By DOUG FERGUSON – AP Golf Writer
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Jordan Spieth has only been nominated once this year, and that’s sure to change in the Dell Technologies Match Play.
He won’t even have to wait for the weekend.
Golf’s most unpredictable format begins Wednesday at the Austin Country Club, starting with 16 four-man pools before a winner advances to the weekend knockout stage. Even so, every game feels important, and that’s what Spieth likes.
“You have more opportunities to play shots under pressure, especially when you go down the stretch every game,” Spieth said.
“When you start hitting 13, 14 in a close game, you feel like you’re trying to win a golf tournament against that person next to you, and those feelings that you don’t normally have until Sunday” , did he declare. “The further you go, the closer you almost play the Sunday rounds in contention, and those are priceless.”
Whether he’s at the top of his game or trying to find his way back, Spieth has never reached the quarter-finals. It could be worse. Xander Schauffele never quit group play the three times he participated in Match Play.
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Jon Rahm is the No. 1 seed, which guarantees little. Only three No. 1 seeds have won since Match Play began in 1999 – Dustin Johnson in 2017, Rory McIlroy in 2015 and Tiger Woods all three times he won (2003, 2004, 2008).
The most famous moment for Woods came in 2006, his final year at La Costa, when Stephen Ames was last in the 64-man field and thought he had a chance against Woods, jokingly adding, “especially where he hits the ball.” Woods won, 9 and 8, still the biggest margin in tournament history.
The tale improves. In Arizona the following year, Ames opened with Robert Karlsson and the match ended in 11 holes. Ames beat him, 8 and 7, to tie for the second-biggest rout in tournament history. He called home in Canada after the game and his wife was surprised to hear from him so soon. Imagine his surprise to learn he wasn’t coming home.
It has nothing to do with March Madness. Anyone can be St. Peters and no one would call it an upset.
“There will be a lot of people who, after Friday, will probably think, ‘I didn’t play badly at all.’ And they don’t succeed,” Rahm said.
Patrick Cantlay can attest to this. He had 14 birdies and two eagles in two games last year, both times over the distance. He lost in the third round and had to face Brian Harman, whom he had beaten on day one, in a sudden death to win the group. Harman beat him.
There are still a few interesting matches in the next three round robin days, like Rahm vs. Patrick Reed on Friday. Spieth is part of a group of great champions – Keegan Bradley (PGA Championship), Adam Scott (Masters) and Justin Rose (US Open).
And then there’s Scottie Scheffler, the finalist a year ago on his Match Play debut. His last time in match play was six months ago at the Ryder Cup, where he went 2-0-1. Over the next three days he will face European members Ian Poulter, Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick.
“I hope not,” Scheffler said. “That would be bad news for me.”
Scheffler faced Poulter last year in the fourth round and beat him in 14 holes. As well as beating Rahm in the quarter-finals, it was a performance that stood out for Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, who used his final wildcard pick on Scheffler.
Does this week really matter? Probably not. Scheffler isn’t sure anyone can declare a player a match play specialist just for completing the seven games required to win.
“I just think you see guys playing well in stroke play events, they’re probably going to play well here,” Scheffler said.
Dustin Johnson is one example. He beat Rahm in the championship game in 2017 for his third straight win, including two at the golf world championships. No one played better. He was the heavy favorite at the Masters, except he slipped down the stairs of his rental home in Augusta, Georgia, twisted his back, and never made it to the first tee.
The Masters is two weeks away, and it’s the last week for players who aren’t yet eligible to enter the top 50 to win a trip to Augusta National.
The schedule is also a reason not everyone in the top 64 in the world is in Austin. Rory McIlroy, Sam Burns and Cameron Smith opted out. McIlroy didn’t want Match Play to be his last start before the Masters, while Burns and Smith were coming off wins and wanted a rest. Two others, Hideki Matsuyama and Harris English, are recovering from injury. Phil Mickelson is recovering from his Saudi-related comments and isn’t even playing the Masters.
In their place, six players are equally capable.
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