It’s about time the Tour rolled through the Bay Area with the new and improved WGC Match Play Championship at TPC Harding Park. From sponsor to venue to vibe to format, this year’s head to head event should provide fresh theater. Finchem and Co. deserve some credit for making the necessary changes to this early season zombie event and blowing up the format after an 8 year stint in the Desert.
The 64 man field has been divided into 16 four man groups (think World Cup group play). The #1 seed in each group will be the top 16 ranked players in the OWGR. The 3 remaining spots in each group will be decided via a blind draw by tournament officials from three different pools:
- Pool 1 – Players 17-32 in OWGR (#2 player in each group)
- Pool 2 – Players 33-48 in OWGR (#3 player in each group)
- Pool 3 – Players 49-64 in OWGR (#4 player in each group)
The drawing was live on Monday at noon EST in the Golf Central studios in Orlando (Prime Time baby)! For the PGA suits, this Match Play event has caused problems in the past due to the small, 64 man field and elimination format. With less golfers on the course each day into Sunday, the fan experience is diminished and the sponsors can’t entertain from the tents! With this year’s tournament starting on Wednesday and finishing with 36 holes on Sunday. The blind drawing and subsequent group round robin play (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) will add intrigue and much needed variables to the early stages of the tournament, but more importantly, it will add more golf. Saturday and Sunday will be reserved for true fans that want to see the top 16 battle for that awkward blue trophy. Oh, and $1.5 million payday.
TPC Harding Park is a phenomenal track steeped in history, a course I love to play as a SF local, and one that’s sets up very nicely for Match Play (read: tough, scenic finishing holes with tons of birdies to be had). It’s important to keep in mind that Harding is true Municipal track owned by the city and county of San Francisco, but operated by TPC since 2010. It opened to the public 90 years ago in 1925, was designed by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting (same guys who did the Olympic club across Lake Merced), and was named for President Warren G. Harding, who died in office of heart failure at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel two years prior (and, it’s worth mentioning, a man who did NOT lay up – naturally he was an avid golfer…womanizer, and gambler from the great state of Ohio). The course was home to
NLU terrorist Johnny Miller and Ken Venturi growing up and has a long history as host to marquee PGA tour and USGA events in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Due to California’s inability to balance a budget, the course fell into dark times in the 80’s and 90’s, even serving as a parking lot for the ’98 US Open hosted across the lake. It wasn’t until the early aughts that prominent San Franciscan lawyer Sandy Tatum was able to rally change. This an interesting story of a local power struggle covered in depth here by the SF Chronicle, but in a nutshell, Tatum found the funds and more importantly, the votes to pour $15 million into the renovations and re-design (read: lengthening) of Harding Park. He also convinced Finchy to find a spot on the Tour’s calendar for a stop at Harding Park (how could he say no to the big market Bay Area…), and since the renovation, we’ve seen Big Cat take down JD3 in sudden death (’05 Amex Championship) and then the world with a bit of help from Stricker (President’s Cup ’09).
Anytime you can watch a professionals compete on a course you’ve played or know well, it adds significant enjoyment to the viewing experience, so I’m certainly jacked up to watch the pros battle each other on a course I’ve played several times the last two years. The course routing this week follows no particular order of any kind, so I’ll just lay it out the way I know it. The layout has the front nine cocooned by the back nine that opens up with the final 4 holes flanked by Lake Merced down the left side. Even with the rough grown out and greens waxed, the pros will MURDER the front nine that has no water, straight par 4’s, a very gettable par 5, and unprotected greens abound. The back nine opens up a bit more challenging and really turns the screws on 14 when Lake Merced comes into view and the wind starts whipping. This finishing stretch (and course) is perfect for Match Play where par is irrelevant and scenic holes set the stage for a one on one battle. It wouldn’t surprise me if the winner puts -25 on the leader board in the 2020 PGA Championship.
Picks are tough but fun this week with the round robin group play adding so much parity. Here are a few guys I like:
- Jason Day (16/1) – Easy choice, but hard not to root for Jayyyyyson after his triumphant victory last year, a strong week in New Orleans, and a disappointing showing in Augusta. He’s hungry, and this guy loves the grind. It would be awesome to see him throw is name back into the mix with Spieth and Rory as one of the world’s the young and girthy stars (he’s only 27). Don’t sleep on him at Chambers Bay either…
- Matt Kuchar (25/1) – Though Tron Carter will certainly comment that he lacks pop, I see Kuchar coming out of his group over Mahan. He’s a past match-play champion, and this course sets up well for his consistency, accuracy, and slow, steady demeanor.
- JB Holmes (40/1) – The finishing stretch sets up really really really well for the power fade, and Kentucky’s finest is hot. He’s group is relatively “weak” with Brooks Koepka fading a bit since his win (sorry Soly) but don’t sleep on Russell Henley.
- Billy Horschel (66/1) – This track sets up well for guys that hit it long and straight. BillyHo is another guy that loves to grind. I’d love to see him upset Rory and takes this group from a fragile Dufner and the ghost of Brandt Snedeker.
- Kevin Na (66/1) – Na has been quiet but consistent all year missing only one cut. MatsuYOTTO should provide a tough challenge in group play, but Na’s hypnotic pace of play and consistent game may be a tough head to head combination. What theater it would be to see him stepping off every shot under pressure in the final match on Sunday!
- Gary Woodland (100/1) – Woodland hits it a mile and played well early in the season on the West Coast. I’d LOVE to see him take down Poulter in group play!
- As a San Franciscan local, I should be out at Harding on Thursday, Friday, and/or Saturday, the three days I can see enough actual golf. If you see a guy in a No Laying Up T-shirt, it’s @ngschu…say hey!
- Three of the four NoLayingUp founders were able to get together in the Bay Area last weekend to celebrate @TronCarterNLU‘s pending nuptials. We played Pasatiempo down in Santa Cruz, which has easily become my favorite course due to its accessibility, unpretentious aura, and fair but extremely difficult layout and greens. I hope to write a full post on the course soon but until then, here are a couple great pics of the gang:
- As a side note, the pro shop sold out quicker than we anticipated, but we have plans for more shirts and a couple different NLU designs coming soon…Thank you to all those who bought shirts, they were shipped today and you should receive tracking information by tomorrow afternoon
- Stay tuned to @NoLayingUp, @TronCarterNLU, @BigRandyNLU, and @ngschu for updates and scalding hot commentary lobbed via mortar all over the Twitter-sphere.