The Best Laid Plans
Some people would say that Matchplay is the purest form of golf.
At this week’s WGC, Cadillac Match Play Championship, it proved to be the most unpredictable version of the game.
The Match Play this year introduced a new format for the opening rounds. Players were pooled into groups of four and then all played each other in the first 3 matches, leaving the player with the best record to advance to Saturday’s round of 16.
The idea being that this would allow the best players to emerge from each group (a player could potentially lose a match and still qualify with a 2-1 record). But such are the best laid plans of mice and men.
Three of the game’s biggest stars, Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, and Brooks Koepka, all won their first two matches, but by losing their third match, failed to advance. In the old format, winning their first two matches meant that they would be playing in the round of 16.
Only two players ranked in the Top 10 in the world managed to survive the early carnage; world #1 Rory McIlroy and world #5, Jim Furyk.
McIlroy and Furyk would win both of their Saturday matches to advance to a semi-final contest in which they faced each other.
The other semi-final was between two less likely competitors. 27 year old Englishman, Danny Willett has been rising through the ranks on the European Tour for the last 6 years. Willett is a two time winner on that Tour, but is a new player on the world stage. Willett had won 5 consecutive matches, which included impressive wins over Ryan Moore, Patrick Reed and former world #1, Lee Westwood in his road to the semi-finals.
His opponent was long-hitting American Gary Woodland. 30 year old Woodland has two PGA Tour wins on his resume, but is a player who many people expected to have risen to greater heights. Like Willett, Woodland had also won his first 5 matches claiming victories over more credentialed adversaries: Jimmy Walker, Ian Poulter and Webb Simpson, numbering among them.
Willett took an early 2-up lead before Woodland made three consecutive birdies on the 5th-7th holes to level the match. Woodland played steadily and took advantage of mistakes by Willett on the back-9 to be a 3 & 2 winner.
The McIlroy/Furyk match was a much closer tussle with neither player taking more than a 1-up lead throughout the match. A see-saw match in which the players exchanged the lead six times culminated in a brilliant birdie-birdie-eagle finish over the closing 3 holes to give McIlroy a 1-up victory.
Sunday afternoon’s final between McIlroy and Woodland was decided early in the opening 9. A combination of erratic driving from Woodland and a 3-hole birdie barrage by McIlroy left the pride of Holywood, Ireland with what would be an unassailable 4-up lead. The match ended on the 16th hole and a resounding 4 and 2 victory margin for McIlroy. It is his 10th PGA Tour win and his second win in a World Golf Championship event.
McIlroy was tested in the 3rd qualifying round when he had to birdie his last two holes of regulation play before winning on the second playoff hole against Billy Horschel. He was pushed even further by Paul Casey in the quarter-finals before prevailing on the 22nd hole and then in his match with Furyk where his closing stretch was sensational.
Jordan Spieth played better than anybody in the world for the 6 weeks leading up to the Match Play. His ascension to the #2 ranking in the world has given way to the argument that he would soon replace McIlroy at the game’s pinnacle.
McIlroy’s impressive 5 days and 7 match march at the TPC Harding Park serve as a definitive reminder of why he is the best player in golf.
Perhaps the best laid plans did indeed turn out, as expected.