There are two major things going on here at the WGC Match Play Championship at the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Valley Golf Club near Tucson.
The first is the vagaries of match play. Sometimes from a promotional and television point of view, the wrong guy wins. When the “wrong” guy wins, Tiger Woods goes home. As does Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Dustin Johnson, Bill Haas, Camilo Villegas, Robert Allenby, Ian Poulter and rising European star, Alvaro Quiros. And those were just the “names” that lost in the first round.
Everyone tiptoes gently around this because you don’t want to further degrade the product by inferring that it’s the “Nobody Open,” but the truth is that television—not to put the whole thing on them—would much rather have Tiger playing badly for four days than putting on an event with an unknown who is. Why? I once read it’s because the Tour has assiduously promoted the stars of the sport—wouldn’t you?—over the uniformly high level of play. And this week’s gutted “star field” is the result you get when you do that.
Match play proves the level of play, it’s quality through an entire field. Particularly when you’re dealing with the top 64 players in the world. If that wasn’t so, we’d have many more star-studded fields in match play events. It’s a chronic problem. But here we are coming into the prime, weekend broadcast and the only number 1 seed left is Martin Kaymer (2 in the world). He will be trying to be the last man standing among: Luke Donald (9), Matt Kuchar (13), Bubba Watson (19), Miguel Angel Jimenez (23), Ryan Moore (42), Y.E. Yang (48), and J.B. Holmes (66). Maybe not stars perhaps, but not chopped liver by any stretch of the imagination either.
And here’s what you get with these eight guys: they are the players who are playing the best among the best of the elite (if that’s not too redundant). So if you want to promote quality of play, these are the guys who sent the other ones packing.
And that feeds right into a solution for the other major thing going on this weekend: the weather. After beautiful, clear weather in the mid-60’s to low-70’s all week long, today the tables turn. It begins with high winds in the afternoon, moves into rain tonight culminating with more rain Sunday with possible snow. Snow. In Arizona. It happens. But the Tour staff said that the soil and ground temperature is warm enough that it’s unlikely that it will stick. But still.
So how about creating a new storyline that the best of the best are going to be taking on the worst of Arizona’s weather. The survivor is likely to be the best ball striker because that’s what it takes to hit the ball through the wind, solid contact. It all may end in tatters, but it’s just as likely that someone like Luke Donald will be able to hit the ball on the best trajectories because that’s what it takes in the wind. I followed him yesterday because I wanted to see the 17-year-old Italian phenom, Manassero, and how he’d do with Donald. Manassero didn’t play badly, Donald just played at a whole different level. I had a brief chat with a roving rules official and he said his swing has never looked so good. And this about a guy who is known for his classy swing.
JB Holmes and Bubba Watson are thunder swingers, they crush the ball. How far will they hit it downwind? Can they get their soaring trajectories on their drivers down to optimize their distance into the wind? This is a brute of a course. The tips play 7,800 yards with par 4’s measuring 460, 536, 486, 476, 493 and 482 and 480 to finish. A brute. The tour will certainly be moving up some of the tees into the forecasted wind direction, but how much and will that help?
How about the fact that JB Holmes wasn’t even supposed to be in the field? He was second alternate, flew all the way home to Orlando from last week’s tournament in LA and then had to get back on the plane and come back. He said later he did that because he had checked with Tim Clark, the guy he was to replace and Clark said he was 50-50 to play. Holmes said that normally means a player is going to try to play. He got to bed at one in the morning and without having a practice round or even having seen the course, here he is, the giant killer. In addition to Villegas, he beat Ernie Els and young Aussie star, Jason Day (40).
Or how about Y.E. Yang, the fluke winner of the 2009 PGA Championship. That was the one where he dispatched Tiger with a soaring 3 iron hybrid over a tree to twelve feet and then sunk the putt for the victory. His world ranking has risen even if his play hasn’t been noticed: his win was improbable, but it was no fluke. He was ready.
Or iconoclast Ryan Moore, who has quietly moved up the world rankings in the last couple of years. Moore is the iconoclast who plays in a painter’s hat and had no endorsement deals or club deals; he wanted to always do what was best for his game and not be beholden to a sponsor. (Although he has recently signed with Adams Golf because he had come to favor their woods and he was playing them anyway.) Moore is also the guy I mentioned who plays in a vest and shirt and tie as an homage to the history and traditions of the game.
So there are some compelling reasons to watch this weekend. Be sure to double check the TV times at www.pgatour.com because all the starting times are moved way up in an effort to make sure the tournament doesn’t have to go into Monday due to the weather. Ultimately, the weather will decide that, but the Tour was smart to try to give the humans a little edge.
And so you get to have a little practice in precisely what the players will be doing this weekend, just going with the flow. So there’s that too.
Bill, I love your commentaries! And, I agree with your comment about what happens when the wrong guy “wins” and its a shame because the Tour has a lot of great players out there for us to watch!
Take, Luke Donald his swing is looking so good. And, Matt Kuchar is playing more consistently too. My bet is Luke Donald walks away with the win..lets see what happens today.
Thanks so much for the kind words, Pat. And as it turned out, you were right about Luke Donald!