IT’S a funny old week, the World Golf Championship – Dell Technologies Match Play. Bit of a mouthful, too. Hyphens here, missing words there, other ones broken up into two. There are 64 players in the field and as many different versions of the tournament’s title doing the rounds in various publications and online.
They’ve never quite got the format right, either. The world’s elite (as well as television executives, sponsors and promoters) hated the straight knockout because the prospect of the top seeds lasting less than 18 holes was calamitous. On the other hand, having 16 groups has proved something of a half-hearted fudge as well, with insufficient peril on day one and too many dead rubbers on day two.
Still, it’s easy to argue that a break from the normal dynamic is a good one. The relentless diet of 72-hole strokeplay does get a little wearisome and the Austin Country Club has proved to be the best venue in the tournament’s lifetime; a decent Pete Dye design with plenty of risk and reward.
Each Way – Jon Rahm at 12/1
One of match play’s great virtues is that it can jump-start a career or, in the case of an elite player, his form. The change in format fires the brain in a subtly different manner and aspects of the game that were draining his energy can suddenly be freed. I have a suspicion that could happen in the case of Jon Rahm this week. He’s had a solid 2022 from tee to green. In fact, he’s played very well in that part of the game, ranking first for Greens in Regulation in two events, second in two more, third in another, and 11th last time out.
In match play hitting more greens than your rival won’t guarantee victory, but it’s a damn good starting point: making par should be a safer prospect and you’ll be taking aim at more par-breaking opportunities too. Rahm’s problem in 2022 has been putting and he’s been meddling with both his equipment and method, but the format change might do the trick.
Another difficulty he’s had this year is a bad-temper, a sort of bear-with-a-sore-head impression. It’s something else that the change in dynamic might help with. Instead of frustration with a long term goal (four rounds, 72 holes, an entire tournament) he can concentrate on each hole and each match as and when they come.
Oddly satisfying. 👌
Cutting the hole on the signature par-5 12th. pic.twitter.com/RCEHN4dmfL
— WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (@DellMatchPlay) March 21, 2022
Each Way – Joaquin Niemann at 35/1
Previous winners at Austin CC had good form: Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson had all won in recent weeks, Billy Horschel had finished second, Kevin Kisner was ticking along nicely. They were all hitting plenty of greens, too (three of them rankings top 20 in at least three of their previous four starts). It makes sense given the thoughts above.
Chile’s Joaquin Niemann fits that bill rather nicely. He was a winner of the Genesis Invitational in February, shortly after landing top 10s in the Saudi International and Farmers Insurance Open. He was also T22nd last time out at THE PLAYERS Championship. In three of his last four starts he ranked top 20 for hitting greens and over the last 12 weeks only Justin Thomas has a better scoring average. That’s sustained quality golf and, loathe as I am to overthink the draw, a group of Kevin Na (not much golf recently), Maverick McNealy (late entry) and Russell Henley (a losing record at Austin) shouldn’t faze him.
Each Way – Corey Conners at 50/1
Another common thread of winners in Austin is a fine record in Texas. Day, Horschel and Kisner had all won there ahead of victory in this event, Watson had a second, Johnson a third. A few names that trend throws up would include Jason Kokrak (can he win three in a row in Texas?!), the red-hot Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger and Sebastian Munoz. But measuring prices against potential I like the look of Canada’s Corey Conners.
He’s not only got victory in the 2019 Texas Open on-side, he also hits green for fun (second in the field this season behind Rahm) and his form is bubbling: he was T11th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his penultimate start and tied fifth at halfway ahead of finishing T26th last time out in THE PLAYERS. He’s also not afraid of a big occasion, landing top 15 finishes last year in three of the majors, the Olympics and THE PLAYERS.