WITH The Masters now just a fortnight away, the meat of the golfing season is rapidly approaching, and the game’s superstars definitely have at least one eye on Augusta at this stage.
For all of the designated events that have been played already on the PGA Tour this term, the Majors are still elevated way above the rest, with The Masters the most
eagerly-awaited of them all given the rich history and the fact it is the first of the year, played on the same patch of Georgian land that we’ve all become so familiar with as viewers over the decades.
Very few tournaments have that same sense of recognition and in the past, this week’s offering, the WGC-Dell Match Play, struggled to find a true identity, having moved around venues and formats in search of the right blend.
However, in recent seasons this unique event has become more established at a regular home at Austin County Club in Texas, which makes it all the more disappointing that the 2023 renewal is seemingly going to be the last due to the PGA Tour’s extensive restructuring in 2024.
Those changes are being made in response to LIV Golf, and the presence of the Saudi-backed tour means that this week’s field is slightly weaker than was the case 12 months ago.
That said, 64 of the best players in the world still go to post for what they hope will be five days of action, with a Wednesday start as opposed to the normal Thursday first round.
All of the 64 will hope to emulate Scottie Scheffler, who strolled to the title in his home state last term amidst a blistering run of form that culminated in a win at Augusta a fortnight later.
The world number one returns to Austin in similarly ominous shape, having coasted to victory at The Players Championship 10 days ago, and it is no surprise to see him chalked up as the jolly this week at a general 8/1.
Having also reached the final here in 2021 – losing to Billy Horschel – it is fair to say Scheffler holds all the aces, although this is a typically volatile event that can throw up a shock at any given moment.
Only one player – Tiger Woods – has ever successfully defended the Match Play, and that was back in 2004 when the tournament was a straight knock-out affair.
The move to a round-robin format in 2015 was largely to make sure the top men couldn’t be sent packing after one round, with 16 groups of four players now in place, with the sectional winners advancing to the knock-out stages over the weekend.
It is a gruelling format, with anyone still standing on Sunday having to play seven times, and the depth of quality in the field means it is not always an event to invest too heavily in.
However, there is plenty of fun to be had, with the draw throwing up some intriguing match-ups from the start, not least the clash of Jon Rahm and a rejuvenated Rickie Fowler this afternoon.
Scheffler stands out as the man to beat in terms of current form and course pedigree, with his ability to pick the smart shot at the right time fitting perfectly for a short par-71 course in Texas that is great for matchplay, with short par-fours, elevation changes and loads of water adding to the volatility, while winds are also due to be a factor this time around.
Scheffler may well win, but this is not an event where I want to side with a favourite, and the plan is to look elsewhere for form men who can grab us place money at least, and the fact Paddy Power and Boylesports are paying eight places helps in that regard.
The presence of Scheffler in the top half of the draw means my main focus has been on the other half, where Rahm (best price 11/1) and Rory McIlroy (14/1) are the top seeds.
The latter won this as the number one seed in 2015, but that came in San Francisco, and his Austin record is patchy outside of a run to the last four in 2016, when he lost to eventual champion Jason Day.
Rahm reached the final a year after that, losing to Dustin Johnson, and could well go deep here, having also reached the knock-out stages in each of the last two seasons.
However, the player I’m most drawn to is Tyrrell Hatton, who travels to Austin in chipper form having finished second to Scheffler at Sawgrass 10 days ago.
His flying finish there followed a fourth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational – when he could easily have won – so it is fair to say the Englishman has found his form at the perfect time.
He also has a good record in this event, having won his group in three of the last four years, including 12 months ago, when he claimed three victories before losing to Scheffler on the 18th hole in the last-16.
Hatton’s approach play was razor-sharp at Sawgrass, a vital component for matchplay, while has little to fear as the top seed in Group 14 alongside Russell Henley, Lucas Herbert and Ben Griffin.
If he comes out of that section, McIlroy is his scheduled foe in the last 16, but Hatton won’t fear that in his current frame of mind, and a quarter-final place is well within his grasp at least.
That would be enough to ensure a return at 22/1 with Paddy Power, although the 14th seed will have his sights set higher than that and he could go very deep here.
If Hatton was to win, or even reach the decider, it would upset recent American domination, with the last four finals contested by US players, with steady men like Matt Kuchar and Kevin Kisner getting over the line in that time on the back of limiting their errors.
Patrick Cantlay is clearly a notch above them, but he has the profile to go well here, and he definitely looks the danger to Scheffler in the top half of the draw.
The ice-cool Cantlay’s form has been excellent of late, even if a share of 19th at Sawgrass wasn’t quite what we were looking for when he was our main selection.
His long game has been superb of late, and while the putter has been a concern, a move to matchplay will surely help in that regard.
The fourth seed has never actually made it out of his group here, but he has been second on each of his four visits and the cards will fall for him at some stage, with an opening section alongside the out-of-form Brian Harman, KH Lee and Nick Taylor giving him ample opportunity to advance.
Max Homa or Jordan Spieth may provide sticky opposition in the last eight, but Cantlay won’t fear either, while a semi-final with Scheffler could a be a classic.
Another thing to remember about Cantlay is that he has won all three singles matches he has played in either the Ryder or Presidents Cups, so he has to be a very good each-way bet at 18/1.
Finally, I’ll return to the bottom half of the draw for a speculative punt on a big outsider in Tom Hoge at 66/1.
The 2022 Pebble Beach winner lit up Sawgrass a couple of weekends ago, setting a course record on the Saturday on his way to a share of third, having only just made the cut on the number.
His iron play was sensational over the last two days, as it almost always is, and it is this strength that makes him of interest this week.
Hoge leads the PGA Tour this term in approach play, and while he’ll need a big improvement on his Austin debut last year when he finished fourth in his group, confidence is higher now and the top man in Group Six, Xander Schauffele, has never made it to the last-16 either.
Hoge has the game for Austin, and while he may find Hatton too good should they reach the last eight, the prices make him worth backing in an event where anything really can happen.
WGC-Dell Match Play selections (Wednesday start)
Tyrrell Hatton, e/w, 22/1 (Paddy Power);
Patrick Cantlay, e/w, 18/1 (Paddy Power);
Tom Hoge, 66/1 (Paddy Power)