To underline how good Europeans are at match-play golf, Rory McIlroy lifted the trophy at Harding Park in San Francisco last year.
He became the fourth European to win in the last nine years while the continent that has won eight of the last 10 Ryder Cups (hey, this is a relevant fact not a cheapshot!) also provided five of the last seven beaten finalists.
Last 10 WGC-Dell Match Play finals
This year the newly-sponsored WGC-Dell Match Play switches to Austin Country Club in Texas.
So, obvious question, will that help or hurt the Euros?
There are four Lone Star State tournaments on the PGA TOUR schedule this year and here’s the breakdown of winners, by country/continent, for each over the last 10 years.
Shell Houston Open: 6 USA, 3 Australian, 1 Euro
Valero Texas Open: 7 USA, 2 Australian, 1 Euro
AT&T Byron Nelson: 5 USA, 3 Australian, 1 Korean, 1 South African, 0 Euro
Dean & DeLuca Invitational (Colonial): 8 USA, 1 Australian, 1 South African, 0 Euro
Not so clever now for the Euros I hear you shout and that’s fair comment. In those combined 40 events, there have been just two European winners.
It’s true that some of the elite Euros often miss these events but even so.
Note the number of Australians by the way (not a coincidence as many of them are based there and the Texas winds and dry conditions make the Aussies feel at home).
One of the nightmares for TV companies was the very real prospect of elite players being knocked out in Wednesday’s opening round - a day before a regular Tour event even starts. To eliminate that possibility, a new round-robin format was introduced last year which guaranteed all 64 players some action until Friday. It’s in place again this time with the field grouped in 16 x four-man pods. Each of the top 16 in the world rankings will be placed atop the group with the other slots filled -- World Cup soccer-style – with players from the next three ‘pots’ (17-32, 33-48 and 49-64). One example could be a pod filled by the World Nos. 1, 22, 35 and 62). The player with the best record in each group advances to the Round of 16 where the tournament switches to straight knockout. One twist this year is that all group matches are limited to 18 holes, with one point awarded to the winner and half a point each for matches that end all-square. Ties for first place in a group are broken by a sudden-death strokeplay play-off starting at Hole 1.
Wednesday: Round-robin matches
Thursday: Round-robin matches
Friday: Round-robin matches
Saturday: AM: Round of 16; PM: Quarter-finals
Sunday: AM: Semi-finals; PM: Final/Consolation Match
Austin CC is a short par 71 measuring just 7,073 yards. The PGA Tour website says: “Its current site overlooking Lake Austin has been home since 1984, when Pete Dye completed a design featuring two markedly different nines. The front nine is on higher ground and typical of the surrounding Texas hill country, while the “lowlands” nine runs alongside Lake Austin and should provide a spectacular backdrop for finishing matches.”
In total, 21 of the 64-man field are Europeans. Henrik Stenson sits it out after not wanting to play four weeks in a row.
Here’s the lowdown on the Euros (in world ranking order)....
The Leading Europeans
The defending champion and also a beaten finalist in 2012, it’s pretty clear that Rory relishes one-to-one combat. The Northern Irishman survived some scares on the way to victory last year but, as the greats do, he found a way. Overall, McIlroy is 18-6 in this event while in all match-play singles (including his two wins and a half in three Ryder Cup head-to-heads), he’s 24-9-1. His latest form is a worry though and these repeated bad days at the office make him vulnerable. We saw a very obvious example of that at Bay Hill last week when he shot 75-67-75-65.
Rose famously won the final two holes against Phil Mickelson to help Europe snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at Medinah in 2012 although his record in this event is poor with just one quarter-final (2007) in 10 appearances. However, he beat Tiger in the last four and Lee Westwood in the final to win the eight-man Turkish Airlines World Golf Final in 2012 and was top points scorer for the Europeans in the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. His recent strokeplay form shows high-level consistency (9-17-16-6).
Willett really introduced himself to American golf audiences with a run to the semi-finals of this event at Harding Park last year. His scalps included US Ryder Cup players Patrick Reed and Jim Furyk. Since then, he’s kicked on further and added another top three in a WGC event at the Cadillac Championship earlier this month. A winner of the prestigious Dubai Desert Classic back in January, the Englishman owns a sharp short game that is a big asset in this format.
Sergio loves a bit of match-play although we’ve seen more evidence of it in Ryder Cups (singles wins over Jim Furyk in 2014 and 2012 spring to mind) than we have in this event. At the WGC, he reached the semis in 2010 but that’s the only time he’s been beyond the last 16 which is surprising. Better news comes from his current form (11th WGC-Cadillac and runner-up at the Honda Classic) and a good record in Texas. He’s won both the Colonial and Byron Nelson and also has four top 20s from his last five starts in the Lone Star State.
The Englishman took McIlroy to the 22nd hole in last year’s quarter-final while he was also a beaten finalist in both 2009 and 2010. Overall he’s 30-20-2 in match-play singles (this event, Ryder Cups, Seve Trophy etc) so is an opponent to be feared and his 13 European Tour wins include a victory in the HSBC World Match Play Championship at Wentworth in 2006. Casey looks primed for a good week after back-to-back top 10s on the PGA TOUR (T9 Arnold Palmer, T7 WGC-Cadillac) while it’s worth noting that his one victory in America came in Texas (2009 Shell Houston Open).
Along with McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose and Russell Knox, the Irishman is one of the five Europeans in the field to have an individual WGC win under his belt. That came via a brilliant victory in last year’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio. Lowry first appeared on the radar for US audiences when stunning McIlroy in the first round of this event in 2013 before he went out in the last 16. He’s 5-for-5 on the PGA Tour this season, a run which includes a top six in Phoenix, while he posted T15 in the 2013 Texas Open.
Sullivan could be a danger given the number of birdies he makes and how quickly he shakes off disappointment. He made his debut in the event last year, losing 2&1 to Patrick Reed, beating Ryan Moore 3&2 and losing 1down to fellow Englishman Danny Willett. The only other match-play evidence we have is positive, a 4&3 victory over Thongchai Jaidee in the EurAsia Cup earlier this season. Sullivan’s current form also merits respect after a second place in Dubai and a run of 26-17-27 on the Florida Swing.
The Scot had his thunderclap moment when winning the WGC-HSBC Champions in China last November and that gets him a debut in this event. We have no match-play form to go on as a pro but he has finished 26th or better in four of his last six starts in Texas and posted T26 (Honda Classic) and T27 (WGC-Cadillac) in two recent starts in Florida.
The Austrian made his first start in this event last year but, despite beating Sergio Garca, defeats to Matt Kuchar and Jamie Donaldson meant he didn’t make it out of the group. Add in results from the Royal Trophy and EurAsia Cup and he’s 2-4 in match-play singles so he doesn’t leap off the page as someone to get with in this format. A top 14 in the WGC-Cadillac Championship earlier this month should give him some confidence for his first ever start in Texas.
In terms of Texas, the US-based Swede has played plenty of golf there and has a top five at the 2014 Crowne Plaza Invitational and a couple of other top 10s in Web.com events. He started the season strongly with three top 15s which included a second place at the CareerBuilder Challenge but since then he’s cooled with two missed cuts and three finishes outside the top 45 in Florida. It’s his debut in the tournament but a delve into the history books shows that he won both his matches for Europe in the 2010 Palmer Cup loss to the US at Royal Portrush.
The Next Rung
The dashing Frenchman made it to the final of this event in 2014 and produced some Seve-like magic in the championship match before finally being put away by Jason Day. He also won 2.5pts out of three on his Ryder Cup debut at Gleneagles in 2014 so he’ll put fear into any opponent. Despite that, he’s shot a 77 or worse in each of his last three starts and often struggles when undergolfed (Dubuisson has made just one strokeplay start in each of January, February and March). A little more light can be found from a singles win against Ashun Wu in this year’s EurAsia Cup and a T17 in last year’s Houston Open, his only ever start in Texas.
Wood owns a 6-6-1 record in singles match-play but lost his only two head-to-heads in this event, making R1 exits to Lee Westwood in 2010 and Bubba Watson in 2013. He’s shown better match-play form in recent times and won three of his four matches at the inaugural Paul Lawrie Match Play in Scotland last summer and also beat S.S.P Chawrasia (winner of the Hero Indian Open on Sunday) in January’s EurAsia Cup. Wood gave himself a nice pre-tournament boost with a top 20 in last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Having won the 2013 US Amateur, Fitzpatrick has very strong (and recent) match-play credentials and, as a pro, the early signs are good too. He’s 2-1 in singles and his last two head-to-heads were a 6&4 thumping of Bradley Dredge in the 2015 Paul Lawrie Match Play and a 2up win over Kiradech Aphibarnrat (T6 at Bay Hill on Sunday) in January’s EurAsia Cup. Had this tournament been played at the back end of 2015 he could have been sleeper pick material but he’s not posted a top 25 in seven starts in 2016.
Most of the rejuvenated Dane’s match-play form is rather old and this is his first appearance at this tournament since a R1 defeat to YE Yang at Dove Mountain in 2010. As his only other match was a 2&1 loss to Vijay Singh in 2009 it means Kjeldsen will be looking for his first win. He did beat Prayad Marksaeng 3&2 in January’s EurAsia Cup singles and this week’s relatively short course will aid his chances as he lacks distance. Missed the cut at Bay Hill but was a decent T28 in the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
The man who holed the winning putt in the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah was also a beaten finalist in this event in 2011 so he’s shown plenty of match-play mettle down the years. The concern for Kaymer supporters is his continued slide down the world rankings. The German was 10th after last year’s Honda Classic but he’ll arrive in Texas (5th at Colonial in 2013 but three MCs in four Lone Star State starts since) outside the top 40 after three missed cuts in his previous four events.
Like Kaymer, Donaldson has also experienced the giddy thrill of striking the decisive blow in a Ryder Cup singles so will always have that in his mind when playing this format. He also won two of his three matches in this event last year although it wasn’t enough as he went out in the group stage. The Welshman is 3-for-3 on the PGA TOUR this season, with a T26 at the Honda Classic his best effort. He was T35 at the WGC-Cadillac last time out but hasn’t cashed in his only two starts in Texas.
RCB has shown some impressive form this season with twin second places on the European Tour’s Desert Swing (Qatar, Dubai) and a T11 in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Florida. This is his third start in the event and his 1-2 record includes a 19th hole defeat to Jason Day in 2012. He does lots of things well but a lack of short-game magic probably hurts him in this format when games get tight.
Anyone not familiar with Pieters needs to be as the young Belgian could be a big name over the next 10 years. He’s already won his first two European Tour events (in back-to-back starts last year) and, so far in 2016, has a second place in Abu Dhabi and a third in Thailand a fortnight ago. The negatives? He missed the cut at Bay Hill and perhaps this week’s course isn’t ideal for his monster hitting.
A mainstay of Europe’s golden years in the Ryder Cup, Westwood owns a career match-play record in singles of 33-29-1. His last start in the format produced a 7&6 win (over Nicholas Fung) in January’s EurAsia Cup while he beat Jordan Spieth in this event last year. That said, he’s only been past the last 16 once (fourth in 2012) in all his years contesting this tournament and he doesn’t seem the same player these days as highlighted by missed cuts (Abu Dhabi, Dubai) on his last two starts.
File him under match-play specialist. He secured the winning point against Hunter Mahan in the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, took the scalp of Jordan Spieth when leading Europe out in the 2014 singles at Gleneagles and won the European Tour’s 2013 World Match Play Championship in Bulgaria. Overall, he’s an impressive 30-17 in singles and made the quarter-finals of this event in 2013 and 2014. Four missed cuts out of six on the PGA Tour this year is a worry but he did crack the top five in The Honda Classic and, in theory, a shortish track in windy Texas should suit him.
It’s a fourth start for the Dane in this event and he’s won just one match (3&2 over Jamie Donaldson) in his previous tries. His overall match-play record tells a similar story (2-7 in singles action) so he’s not leaping off the page. Earlier in the season, Olesen showed his usual strong form in the desert (which could have made him a better proposition at Dove Mountain in Arizona) but he’s failed to cash in recent starts in Malaysia and Perth.
Who’s On The Team?
It’s always a tough week for bettors/gamers but hopefully some of the above will help you fill out your brackets.
In order of preference, I would rank my top 10 Europeans as:
In terms of having a bet, Casey would be my pick at around 33/1 while Sullivan could spring a surprise at 80/1.
One To Swerve
Martin Kaymer looks out of sorts and don’t expect the change of format to help.