We’ve got a big week on tap – Austin, Punta Cana, Web, LPGA, Champions and PGATOURLA – the only thing missing is the Euro tour which is just sort of punting the month of March.
• Good to see Julian Suri and Luke List sneaking into the Match Play. Suri is sponsored by the Jags and goes to the same barber as D.J. and Soly, so we’re big fans over here (shout out to Candy at Third St. Barber). Big chance for them to make some FedExCup noise this week.
• Austin Country Club is really solid and fun to watch: firm, fast and interesting. This will only get better with the expected wind this week, meaning ejections and even a possible Ames-ing could be imminent.
• The Match Play might be the one WGC that gets it right (although Mexico is making a strong case). The others seem to be lacking in excitement with boring courses and FedExCup and OWGR points flying around recklessly like the bats from the South Congress Bridge. More to come on that – hopping on a pod with the Fried Egg to break those down later this week.
• The format for this event still feels like it needs some work. Pod aficionado Paul Azinger would even have a tough time defending some of these groups (can you tell me who the ABCD players are in the Perez, Kim, Woodland, Simpson group?).
Things are still better than they were with the March Madness-style 1 to 64 bracket, and it’s fun to see guys get multiple rounds, but it feels like the Tour needs a Western Am-style format – 36 or 54 holes of stroke play that whittles the field down to a smaller 16-person match play bracket. I get all the concerns that go into a big-money WGC from the sponsor/TV standpoint, so maybe the answer is introducing more match play at other parts of the season. Another match play tournament could be a chance for hardcore fans to get to know some more individual names in the fall or other off-peak times of the season.
• It’s been strange and sad to watch the circumstances around Austin this week, with the tournament ramping up in the midst of these bombings. Word on the ground is that the players have been easily distracted by the golf, but away from the course there’s been a palpable sense of anxiety and a large police presence changing the vibe of one of the most fun cities in America. Interested to see who slips up first with a poorly-worded tweet.
From here, I’ll cede the floor to Big Randy:
This week is the twentieth playing of WGC Match Play, which seems as good a time as any to reflect back on a few highlights from the early years of the event. Here then are some tidbits I find very interesting:
15 vs. 16
The Ben Hogan bracket of the inaugural WGC Match Play Championship featured six major winners (DL3, Sluman, Janzen, Woosnam, Couples, and Norman), plus another guy (Mickelson) that has won five majors and counting, and one of the best players to never win a major (Westwood). Yet out of this came the most unlikely matchup in the history of the event. Fifteenth-seed Eduardo Romero ran through a murders’ row of Westwood, Norman, and Phil to reach the quarterfinals where waiting for him was none other than 16th-seed Steve Pate, who had vanquished DL3, Brandt Jobe, and Fred Couples along the way.
The Romero/Pate slugfest is the only time a 15 vs. 16 matchup occurred under the 64-man bracket format, and three years into pool play we’ve yet to see a quarterfinal matchup as unlikely based on seeding. So who won? You’ll note Steve Pate bested Eduardo that week by a 3&2 margin. Steve’s Cinderella run quickly ended, though, as he lost to eventual champ, Jeff Maggert, in the semis and again to John Huston in a third-place match. Interestingly, Pate would participate in two more Match Plays but never notch another match victory, while Romero only collected one more match victory in his two other starts. For those magical few days in Carlsbad in 1999, though…
The Executive’s Dream
Everything 1999 was, 2000 was not. To the point that it makes me wonder if the fix was in.
In 1999 you had a semifinal quartet of Jeff Maggert, Steve Pate, Andrew Magee and John Huston. As much as I love John Huston, a few semifinals like that and Match Play would’ve been dead in the water. Something had to change, and boy did it in 2000. Not only did three No. 1 seeds advance to the semifinals for the first (and only) time, but we had a real look at a Tiger vs. Duval 36-hole final. World No. 1 vs. World No. 2. Damn-near #PeakTiger vs. a perfect foil in the cocky, menacing Duval. Talk about one of the bigger what-ifs in the last twenty years of professional golf. Makes me sad thinking back on it.
The fly in the ointment that week was Darren Clarke, the lone non 1-seed to reach the semis. He beat Duval in the semis and then turned around and beat Tiger in the championship match. Not a bad two days right there.
My Memory Stinks
Steve Stricker won the 2001 WGC-Match Play championship. On the surface that’s about the least weird thing ever, but then I started looking into the 2001 event and realized two things: 1) there was some funky stuff about the event that year; and 2) my memory sucks. Let’s start with the event itself. It was played in Melbourne, Australia, during the first week of January. Largely because of this, many top players bailed, including 12 of the top 20 players in the world. Stricker was a beneficiary, getting into the event ranked 90th in the world and given a 14 seed. Stricker remains, probably forever, the lowest ranked guy, by OWGR standards, to win the event. Incredibly (alarmingly?), the guy Stricker beat in the finals, Pierre Fulke, I have zero recollection of. None. Learned all about him writing this. I’m a bit embarrassed but I’m also curious how many of you distinctly remember Pierre (Tron did when I asked him, but he’s in with #BigSweden).
Anyway, the quick summary of Pierre’s golfing career is he had a great run of it between 1999 and 2002. Got his first Euro Tour win in 1999, chased it with two more in 2000, finished 12th on the Order of Merit, qualified for the 2001 Ryder Cup team, and then went 0-1-1 for a winning Euro side when the Ryder Cup was played in 2002. He retired from competitive golf in the mid-2000’s due to injury and now heads up a course design company. So there you go. Pierre Fulke. I learned something new today.
The last fun tidbit from this year was it’s the only time two Japanese players have squared off against one another in a win-or-go-home match. Toru Taniguchi defeated Shigeki Maruyama 2&1 in the Quarterfinals. That and $2 will get you a cup of coffee tomorrow.
Let it Snow
Let us not forget that weird time when it snowed in Tucson. For many players, this was the perfect crystallization of why the tournament needed a change from an unpopular format and an unpopular venue.The Unlikely Champ
2002 saw the Match Play return stateside and played in late February. Accordingly, all the big names returned too. The four No. 1 seeds in 2002 were Tiger Woods (again, absolutely #PeakTiger), Sergio (still the apple of everybody’s eye), Phil (when’s he going to win a major?!?) and Duval (the aforementioned menace). The pump was primed for a great week.
And then Tiger (Peter O’Malley), Phil (John Cook), and Duval (Kevin Sutherland) all lost in the first round. Wikipedia confirms they kept playing golf that week, and in all seriousness, Kevin Sutherland became the most unlikely winner in the history of the event. First, he’s the only 16 seed to ever win. Second, it proved to be Kevin Sutherland’s only career PGA Tour victory. A really remarkable lone Tour victory.
You’ll note Ian Poulter’s first PGA Tour victory was his 2010 Match Play title, but he had won numerous times in Europe, and has since notched No. 2 with his HSBC win in 2012. Maybe the closest we’ve come to an analogous situation would’ve been if Victor Dubuisson prevailed in 2014. But two things there: 1) he’s got a lot a career left, conceivably, to win another Tour event; and 2) he won twice on the Euro Tour.
No, the Sutherland victory remains a unicorn of oddness in the history of Match Play. I’ll finish by noting Sutherland has enjoyed a flourish on the Champions Tour of late, shooting a 59 in 2014, notching a victory at last year’s Charles Schwab Cup Championship and finishing 3rd in the year-long Schwab Cup standings. Good on him.