couldn’t get it up and down to take the match to extra holes.
Johnson is the world No. 1 for a good reason. Great form. From seven starts this season, his finishes have been 6-2-MC-3-1-1-1. That missed cut came at Torrey Opines, where Rahm, who is Spanish, secured his first tour victory. Last summer the 22-year-old was low amateur in the US Open which Johnson won. He surely has a great future. As he said last night: “I’m a European Tour member now and I’m thrilled I’m going to have a chance to maybe play in the Ryder Cup.” I’m sure Europe’s next captain, Thomas Bjorn, is thrilled, too. Johnson, meanwhile, heads to Houston this week before doubtless arriving at Augusta the following week as the sort of short-priced favourite for the Masters previously associated with a certain Mr Woods. In winning his fifth WGC title, Dustin has only Tiger ahead of him on that particular roll of honour.
So back to those withdrawals, or at least to Woodland’s. He had beaten Emiliano Grillo of Argentina in Wednesday’s first round while Rory McIlroy – in the same four-man bracket of 16 in total – had lost to Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen. Woodland’s withdrawal on Thursday gave McIlroy a point from that ‘match’ but Kjeldsen’s victory over Grillo later that day put him through to the weekend before there had been any play on Friday. This was not ideal for McIlroy’s pre-Masters preparation – it meant he would only have played 10 competitive rounds before teeing off at Augusta on April 6 – but, more pertinently, it was far from perfect for the aspirations of this competition, which in its eagerness not to be a ‘normal’ knock-out event delivered a few KO blows to itself.
All the faffing about with the hybrid format is/was, of course, in order to please the sponsors and the television companies. This way, a star like McIlroy didn’t have to go home early after one losing appearance. No; it meant that not only could he lose to Kjeldsen, he could hang around not to play Woodland and then play a meaningless match against Grillo. (They halved it.) If the organisers don’t want to have a straightforward matchplay event, they should cut this to four days, have 64 players compete over two rounds of strokeplay and then get the top-16 to contest a matchplay tournament over the weekend. Simples. To paraphrase John Donne, if we are to ask for whom the bell tolls, it should be for this format. Indeed, it should be done.
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