For one reason or another, it’s a week in the year that really sets tongues wagging. Close to The Masters on this occasion – the final warm-up event for many heading to Augusta National, in fact – the WGC-Dell Match Play in Texas seemed more intriguing than ever, especially with so many of the game’s leading lights having found winning form in the opening few weeks of the 2016 campaign. As the attention now turns to the first men’s major of the season, here are five things we learned from the event at Austin Country Club:
The format sucks
When it was straight knockout, the opening day of this event was one of the best in the entire season. Now the first three days are a bit of a joke. Losing big guns too early for sponsors –TV, too, probably – is the reason why the format changed to round robin, but it’s not nearly as exciting. In match-play, it should always be a straightforward win or lose scenario and golf certainly doesn’t need situations like the one that led two non-golfers asking me at the weekend why Rory McIlroy and Kevin Na “only played two holes” when, in fact, it was their play-off to decide the group. Also involved in a similar situation, it did Branden Grace no favours whatsoever that he had to wait two-and-a-half hours for the first tee to clear.
jason day’s good and bad
The Australian was a worthy winner for a second time in three years as he celebrated returning to world No 1 in style. That he came out on top after almost having to withdraw after his opening-day win over Graeme McDowell due to back trouble was all the more impressive and now Day, having recorded back-to-back wins after also landing the Arnold Palmer Invitational, will head to The Masters as a justifiable favourite. It’s just a pity, though, that he is painfully slow because his position as a role model is undoubtedly escalating and golf could do without youngsters copying Day’s pre-shot routine that involves him shutting his eyes and threatening to send viewers to sleep.
Courses are key
While the Pete Dye-designed layout at Austin Country Club might not be everybody’s cup of tea, it was perfect for match-play. There was a real risk-and-reward element involved, notably at a hole like the driveable par-4 13th while the 18th was also one of those “fun holes” which work better in this format than stroke-play. Murcar Links would never host a European Tour stroke-play event, but it was perfect for the inaugural Paul Lawrie Match Play last year. As will the Fidra Links at Archerfield when it hosts the same event in August. In this instance, the Texas test was a refreshing change to the normal diet of PGA Tour courses that suit the big-hitters.
No real Ryder Cup pointers
With 11 players in the last 16, there’s no disputing the fact that the Americans fared better than the Europeans in the round-robin stage. That was then turned on its head, though, when the home contingent was wiped out in the quarter-finals and two of the semi-finalists were Europeans – Rory McIlroy and Rafa Cabrera-Bello. The Spaniard was undoubtedly the week’s biggest beneficiary in terms of the Ryder Cup, but European captain Darren Clarke has said it will be “tough to pick a rookie for an away match”. In fact, Ian Poulter returning to a bit of form in Puerto Rico, where he finished third behind Tony Finau, might well have been the most significant development of all for the Ulsterman last week.
Rory is ready to roar
It was no surprise to hear the defending champion say he was “p***** off” after losing to Jason Day in the semi-finals because it was a game he’d controlled until failing to match birdies from his opponent at the 12th and 13th. It means McIlroy is the only player among the main Masters contenders not to have warmed up for Augusta National with a win in 2016. His game, though, is a fraction away from clicking. It was astonishing to see one American journalist tweet on Sunday about Rory having “played crap for a year now”, but that sort of nonsense will only serve to fire him up as he bids to claim a first Green Jacket and, of course, complete the career grand slam.