One of the more frequently rehearsed laments about professional golf in the modern era is how every week it’s the same old story: another 72-hole strokeplay tournament. So we should be thankful for the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, this year held at the Austin Country Club in Texas – right? Indeed we are, but the interests of sponsors, television and other sundry commercial matters mean a simple week of mano e mano action isn’t allowed to cut it any more. And, to be fair, I guess some of the players don’t much like the idea of preparing for a week of competition only to be sent packing after one round. Especially the ones who lose first time out.
So the hybrid we have now sees 16 groups of four players, with everyone in each group playing everyone else over the first three days, the 16 group winners making it through to Saturday morning, whereupon knockout golf can begin in earnest. (The most intriguing match-up on day three this year had to be Holmes vs Watson, the real mystery being that neither J.B nor Bubba made it to the weekend.)
Rory McIlroy arrived in Austin as the defending champion and the third seed this time around. As he had last year, he got through the group stage by beating his third-day opponent at the 20th, on this occasion the vanquished one being Kevin Na, who sometimes plays as if his short surname is a reason for him to prolong the time it takes to play golf. First up on Saturday, McIlroy took out the man who last summer succeeded him as Open champion, Zach Johnson, who’d already provided the most extraordinary result of the week by crushing Martin Kaymer 8&6, and then beat Chris Kirk in the quarter-finals to set up a semi against Jason Day.
McIlroy had succeeded Day as winner of this event last year, and Day had supplanted him as world No. 2 by winning at Bay Hill a week previously. On the Monday after the tournament (i.e. today), the Aussie would become world No. 1. This was because the previous holder of that honour, Jordan Spieth, had been taken down by Louis Oosthuizen in the quarters, his reward for that being a contest against Rafa Cabrero-Bello, all of which added up to a Sunday semi-final shoot-out involving Australia vs Northern Ireland and South Africa vs Spain. This after there had been 11 Americans in the last 16. Who’d have thunk it?
Oosthuizen was in control the whole way and beat his man by 4&3, though Cabrera-Bello had the consolation of having done well enough this week to get into the Masters in ten days time. The decisive period in the other match was when McIlroy missed from four feet to go 1 up at the 11th and then lost 12 and 13 to birdies. Day, whose pre-shot routine means his pace of play can also verge on the glacial and who nearly withdrew on Wednesday after suffering a “searing” pain in his back, drained a 15-footer at the last and thus had the opportunity to celebrate going to No. 1 by winning another WGC title.
Which he duly did. Despite winning the opening hole, Oosthuizen was never really in the hunt after that. Day polished him off by 5&4. By the way, if McIlroy had played Cabrero-Bello rather than Day in his semi-final, and produced the same golf, he’d have won by the 13th. That, of course, is another of the idiosyncrasies of matchplay.
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen