There was a time when this tournament was one of the most venerated in golf. Initially known as the Canada Cup, the early winning pairings tell you pretty much all you need to know: there were the inaugural champions Antonio Cerda and Roberto De Vicenzo from Argentina, and then, within five years, Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle of Australia, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead of the United States of America, and Harry Bradshaw and Christy O’Connor Sr of Ireland - it’s like a who’s who of the great and the good.
Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were serial contenders and winners (four times together) and Severiano Ballesteros was a two-time champion, but the Americans he pushed into second in 1976 (Dave Stockton and Jerry Pate) kind of hinted at what was to come.
The event had started to ache, the ache became a limp, the limp became a need for resuscitation. Twice in the 1980s there was no renewal and over the last decade it has cropped up in apparently random years: 2009, 2011, 2013, 2016, 2018. The official website is so confused it dates the pre-penultimate event as November 2013 and yet also describes it as the 2014 tournament.
But enough of disappointed nostalgia because it could be worse. From 2007 until 2009 it was held at a venue which boasted 18 golf courses, an exercise in needless opulence that even golfers recognised as insane, and in glorious contrast the last three tournaments have all been on the Melbourne sandbelt, a stretch of golfing territory that was honed by chance, but could well have been created by the sporting gods.
Home to the 2011 WGC World Match Play (won by Steve Stricker) The Metropolitan GC in Melbourne, Victoria is a masterpiece of fast-running turf, with bunkers often cut into lightning greens, and the fairways are lined by rugged trees. Originally designed by Alistair Mackenzie, Dick Wilson reconstructed the back nine. Stuart Appleby said of it: “It’s a whole set of clubs ahead of Augusta in condition. This is a natural golf course.” It will be a visual treat for TV viewers every bit as much as a playing delight for the competitors.
Rounds one and three are fourball (best ball), with Friday and Sunday foursomes (alternate shot). The teams are selected as the top 28 eligible countries from the world ranking as of September 3 2018. The top player eligible (who accepts the invitation) can then select a team-mate from anyone within the top 500 (lower ranked teams can go beyond that mark if required).
2016 – Kingston Heath
1. Denmark -20
2. China -16
2. France -16
2. U.S.A. -16
2014 – Royal Melbourne
1. Australia -17
2. U.S.A. -7
3. Denmark -5
3. Japan -5
Not the best. Temperatures in the 60s, but lots of rain expected on Thursday and Friday (sunny skies at the weekend). It could be fun early on: There is gusting winds of more than 20mph predicted during Thursday’s rain, easing throughout the rest of the week.
The Leading Contenders
The bookmaker’s favorites and with good reason. Leishman has seven top 12s in his last ten starts on home turf and was T9 with Adam Scott two years ago. Smith has an even better home record: nine top 15s in his last ten starts, with victory in the Australian PGA Championship. Leishman won the recent CIMB Classic, Smith was T10 last week in the Australian Open.
Two Ryder Cup team-mates from Paris are reunited and you sense both of them will reference it at some point, to each other if no-one else. Or perhaps it won’t need to be said. Whatever, it’s a bond they will be keen to reignite. Both fiery, both fine putters, both need to reverse their form (Poulter 10-21-51 since the Ryder Cup, Hatton 2-14-21-21).
In this case, like the dork ahead of the Prom, the World Cup had to go a long, long, long, long, long way down its list of hoped-for dates before one said yes. In the end Kyle Stanley, the 15th ranked American in early September, admitted he wasn’t washing his hair this week and he only needed to go two spots lower to find a partner (the Prom-date metaphor just got confusing) when Matt Kuchar said yes. Kuch was second with Kevin Streelman in 2013 (and second too in the individual) so he can play the sandbelt and he was, of course, a winner in Mexico two weeks ago. Stanley has twice been second this year (Muirfield Village, Bridgestone; both fast greens) but hasn’t had a top ten since the last of those.
An was T10 last week in the Australian Open, despite a third round 76, and he was, like Stanley, a play-off loser on the swift greens at Muirfield Village. Kim has ticked along during the Fall events, logging three top 30s. Fourth favorite seems a little high.
Pieters was T13 with Nicolas Colsaerts in 2016 and an inspired partner of Rory McIlroy in the 2016 Ryder Cup, yet he remains an enigma, one who couldn’t find the magic to make a return to that stage. He was, however, T12 last week in Dubai and shot a 62 in Turkey. In the same event Detry was T3 and he was T7 a week later in South Africa. Good friends, but can they sync?
This pairing were sensational four-shot winners last time around and Olesen has compiled quite the team record book because he was T3 alongside Thomas Bjorn in 2013 (remember, both were on the sandbelt). You can add to that not only his 1-1 record as a member of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup two months ago, but also victory in the first GolfSixes alongside Lucas Bjerregaard. Credit to Olesen for defending the title with his winning partner; he had options, not least Bjerregaard. Kjeldsen was T4 at Royal Melbourne in the 2003 Heineken Classic.
If similar distances hit from the tee box is any guide for foursomes compatibility (and many believe it to be the case) then the Irish pair are a decent match, with Lowry averaging 304.5 and Dunne 302.9. They also boast wonderful short games. Dunne could complete an oddball double this week: Like Olesen two years ago he arrives as a winner of the GolfSixes. Both were outside the top 25 last week in Dubai.
To maintain the theme of distance-from-the-tee-rapport … there will be no team more in sync than this pair because they both averaged 306.5 yards per biff in 2018. Moreover they have been posting photos from their youth on social media so this is a pair who have known each other a long time. Frittelli was T7 last week in Dubai, Van Rooyen (who has played a lot of golf recently) was T26. If the latter can squeeze one more week from himself they make an intriguing pairing.
Knox’s season has been fascinating. T2 in the Open de France, winner a week later in the Irish Open, contending after 54 holes in Scotland, he admitted he was tired, played a poor final round, was drawn with Tiger in R1 at the Open, confessed he was starstruck, played like it, never recovered. Laird was T7 in the Sanderson Farms Championship, his first solo top ten since February. He was, however, T7 in the Classic of New Orleans and who was his partner that week? Knox.
Let’s revisit the driving distance idea one last time and in this case highlight a huge discrepancy: Li smashes it 307.5 yards from the tee, Wu taps it 279.7. But it didn’t stop them two years ago, when they finished T2, shooting 70-72 in foursomes and a pair of 65s in the fourballs. Li recently had five top 12s in a row and Wu has had his moments since winning the KLM Open in September. The worry is that both are playing a fifth week in row, having collected a lot of air miles whilst doing so.
Hard to overlook Aphibarnrat because he was simply so superb in winning the World Super 6 Perth the last time he was in Australia and he was also individually T5 in 2013 at Royal Melbourne (when 3-under himself whilst Prayad Marksaeng limped to 10-over). Nappy Factor? Aphibarnrat's best friend Meesawat and his wife welcomed a baby boy last weekend. X Factor? Meesawat, who makes his debut this week, is the second member of the family to represent Thailand in the World Cup after his father Suthep.
What value Ancer’s win in last week’s Australian Open? It was his third top five in five starts and he’s clearly enjoying himself, but can he motivate Diaz who has opened the PGA Tour 2019 season MC-MC-T57-MC?
Kodaira is a PGA Tour winner this year and Tanihara has been 27th and 59th on the last two Races to Dubai. That’s the good news. The bad is that Kodaira has one top 30 (T20) on the main tours since his win in April and Tanihara hasn’t made a top 30 in six starts.
Far from the biggest names Sweden could have flying the flag, but they are both winners this year on the European Tour and within two weeks of each other too – moreover in the middle week they represented Sweden in the GolfSixes. They didn’t progress from the group stages however.
Lorenzo-Vera made the final of the GolfSixes for France, but not with Levy. However they look a neat match in personality: Ebullient, enthusiastic, excitable. Fireworks possible, but the win might be a big ask.
Two very solid tee-to-green performers, but both known to struggle a bit on the greens. That doesn’t necessarily count against them on these quick surfaces, plenty of poor putters have preferred swift greens, but it does make it harder to call.
Germany – Martin Kaymer, Max Kieffer
Kaymer (T5 in Turkey) has been talking a good game, but was T55 in Dubai. Kieffer was T5 at Valderrama so has also shown form, but also gone downhill since (T60 last time out in South Africa).
Finnish golf is on a high with no less than five of the nation’s golfers playing on the European Tour in 2019. Korhonen is in the form of his life (a winner this year, 46th on the Race to Dubai), Ilonen hasn’t made a top 30 since the Irish Open in July.
Who’s On The Team?
No official fantasy game this week, but of the three at the top of the markets I like the Americans best. I also think the South African partnership has promise.
Of the outsiders Thailand may have been overlooked. Aphibarnrat has that form in Australia (including the sandbelt) and he also adores fast greens - adn if Meesawat really is inspired they've got great potential.
One To Swerve
The form of the Scottish pairing is far from appealing.