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Rory McIlroy
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Across the Pond

WGC-Dell Match Play Preview

by Dave Tindall

It's been a great few weeks for European golf with Francesco Molinari, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey winning the last three events on the Florida Swing.

That trio helped Europe thrash the United States in the last Ryder Cup although the Americans have had the upper hand in recent editions of this event.

Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson have won the last two at this week's venue, Austin Country Club, and that makes it four U.S. winners in the last seven.

But this trophy contains the names of Rory, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Darren Clarke since Jeff Maggert won the inaugural event in 1999 while Europe has also provided seven runners-up.

This preview focuses on the European challenge but mentions other Internationals/Americans with availability for the official European Tour fantasy game.

 

Format and schedule

16 Groups of four players contest round-robin matches Wednesday to Friday

16 Group winners contest straight knockout over the weekend

Wednesday: Pool Play Rnd 1
Thursday: Pool Play Rnd 2
Friday: Pool Play Rnd 3
Saturday: Round of 16 followed by Quarter-finals
Sunday: Semi-finals, Championship match, Consolation match

 

Course

At just 7,108 yards, Pete Dye’s 1984 design is a short par 71. PGA TOUR.com: “The front nine is on higher ground and typical of the surrounding Texas renovation from Rod Whitman. The front nine is on higher ground and typical of the surrounding Texas hill country, while the “lowlands” nine runs alongside Lake Austin and provides a spectacular backdrop for finishing matches." With Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson winning the three editions here, it seems that big hitters can overpower it. But strategy is key at Austin CC too, as is an ability to play in the wind. Bubba likes the creativity.

 

Quotes

Alex Noren: "Length? No, I don’t think it’s as much advantage as a lot of courses. It bounces a lot on the fairways, it bounces a lot on the greens. It’s nice to play on these courses. It’s like a links course."

Kevin Kisner: "You can hit low bullets here that roll forever. At Pebble Beach the ball rolls a foot." 

Bubba Watson: "Some of the hills, lumps and bumps, some of these pin locations, you can hit different shots. You can play from different angles and create your own shots and have a better chance for birdies."

Jordan Spieth: "You have two completely different golf courses within the two nines: nine holes in the hills and nine holes down in the lake. So you get different winds. The front nine plays a lot of crosswinds, and the back plays a lot of into and down. It adjusts distances the way you play. It has a big effect there."

 

The importance of seeding

2016: Matches won by higher seed 58%, by lower seed 27%, tied 15%
2017: Matches won by higher seed 52%, by lower seed 39%, tied 9%
2018: Matches won by higher seed 46%, by lower seed 43%, tied 11%

Seeding rank of quarter-finalists

2016: 2, 3, 8, 16, 18, 45, 52, 54
2017: 1, 8, 14, 21, 42, 47, 54, 62
2018: 2, 13, 28, 32, 35, 45, 46, 58 

Notes: It's limited evidence but higher seeds are finding it tougher each year. Only two of the top 27 seeds made the last 16 in 2018.

How damaging is it to lose a Pool stage match?

In the three editions at Austin CC, just 13 (27%) of the 48 players who advanced to the knockout phase lost a pool game. There’s a little wriggle room for a defeat in the current format but not much. Seven of the 16 group winners advanced with perfect 3-0 records 12 months ago.

 

Leading Europeans

Rory McIlroy

A winner of this event at Harding Park in California in 2015 and runner-up at Dove Mountain in Arizona in 2012, McIlroy was also a semi-finalist the first time Austin CC played host in 2016. He’s gone out in the group stage twice since but victory at TPC Sawgrass two weeks ago makes him a massive threat here. Rory thrives on confidence and he has bags of it right now. NB: Not available for the official European Tour game after giving up his card this season.

Justin Rose

Rose has been an integral part of so many European Ryder Cup teams and loves to stick his jaw out and shake off the nice-guy image when the heat is on. But this event just hasn’t worked for him. He made the quarter-finals in 2007 but that’s his only noteworthy effort in 11 starts and he didn’t even turn up for the last two years at Austin CC. A winner at Torrey Pines and T8 at THE PLAYERS, he also took home the trophy (Colonial) on his last visit to Texas. Rose has a chance anytime he pegs it up but there are question marks.

Francesco Molinari

A first chance for the Open champ to demonstrate his match play skills since going 5-for-5 in the Ryder Cup. Won his first two group matches last year before being smashed 7&5 by Justin Thomas but so much has changed since for the Italian. He’s now a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, the latest coming at Bay Hill earlier this month.

Jon Rahm

Flexed his match play muscles at this venue two years ago when going all the way to the final and giving Dustin Johnson a scare before losing at the 17th. His run to the Championship game included 6&4 thumpings of Sergio Garcia and Charles Howell III. Disappointing last year but has strong Texas strokeplay form (5-2-10) and followed T12 at THE PLAYERS (54-hole leader) with T6 at the Valspar.

Tommy Fleetwood

The other half of Moliwood will also relish a return to match play after his Ryder Cup high in France. We’d previously seen Fleetwood’s match play skills in the EurAsia Cup (3-for-3 in 2018) while he was a quarter-finalist at Harding Park in 2015. Has won three and lost three at Austin although he ended last year with a 7&6 win over Kevin Chappell before taking out Daniel Berger 2&1. Very prominent on the Florida Swing with T3 at Bay Hill and T5 at TPC Sawgrass.

Paul Casey

Fresh off a successful defense – his first as a pro – at the Valspar Championship, Casey was a back-to-back runner-up in this event at Dove Mountain in 2009 and 2010. He’s not gone deep at Austin CC but has won five of his last six group matches so clearly gets on with the course. Does he have it in him to play all seven rounds though after the gruelling test of Innisbrook?

Sergio Garcia

A stud in Ryder Cups but that may be more due more to the team dynamic in which he thrives. His record in this event is surprisingly poor and he’s got past the last 16 just once (2010 semi-finalist) in 16 years. At least this is a ‘home’ game (wife is from Austin and they live locally) and Sergio did win all three group games in 2018. A great record in Texas suggests this course is a good fit too. Is he due or does T22 at THE PLAYERS and T54 at Valspar - two events that are great for him - hint at a lack of sharpness?

Alex Noren

The Swede was 8th seed here in 2017 and 13th last year but will only be in Pot 2 for the draw this time after his world ranking fall to 28th. His very obvious selling point is a superb record at the course which shows Noren winning all six group games before reaching the last eight in 2017 and the semis last year (also beat Justin Thomas 5&3 in the third place match). Part of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team but his form on the PGA TOUR this year is a big concern: MC-43-62-MC-MC. A classic course form v current form dilemma.

Rafa Cabrera Bello

Rafa loves a bit of match play and finished third in the first edition at Austin CC in 2016. He also won 2 out of 3 in the group stage in 2017 before losing a sudden-death playoff. Fourth in the 2016 Houston Open, RCB had a mixed Florida Swing with MC at Sawgrass and T30 at the Valspar but flashed his talents by taking third at Bay Hill.

Ian Poulter

Poulter has forged a fearsome match play reputation with a series of amazing performances in the Ryder Cup but his record in this event has contributed to it as well. The Englishman won this event at Dove Mountain in 2010 and also made the semis in 2005 and 2013. He had his first start at Austin last year and liked what he saw, going 3-for-3 in the group stage before a quarter-final exit to Kevin Kisner. With four worldwide top tens, including T3 at the WGC-Mexico, his form this year is impressive and you just know that absolutely no-one will want to play him in this format.

Dave Tindall
Dave Tindall is former golf editor at Sky Sports.com in the UK and has been writing betting previews for the European Tour since 1997. He can be reached via e-mail on tindall_david@hotmail.com and on Twitter @davetindallgolf.