Talk about having to do it the hard way. Russell Knox has three tough cookies standing in his way as the Scottish No 1 bids to use this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Texas to secure a late invitation to the Masters in a fortnight’s time.
The ‘Group of Death’ at Austin Country Club, where the action starts on Wednesday, may well be the one that features Jason Day, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and a rejuvenated Jim Furyk, but Knox, Bryson DeChambeau, Marc Leishman and Kiradech Aphibarnrat is a tasty one, too.
It’s remarkable to think that DeChambeau didn’t qualify for this event 12 months ago due to the fact he was still outside the top 64 in the world. He’s now making his debut as the sixth-ranked player, having won four times on the PGA Tour and once on the European Tour in the intervening period. The eccentric American is Knox’s first opponent and, as both a former US Amateur and NCAA champion, DeChambeau certainly knows how to eke out wins in this head-to-head format, as well as with a card and pencil.
If Knox can come out on top in that one, it could prove a springboard for a big week for the 33-year-old, but it won’t necessarily get any easier against either Australian Leishman or Thai Aphibarnrat on Thursday and Friday respectively.
Leishman, a Tennant Cup winner at Glasgow Golf Club in his amateur days, has made it to the last 16 twice in five appearances in the event. In addition, he’s never lost in singles at the Presidents Cup, making him another formidable opponent in this particular format.
As is Aphibarnrat, who showed his liking for these toe-to-toe encounters when winning the inaugural Paul Lawrie Match Play in 2015 at Murcar Links. He also reached the quarter-finals of this event last year.
In his two previous appearances, Knox has failed to make it out of the group stage so will be hoping he can make it third-time lucky. He is in fine form, having made 11 cuts in a row on the PGA Tour in run stretching back to October.
The Invernesian, who needs to climb from 62nd into the world’s top 50 to join Sandy Lyle in flying the Saltire in the season’s opening major at Augusta National, can also take confidence from the fact he’s the only player in the group with a WGC win in the bank following his 2015 HSBC Champions success.
For Tiger Woods, his bid to land a remarkable 19th WGC title starts out in an all-American group that also features Patrick Cantlay, Brandt Snedeker and Aaron Wise. A three-time winner, Woods is making his first appearance in the tournament since 2013 and is looking to use his final warm up for the Masters to good effect.
“I still need to get cleaner around the greens,” he said in an interview with GolfTV as he looked ahead to trying to back up his stunning return to winning ways in the Tour Championship at the end of last season by claiming a fifth Green Jacket. “I need to clean that up and get more of the easier up-and-downs guaranteed and hit them in there a little closer. I need to sharpen that up going into Augusta because that’s the ultimate test in short game.
“When I get there, I want to have options to hit certain shots. I don’t just have to have one way, one method, because that’s so important there. But, more importantly, if I don’t hit the golf ball well, I can’t get in the correct spots and that’s what people don’t realise. That’s why guys like [Bernhard] Langer, Freddie [Couples], they do well each and every single year because they miss the ball in the right spots and they have the easiest chips Augusta has to offer. They are hard chips, but they are the easiest ones.”
Rory McIlroy, who also has one eye on the Masters as he gets ready to try and complete a career grand slam at the fifth attempt, is up against Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Harding and Luke List in his group this week. A win for McIlroy on the back of his victory in the Players Championship less than a fortnight ago would see him return to the world No 1 spot if Dustin Johnson doesn’t reach the semi-finals and Justin Rose finishes outside of the top three.
The group stage, which sees the 16 winners go through to a knock-out phase, was introduced in 2015 and ensured star players would be in action for at least three days rather than potentially crashing out on the opening morning.
The tournament sponsors had proposed doubling the group-stage qualifiers to 32 before 36 holes of stroke-play competition over the weekend, but that has not received support from the players.