The first of the four WGC events on the schedule is an 18-hole matchplay knockout affair, at least until the final which is played over 36 holes. The world’s top 64 players are eligible, but following the withdrawals of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the next two in the World Rankings, Chris Wood and Ross McGowan, take their places.
While the absence of Woods and Mickelson is obviously significant, the event isn’t much more open as a consequence. Mickelson has never reached the semis, and while Woods has won it three times, he’s also been humbled by the likes of Jeff Maggert, Peter O’Malley and Nick O’Hern (twice). More than any other event, this one proves that 18-hole matchplay is the greatest leveller in golf.
While those arguments about the randomness of matchplay still apply, especially in the opening rounds, the trends have altered since this event moved from its former home at La Costa to Arizona three years ago. The three champions at Dove Mountain have been Tiger, Henrik Stenson and Geoff Ogilvy, all very backable matchplay specialists. Two courses at Dove Mountain have been used, with Ritz-Carlton hosting this for the second year in a row.
Evaluating the key stats is anything but straightforward in matchplay, but the distinct impression I got last year was that a high-class short game is required. Arguably a better guide to picking the winner is that every champion since the tournament’s inception in 1999 was aged between 27 and 38. Stamina should prove an important factor, with seven rounds to be played over five days.
2pts ew IAN POULTER @ 28/1 (GENERAL)
Long-term readers will know I’ve backed Poulter before in this event, as he has frequently taken the eye as a classy match player. Most memorably he finished as top points scorer in the last Ryder Cup, and his record in this event is also promising. Poulter has won 11 out of 18 matches over six visits and critically, appears to have improved markedly in the past 12 months. After backing him several times without success having identified that improvement last season, it was frustrating to miss out on his triumph at the Singapore Open. No way am I going to pass up this ideal opportunity.
1.5pts ew SEAN O’HAIR @ 35/1 (GENERAL, 40/1 EXPEKT)
Few if any of O’Hair’s rivals in the Snead bracket can boast more solid recent form. Four of his last seven PGA Tour starts have yielded top-eight finishes, and after making significant progress in 2009 he could be one to follow in the biggest events this year. O’Hair’s two previous attempts in this have seen him win four from six matches, and he looked good before getting sick ahead of last year’s quarter-final.
1pt ew ZACH JOHNSON @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
Another pick in the Snead bracket, which strikes me as the weakest section. Zach went into the notebook last year when this tournament moved to the Ritz-Carlton for the first time, after producing the best performance of the opening round. He was eliminated the next day by Mickelson, which can hardly be considered a disgrace. Johnson has already shown he likes this matchplay format, when reaching the semis at
La Costa in 2006.
Watney has been playing well without much reward in strokeplay events for months, so let’s see if the switch to matchplay can produce a change of luck. The draw has been pretty kind, with first round opponent Yuta Ikeda playing in the States for the first time. Watney’s prodigous length off the tee can only be an advantage in this form of golf.
Wilson is my sole pick in the Hogan bracket. It’s not that there aren’t lots of strong candidates in there, but none particularly appeal in the outright market for reasons to be explained later. Oliver showed a
liking for this format on last year’s debut, registering impressive wins over KJ Choi and Anthony Kim before going down in extra holes to the more experienced Justin Leonard. Recent form is fine, with top 15s in Qatar and Dubai on his latest two starts.
0.5pt ew BRIAN GAY @ 125/1 (GENERAL)
Again, Gay is in that potentially weak Snead bracket, and at a very tasty price given that he’s won three PGA Tour events in the past two seasons. There are very few better putters in the world than Gay, which can only bode well for matchplay. Consecutive top 15s on his last two starts actually read better than the bare numbers imply, as they came on courses where he’d never thrived before.
0.5pt ew MICHAEL SIM @ 150/1 (GENERAL)
To win a WGC event at this early stage of his career is asking a great deal, but 150/1 is simply too big a price about Sim. Last season’s runaway Nationwide Tour winner has already made his mark at the higher level, finishing runner-up on his penultimate start at Torrey Pines. The young Aussie also played well on his most recent visit to Arizona, finishing seventh in the 2008 Frys.com Open.