Happy Chappell At Valero

23 April 2017
PGA Tour


Kevin Chappell won the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio on Sunday, fending off the challenge of Brooks Koepka with an 8-foot birdie putt on the par five 18th hole to win by a solitary stroke. Koepka had steamed forward from the pack with a final day -7 round of 65 that included a birdie on the 18th, but it would leave him painfully just short of the final winning total of -12. Koepka, seeking his second PGA Tour win, played the 18th hole with impressive careful strategic nous in the circumstances, choosing to lay up and rely on his wedge game to ensure birdie, but Chappell, himself seeking his first victory in his 180th start, stood up to the pressure playing the 18th in very similar fashion with the only clearly evident difference being a slightly longer birdie putt. Chappell took his chance and the wild celebration left in no doubt what the win meant to the 30 year old Californian.

On a course that proves a tough test year in year out, with scoring on Saturday in particular quite high due to the windy conditions, Chappell negotiated it aggressively yet assuredly and the overall quality of his final round of 68 should not be undervalued in the midst of Koepka’s 65. Fresh from a top ten in his first ever Masters appearance a couple of weeks ago, perhaps Chappell entered the week inspired by the experience, helped also by a return to a TPC San Antonio course on which he has previously performed very well, including a solo second place finish in 2011 and T4 in 2016. The springboard effect may lead to further success for Chappell in the near future, although that summation seems to apply to almost every single winner nowadays and they cannot all win. (I am still backing Sergio Garcia for the Grand Slam nonetheless.)

Scrambler Pick – Zurich Classic of New Orleans: Next up, the Tour returns to NOLA, but this time experimenting with a new team format similar to that of the World Cup of Golf – teams of two in strokeplay with foursomes applying for the first and third rounds and fourball (best ball) for the second and fourth rounds. There are some tasty looking teams on offer, not least Jason Day & Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose & Henrik Stenson, Jordan Spieth & Ryan Palmer, Branden Grace & Louis Oosthuizen, Patrick Cantlay & Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger & Thomas Pieters and Bud Cauley & Justin Thomas. Of the above listed players, just Jason Day, Daniel Berger, Ryan Palmer and Justin Rose have recorded finishes of note at TPC of Lousiana, with Rose the only former winner, but that’s no reason to discount teams that include Fowler, Spieth, Stenson, Peiters, Thomas and Finau. The favourites are largely from the above list, but there are some interesting teams further down the field. Three I would highlight are the following:

Byeong Hun An & Seung-Yul Noh – This Korean duo looks menacing. Noh was the winner here in 2014 and An was runner up here last year. Neither is quite setting the world alight recently, but this could be where it all changes.

Alex Cejka & Soren Kjeldson – Say no more than that Kjeldson’s last win came at the World Cup of Golf at the end of 2016. I am sure he can take Cejka with him on a journey to the top five at least.

Luke Donald & Jamie Lovemark – a subtle combination of recent good form and a half decent record on this course for both. I like the chances.

At 35/1, you must go with the Koreans!

Hala Sergio! #SergioSlam2017

The Masters
9 April 2017

Sergio Garcia won the 81st Masters.

Sergio Garcia won The Masters.

Sergio Garcia is a major champion.

Yes indeed it is all true. Last week I told you that it might happen. There was no rocket science behind it, just a refusal to accept that his day would not come. If you kept the faith and stuck with him then well done to you.

You can find lots of stats that might help explain the reasons why Sergio won: his driving; his irons and GIR return; his proximity to the pin; his scrambling; his strokes gained; his putting; but you’ve heard it all already and for me it was simply a case of dominating certain holes in a manner in which he had not quite done in recent years. For example, last week I told you he had struggled badly on the 1st hole in 2016, playing it in +4 for the week. This year he played it in -2, including that superb birdie on Sunday that set the early tone. For 2015 and 2016 combined he played a total of nine holes in over par, whereas this year only the 4th, 7th, 10th and 11th holes stifled him, and at that, at no more than +1 over the four days for each. Damage limitation, and ceteris paribus (e.g. continuing to make a mockery of no. 15, continuing to make solid pars on 12 and 16), it was a formula that would prove successful.

I also told you last week that Sergio needed to sort out his front nine numbers in particular. He had been nine shots worse on the front side in 2015/2016 than on the back nine. This year, he obliterated the front nine, playing it in -6 for the week, which was even better than the -3 he recorded on the back. He was at least three shots better than the 2015/2016 averages on the 1st, 5th and 6th holes. The way he managed to scramble a bogey on the 10th and a par on the 13th on Sunday underlined the execution of a damage limitation regime that helped to reduce the negative impact of any mistakes. The 13th the ultimate turning point, somehow salvaging a par from an unplayable in the woods.

But the stats are the stats. This was a win made possible only by the years of near misses. Justin Rose summed it up best himself. If you want to win majors you’ve got to be ready to lose them. If you are good enough to be in the position to win them you will get into the position again and again and there will be pressure. You will need to learn to cope with it. When the chance comes, it gets intense. Sergio had that intense look in his eye. The conviction with which he smoked his first tee shot on Sunday. And again on the 2nd. Again on the 3rd. And when things temporarily went south early on the back nine only for a reprise on the 13th green, the tee shots on 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 were all flawlessly fierce and fueled by a Spanish adrenaline ignited by the returning whiff of victory and a steely determination to not let it slip this time. The approach on 14 was the most predictable outcome in the history of golf. You just knew he would not fail to find that slope. I told you last week that he loves the 14th.

Then, the approach on 15. This deserves an entire book. Probably one of the top five greatest golf shots in Masters history. Maybe the best. The look in his eyes as he leered up and down at ball and pin will live long in the memory. And the putt. The PUTT. Tell yourself Sergio isn’t a great putter. He putted into the hole an eagle putt on 15 on Masters Sunday having almost thrown it away. This on top of other vital putts for birdie and par made earlier on. TELL YOURSELF SERGIO CANNOT PUTT. It is not true and maybe it never was. Maybe it was just something we convinced ourselves.

The standard of golf down the stretch will be remembered forever. The 16th hole, where Rose answered Sergio and clawed back a shot by making his birdie with that Olympian spirit. He did not really deserve to lose. Two Ryder Cup warriors this time battling against one another. The 18th was drama in the extreme. Convinced that Rose would not miss, I feared that this would be the defeat of all defeats for Sergio and force him into early retirement. But no, a chance to WIN. A slippery downhiller, but still a chance to win. Shades of Carnoustie’s 18th green in 2007. And when the putt strayed out on the right side, the bastard ghosts of Carnoustie you feared had crossed the pond to Georgia and Sergio would be broken again.

But no. It was Sergio’s driving that wore Justin down more than anything. The 18th hole set up perfectly for Sergio’s power cut. He fired it out there yet again in the playoff as if it was on tap, and when Rose let his tee shot slide into the trees it was effectively done. Sergio firing into the 18th green with a wedge as he had done in regulation. 100% committed to every swing. The putt did not have to drop but it was fitting that it did. A celebration notable in its pure elation rather than raw emotion. The Augusta crowd almost as jubilant as Sergio and his family. I found this telling. He did not seem to emit the sense of relief, or “finally”, that you might have expected. It was just pure joyous celebration.

Above all it was Sergio’s refusal to accept defeat that pulled him through. No fear of failure anymore. No acceptance of just trying one’s best and see if it is good enough anymore. No “played well but the other guy just played better” anymore. No. No. NO. This was flat out REFUSAL.

As is often said when someone breaks a hoodoo, the floodgates may well open up and Sergio could become a multiple major winner before too long. Not only do I agree, I’ve got my money on “SergioSlam 2017”.


Can Sergio Garcia Win The Masters?

The Masters Preview
1 April 2017

Of course he can.

But let’s look at it in a bit more detail.

Here is a snapshot of Sergio’s record in major championships:sergio

The above is summarised as follows, with his Masters record highlighted in bold:

73 appearances (18 / 17 / 20 / 18 )
54 Cuts Made (13 / 15 / 16 / 11 )
22 Top Tens (3 / 5 / 10 / 4 )
12 Top Fives (1 / 3 / 5 / 3 )
4 Seconds (0 / 0 / 2 / 2 )
18 Missed Cuts (5 / 2 / 4 / 7 )
1 DQ (2007 USPGA)

The overall picture equates to 74% of cuts made, a 30% top ten finish rate, a 16% top five finish rate and a 5% return of second place finishes.

For The Masters, the record breaks down as eighteen appearances, with five missed cuts (28%) and three top ten finishes (17%), just one of which was a top five finish (T4 in 2004).

Of the four majors his record of making cuts at Augusta is third best (72% return), behind The Open Championship (80%) and the US Open (88%), with the PGA Championship trailing behind at 61% if you include 2007 (he made the cut but was disqualified after the third round for signing an incorrect scorecard).

In terms of top ten finishes, his record at Augusta of three from eighteen (17%) is the worst of the four majors, behind totals of four at the USPGA (22%), five at the US Open (29%) and an impressive ten at The Open Championship (50%). That’s right, Sergio has finished in the top ten of exactly half of Open Championships he has played in, but he has done so in a mere sixth of his Masters appearances.

Top five finishes do not read any better, again with the Masters lagging behind the rest, his sole top five finish coming in 2004, representing a 6% return (USPGA 17%, US Open 18%, The Open 25%). That’s right, in one of every four Open Championships contested Sergio has finished in the top five, but he has only done this once at Augusta.

The stats don’t tell the whole story. Even the overall stat of just four second place finishes out of 73 majors slightly belies the assumption of many that Sergio has come close and blown it on  multiple occasions. Perhaps you could say he has done this four times (at a rate of 5%) if you base it on second place finishes. Or perhaps you could say he has done it twelve times (at a rate of 16%) if you base it on top five finishes. It seems that Sergio has struggled less at the other majors than at Augusta, but does this mean he has no chance to win it? Well, measuring it solely on leaderboard positions is not necessarily the best way. For example, at the 2010 US Open Dustin Johnson was infamously leading the tournament by three shots going into the final round and finished tied for 8th. Rory McIlroy was infamously leading the 2011 Masters on the 10th tee on Sunday but ended up finishing tied 15th. Conversely, top five finishes do not always translate as having been in contention to win. The best example of this in recent times may be Erik Comption’s second place at the 2014 US Open, finishing eight shots behind runaway winner Kaymer. However you analyse it, what has frustrated Sergio fans as much as the near misses has been his failure to stay in contention and give himself more chances to win.

Garcia has missed more cuts at the USPGA than at The Masters but in terms of challenging on Sunday Augusta seems to be where Sergio has turned in the weakest results of the four majors over the years. To make the tie for fourth in 2004, his only top five, he was never in contention. He shot 66 on Sunday to shoot up the leaderboard from way back, but still finished six shots behind Mickelson. Some of the other results are worth noting, however. In 2002 he entered the final day four shots off the lead, but shot 75 to end up eight back of Tiger. After 36 holes in 2012 he was one shot off the lead, but he faded over the weekend with rounds of 75 and 71 for a T12 finish. A year later in 2013 he shot the joint low round 66 on Thursday, but dropped down the leaderboard with a 76 on Friday. Still not out of it, he needed a sub-70 round on Saturday, but a 73 left him with too much to do. He clawed his way back into the top ten with a 70 on Sunday but was never in contention.  Last year, 2016, Sergio was three shots off the lead going into the weekend, but shot a miserable 81 on Saturday. He has returned plenty of low rounds at Augusta, so I would not accept the view that his failure to contend down the stretch on Sundays is due to an issue with course suitability. Sergio has the game to score around Augusta, of that there is no doubt, it is just a question of whether he can sustain it over all four rounds and score a bit better on certain holes.

The popular assumption is that putting is a key issue. I am not so sure and will duly investigate. His average scores for the last two years do throw up some interesting general facts (note that Augusta played harder in 2016 than in 2015 so the two year average gives a nice spread):

  • Combined gross score +3. Final scores: 2015 (T17) -5; 2016 (T34) +8.
  • He has scored far worse on the front nine than on the back nine: +6 over the two years on the front, -3 on the back.
  • He has played five holes at +2 or worse over the two years (1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 18th).
  • He was +4 for the week on the 1st hole in 2016, his worst hole in 2015 or 2016.
  • He has played the par fives in -9, yet level par on the 13th.
  • He has played four holes under par over the period (2nd, 8th, 14th, 15th).
  • He parred the par three 12th all four days in 2016. His score around Amen Corner over the two years is +2.

The above suggests that if Sergio can brush up on the par threes and par fours (the 1st hole especially) and improve his return on the 13th and 18th holes, then he has a much better chance of challenging, albeit this is a simplistic assessment. My interim opinion remains that Sergio is slowly working out Augusta. I believe that The Masters 2017 is his best chance yet to win a major, purely because it is the next chance. He has been in that Butler Cabin before, in 1999 as the Low Amateur, and he will be there again!

Dustin Puts The Other 63 In The Dustbin

26 March 2017
PGA Tour / European Tour

Dustin Johnson won the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club on Sunday, defeating a resilient and resurgent Jon Rahm 1 up on the 18th hole in the final, having seen off the challenge of Japan’s Hideto Tanihara earlier in the semi-final. The final match looked all but done with Johnson 5 up after eight holes without having had to produce anything near his best golf to that point. Rahm won the next two holes in succession, but when DJ won the 12th hole to get back to 4 up you felt that Rahm would end up in the garbage can along with the other 62 contenders and DJ would become the first player to win all four WGC titles (Tiger never won the HSBC Champions). Rahm had other ideas though and wins on the 13th, 15th and a dramatic twenty foot putt drained on the 16th meant that DJ’s lead was just 1 up with two holes remaining. The tricky pin position and swirling wind on the short 17th led to steady pars by both, but the 18th was birdieable and I favoured Rahm to claw back the deficit at the death and take it to extra holes. However, when he narrowly misjudged his chip from behind the 18th green, just failing to get his ball to release down the slope towards the pin, his chance for birdie was greatly reduced and in the end a par was not enough. DJ has been performing impeccably since Riviera, notching up WGC wins now seemingly with relative ease, although, as usual his outward demeanour belies the hunger deep inside and the undeniable work ethic on and off the course behind the scenes.  DJ has very much cemented his position at the top of the OWGR with this win, while Rahm now moves up to 14th.

Bill Haas defeated Tanihara to win the third place prize, Bill’s best ever finish in a WGC event, whilst quarter final places for Phil Mickelson, Soren Kjeldsen, Ross Fisher and Alexander Noren all represent very strong returns for the week. There were a few notable group stage casualties including Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. Match play golf also failed to extract the best out of Ryder Cup aficionados Patrick Reed and Thomas Pieters, whilst Sergio Garcia and Shane Lowry suffered from being drawn in the group of death along with eventual finalist Rahm. Perhaps if the prize for losing all three group matches was not $49,500 just for turning up then we might have seen some different outcomes. Dustin himself (1), Noren (8) and Mickelson (14) were among just five of the top sixteen seeds to reach the knockout stages and the only three of which to make it as far as the quarters. This includes defending champion Jason Day, who very sadly has had to take time out from the game to support his mother who is undergoing surgery. The Scrambler wishes the Day family the very best with this. Day’s press conference was admirable in its bravery and also its honesty – “she’s the reason I am here” – we sometimes forget the importance of what has made the player in the background.

At various points throughout the week, the explosive driving of both Rahm and DJ was highlighted, but on Sunday afternoon in particular this was underlined as they drove a combined 850+ yards on the par five 12th hole, leaving nothing but wedge approaches for both. This was slightly sensationalized in the coverage given that the hole plays significantly downhill and there is a path to help the ball along the way, however, the stats are no less jaw-dropping and it is the accuracy of the driving that is so impressive. Rahm also drove the 13th green over water into the wind and drove his tee shot on the 18th through the green, both similarly huge and accurate hits under pressure playing against the world number one. He may not have won, but Rahm’s stock is rapidly rising, almost as fast as his blood temperature whenever he makes a mistake, but perhaps not quite as fast as that of Tyrell Hatton.

Scrambler Pick – Shell Houston Open: This week the Tour returns to Houston on a course that has staged the event since 2006. Past winners in the field include JB Holmes, Jim Herman, Matt Jones, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Johnson Wagner and Adam Scott, however the former winner that jumps out at me most of all was also the winner of the alternate event last week in Puerto Rico, D.A. Points. At 150/1, not putting a few quid on him each way would be absolute insanity. Yes, the field also includes Spieth (has finished second here), Kuchar (likewise), Stenson (second here twice), Rahm, Rose, Rickie, Swafford and Walker, but some of these guys might have Augusta on their minds, whereas D.A. Points will just be playing on cloud nine, on a track on which he has won before, fresh off his first victory since he last won….right here. Yes, my previous pick for an each way windfall (Schneiderjans at the Valspar: MC) was pathetic, but this week looks almost too good to be true. On Point!

The Hand of DJ Too Good In Mexico City

5 March 2017
PGA Tour / European Tour

Dustin Johnson won the WGC Mexico Championship at Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City by just one shot over England’s Tommy Fleetwood, with Ross Fisher and Jon Rahm finishing a shot further back in a tie for fourth. In a city that has not hosted an elite sporting event of such global magnitude since the 1986 World Cup, when the Hand of God was a decisive factor, it was the gifted and legitimate hands of world number one DJ that were the difference, leaving neither a sense of regret concerning unfortunate refereeing oversights nor any need for divine intervention. Despite contenders Mickelson, McIlroy, Thomas, Fisher and Pieters all jostling for position to become the main threats to DJ on Sunday, it turned out that the young Spaniard Jon Rahm was the main challenger on the back nine, even edging into a one stroke lead after a birdie on the 15th hole took him to -5 for the day and -14 overall, however a prompt Johnson response on the 15th to get to -14 and a bogey-bogey run on the 16th and 17th by Rahm ended the Spaniard’s challenge, yet simultaneously, Tommy Fleetwood emerged from the pack at the death as his back nine 32 culminated in a 39-foot birdie putt drained on the 18th green to pile some last minute pressure on DJ, who was grappling along behind to par the last three holes. Par the last three holes he did, playing to a conservative yardage on the dangerous par three 17th and recovering brilliantly from a pulled tee shot on the par four 18th, in fact the 120-yard fairway bunker shot from an awkward stance on the 18th was rightly highlighted as the decisive tournament winning shot, reminiscent of Steve Stricker at Deere Run in 2011.

The main pretenders to DJ’s world number one throne and other in-form candidates, namely Rory, Jordan, Rickie, the Justins, Sergio, Hideki and Adam, all ultimately failed to keep pace with DJ this week. Justin Thomas came closest, but his back nine club-throwing show put him out of touch of the lead and he could not recover in time. The leaderboard was loaded over the weekend, however in the very closing stages it was Rahm, Fisher, Pieters and Fleetwood who came to the fore. In truth it is rare in golf that even three or four of the top ten players in the OWGR end up challenging for a tournament victory with three holes remaining, but it is nonetheless disappointing that McIlrory and JT, for example, could not hang in there until the end. The absence of Day and Stenson was also a non-recurring anomaly you would hope. Much like Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood took this big stage as a chance to back up recent winning performances and mix it on a higher level and both gave excellent accounts of themselves. For Fisher, Hatton and Pieters, their top-ten performances also back up recent form and will give them confidence for the months ahead.

The irony of the WGC Championship event having been relocated from Trump Doral to Mexico and staged just weeks after the new US President’s inauguration was highlighted in the prelude to the event, but such was the resounding success of the tournament that all non-golf narratives were long forgotten as early as Thursday morning. The course withstood the test of the best players in the world seeking to rip it to shreds, with its narrow lines, undulations and taxing greens with a variety of opportunity and challenge presented by pin placements. Given the altitude, of which we were constantly reminded in coverage to the point of distraction, the course in effect played much shorter than 7,000 yards, but it left many of the big hitters scratching their heads. True, the winner was a bomber, but you don’t get to world number one unless you can do everything very well and Dustin’s short game and putting (apart from day one) were good enough. The event was hugely enjoyable, with large crowds delighted to have the top players in the world on their doorstep and cameos such as football announcers commentating on hole-outs, not least for Justin Thomas’s ace, enhancing the spectacle. If crowds are chanting at a non-Ryder Cup event, then that is a clear sign of success and it would seem to go deeper than a mass gathering of drunken louts packed into a bowl in the desert at Phoenix. Even the beeps from the traffic jams heard alongside the 1st green were entertaining.

Most commentators when asked about Mickelson this week would probably say the same thing – good old Phil, spraying the ball all over the course but still able to make unlikely pars and birdies, negotiating gaps that nobody else could even imagine and holing out from all over the place to finish T7. Yes, it is the magic of Phil, but there was a side to him on show that I previously would have overlooked but this week was just plain annoying. That three hole stretch on Saturday, when twenty minutes or more in total were spent looking for balls, consulting with officials and almost inventing new rules, was infuriating to watch. Professionals should always use the rules to their advantage when it is reasonable, but rules officials bowing to the word of Phil and his refusal to accept penalty, distracting playing partners to the detriment of their own rounds in the process, was not enjoyable viewing, even if he was technically breaking no rules and showing his experience. Other incidents compounded the assessment. The playing of a shot to greenside with the group ahead still on the green and the “so-what-I-am-Phil” attitude. On the 18th green on Sunday, as the local crowd who were quite obviously vehemently behind the efforts of Jon Rahm and wished to give him a prolonged ovation after he holed out, caddie Bones holding an obnoxious hand in the air to say “quiet please Phil is is here”. Too bad Bones and too bad Phil, wait your turn and let Mexico support its man for another few seconds. I also had a slight concern with the caddie situation on Friday. As was pointed out continuously in coverage, Phil’s brother Tim Mickelson is Jon Rahm’s manager. When Bones had to retire early on Friday, Tim stepped in as replacement caddie to Phil. In most other sports there are rules preventing such conflict of competitive interest. How could Tim Mickelson conceivably influence the contest such that it would benefit Jon Rahm you might be asking? Theoretically it is a a far-fetched likelihood, but it is not inconceivable even in accidental terms. On Sunday Rahm and Mickelson were grouped together. Would it have been okay then? Maybe so. This entire passage could sound like I am questioning the honour of the Mickelsons. I am not at all, but what I am questioning is small print within the code of competition.

Scrambler Pick – The Valspar Championship: This section is in danger of becoming more and more pointless as the weeks roll by and at this stage I would not expect anyone to back my tips for an each way return. Louis Oosthuizen, in hindsight probably weary from a crazy schedule of air miles in recent weeks, never got going and returned a sluggish T48 in a field of 76 players. I am not looking to call the winner necessarily, but I am looking for some value from a little bit deeper in the field every week. This week the Tour returns to Florida and the horribly named “Snake Pit” of Innisbrook’s Copperhead course. I am putting my house on Ollie Schneiderjans at 80/1. I will not bother explaining why, other than pointing to three top-tens so far this season, including at Torrey Pines and Riviera. Go Ollie!

Fowler Sunday KO in Rickie / Hatton Honda Bout

26 February 2017
PGA Tour

Rickie Fowler won the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens shooting a final round one over par 71 to return a total of -12, four shots ahead of Morgan Hoffman and Gary Woodland on Sunday. Yes in the end England’s fiery Tyrell Hatton may have finished further back on -7 in a tie for fourth along with six other players, so it wasn’t exactly a one-on-one contest down the stretch, however the final grouping of Rickie and Hatton nonetheless offers an excellent opportunity for such an analogous headline to contain some relevance at least. Fowler’s first three rounds of 66-66-65 left him four strokes ahead of Hatton going into the final round, but when Hatton bogeyed two of the first four holes it was immediately a case of Rickie against whoever else might fancy a charge from the bunch behind. Rickie encouraged the pack with a double bogey on the 6th and at one point Gary Woodland was just one stroke behind, but Fowler’s sensational pair of back-to-back birdies on the 12th and 13th in tandem with various Bear Trap induced meltdowns from the challengers left daylight again between the leader and the field. A spectacular approach on the par four 16th set up a birdie to more or less put the win to bed and even a tee shot in the drink on the 17th could do nothing to fluster the 28 year old Californian, subsequently saving bogey brilliantly to allow a triumphant walk down the 18th where his mate Justin Thomas was waiting to join in the congratulations.

Rickie had not won on four previous occasions when taking a 54 hole lead into a final round and had struggled to contend regularly since his painful failure to close out the 2016 Phoenix Open, but 2016 also contained the highlights of a Ryder Cup success to which he contributed two points and an appearance at the Rio Olympics that he very much embraced. So he never really went away, he has just been waiting to pounce and pounce he certainly did, with a jab and an uppercut, dominating this demanding tournament from start to finish and closing it out in a confident fashion that evoked the Fowler of 2014/2015, yet being an improved and perhaps wiser version of same. This win adds to the intrigue for the year ahead with so many of the top names jostling for position and in great form. Since January 2016 Fowler, Spieth, Johnson, McIlroy, Thomas, Matsuyama, Day, Garcia and Stenson have won 29 times worldwide and since the turn of the year the healthy among them have seemingly been taking turns in the winner’s circle as and when they please. Add to this the general form of Mickelson, Rahm, Scott, Noren, Reed and Rose among others and the remainder of 2017 is looking like a mouthwatering prospect.

Rickie becomes the fourth US player to win the Honda Classic since its move to PGA National in 2007 (Wilson 2007; Thompson 2013; Henley 2014) and just the fifth player in that entire eleven year period to shoot -10 or better for the tournament. It is one of the more punishing layouts on Tour and for Johnny Miller to somehow try and find a way to undermine the manner of Rickie’s victory is daft beyond words. Rickie was on course to break Camilo Villegas’s 2010 tournament record of -13 before bogeying the last two holes, but can be forgiven for these lapses after an exacting week and difficult final day in breezy conditions. Tyrell Hatton, not known on The European Tour for having a laid back temperament, fought back well from his early setbacks to shoot -1 on the back nine. A superb tee shot on the 17th looked to have set up a certain birdie and allow him a shot at solo 2nd going down the par five 18th, but a miscue from short range, put down rightly or wrongly to a spike mark, infuriated the Englishman and left him cursing his way to a par on the 18th and a T4 finish. That fire is still there, but it would be wrong to suggest that it is holding him back, as his golf since last summer has seen him shoot up to 18th in the OWGR and he looks right at home in the company of the Fowlers of this world.

The Scrambler Pick of the week for a relatively long-odds windfall was Luke Donald at 55/1. Luke was handily placed going into the final round but a Sunday 73 dropped him to T27, five shots back of the each way payout. An improvement this week is required – see below.

Scrambler Pick – WGC Mexico Championship @ Club de Golf Chapultepec: Against the political background of Trump’s America still in its early days, it is a highly ironic twist that has led to the Florida Swing’s WGC event being diverted from The Blue Monster at Trump Doral in Miami to Mexico City this week. It will be the first time since this WGC event was moved to Doral in 2007 that the championship has been taken elsewhere and it will also in fact be the first time since 1962 that Doral will not have hosted a PGA Tour tournament. The golf course is not at all new to professional golf and has hosted The Mexican Open on the PGA Tour LatinoAmerica in recent years. The course is a mature tree-lined parkland that is quite narrow in places, with interesting challenges to shot shapes and lines imposed by awkwardly positioned trees, doglegs and fairway bunkering on several holes. Some of the greens look quite tricky but until we know how fast they will run it is difficult to predict. Whilst there are two par fives over 620 yards, a couple of very long par fours and three par threes over 200 yards, the course also offers a generous selection of shorter or more strategic holes and length is somewhat negated by the altitude. The par five 6th hole looks an absolute gem as does the par three 17th. I think a fine combination of accuracy, mid/short iron distance control and flatstick prowess will prevail here rather than an overpowering approach, which steers me more down the path of a Spieth than a DJ. But who am I kidding, any of the listed players above can get it done around here if they turn up. So to the pick – my shout for an each way return is Louis Oosthuizen at 50/1. Fresh off a 5th place finish at the not too dissimilar looking Lake Karrinyup CC in Perth a couple of weeks ago, which came between strong weeks at Phoenix (solo 3rd) and last week at Honda (T21), it should not surprise anyone if Oosthuizen was to take off this week and I for one will be waiting to benefit from such an outcome. Forget the each way, he is sure to win!

Rumford Up At Karrinyup

19 February 2017
European Tour

Brett Rumford won the inaugural ISPS Handa World Super 6 Perth at Lake Karrinyup Country Club on Sunday, defeating Thailand’s Phachara Khongwatmai 2&1 the final six hole matchplay encounter. It was the 37 year old Australian’s sixth win on the European Tour and his first since a superb two week spell in 2013 when he won back-to-back events at the Ballantine’s Championship and the Volvo China Open. Since then, Rumford had lost form and even lost his European Tour card by the end of 2016, but this victory in his home town secures his card and puts him right up to the to 11th in the Race to Dubai standings. After the event Rumford was very gracious towards his background team that has helped him in the last few months and I suspect that a player of his pedigree, who clearly knows how to win and is now playing with a renewed lease of life, will feature high on many leaderboards during the remainder of the season.

The event format, whilst not attracting huge numbers of top ranked players, seemed to come off very well and has to be considered a success. The climactic stages were tense with several of the matches going to extra hole shootouts and plenty of good golf being played on a classy golf course. Louis Oosthuizen, last year’s winner of the Perth International strokeplay event held here between 2012 and 2016, fell at the quarter final stage after finding the sand on the short shootout playoff hole to hand the win to Adam Bland. Brett Rumford had dominated the first three rounds and would have taken a five shot lead into Sunday in a strokeplay format, albeit this point being irrelevant in the context of competition design structure, yet finishing in the top 8 at least afforded him a bye past the first knockout round. He backed up his lead in matchplay, seeing off Hideto Tanihara, Wade Ormsby and Adam Bland en route to the showdown with 17 year old Khongwatmai. Rumford edged ahead in the final and was 1-up on the par three 5th tee (Lake Karrinyup’s 12th hole) where he delivered a decisive tee shot to close range. Khongwatmai, pressured into going at the flag, pulled his tee shot left into an impossible lie in the greenside bunker on the short side and when his bizarre effort to get out of the bunker with a putter failed to come off, the title was Rumford’s.

Louis Oosthuizen commented that apart from a “few tweaks here and there” he was positive about the format. What the tournament certainly adds is several extra junctures of potential drama compared to a normal 4-day strokeplay tournament, namely the third round cut to 24 players and the relentless knock-out final day format which proved to be entertaining throughout. The event would possibly have been enhanced had: (a) there been a higher proportion of big names in the field; and (b) had pre-tournament favourites such as Alex Noren, Lasse Jansen, Peter Uihlein and Thorbjorn Olesen performed better – all failed to make it to the Sunday matchplay stage, but taking nothing away from the players who produced an excellent spectacle in front of a healthy crowd. Local knowledge and home soil proved to be hugely significant factors this week, with Australians comprising 13 of the final 24 and 6 of the 8 quarter finalists.

If I am to be critical, I think that the prize structure could be reconsidered, particularly for the lower placings. In the end players that finished T25 went home with €12,741 each, whilst those who made the final 24 but lost in the first knockout round took away between €13,877 and €16,316. This means that in some cases players who negotiated the significant Saturday evening hurdle still ended up taking away just €1,136 more than the players in T25th. Ideally the marginal incentive for making the final 24 would be greater. Players always try to finish as high as they can every week for tour earnings/points and world ranking points of course, however with this particular format an extra reward for making the top 24 would be no harm.

Overall an enjoyable format and an innovation that I hope goes from strength to strength. I will also be keeping my eye out in the future for young Khongwatmai making more attempts at putting out of bunkers!

Afterword – I was surprised and confused by comments made by Sky’s Nick Dougherty regarding the tournament: surprised by his negativity towards the format; confused by the lack of logic behind his views. In his opinion, which he stated was from a player’s perspective, the format renders the first 54 holes somewhat meaningless if a player leading by seven strokes still ends up losing his first knockout match, and he felt that the tournament’s status is undermined if the “best person does not win” and it throws up a “strange winner”. He was also not very enthusiastic about the location of the event so in Perth. In summary he suggested that the tournament should not count for the Race to Dubai! This is remarkably simplistic input from Nick, whether he is seeing it from a player’s perspective (former player that is) or not. The appeal of it is the marriage of strokeplay and matchplay to determine which players can position themselves over the first three days in one format and excel in the final day shootout in another format. The players will already know that leading the tournament by seven shots after the first three days is going to be somewhat irrelevant in terms of winning the event, but that is how it is structured and that is what the players are entering into. There is a clear goal at the start of the tournament, finishing in the top 24 after three days guarantees a minimum finish and gets you into the super sixes where anything can happen. There is also a clear incentive for players to aim to finish in the top 8, with two clear benefits: (1) to earn a bye past the first matchplay round; and (2) a guaranteed finish within the top 16 at the end of Sunday’s play. Whenever professionals are involved in matchplay everyone says how they would like to see more of it, so to immediately undermine such a brave attempt at innovation seems quite odd. What confused me even further was that Dougherty was so positive about the Centurion Golf Sixes team event coming up, his argument being that “it is what it is” and it is “fun”.  Is he saying that the Perth event is not “what it is” and is not fun? As far as I could see, Perth very much looked like “what it is” and it looked a lot of fun, as the players involved stated afterwards. He said that the Centurion is not “pretending to be a normal tournament”, as if to suggest that Perth was pretending in some respect. Both tournaments are not pretending to be anything. Both tournaments are competitions designed in certain ways aimed at providing different types of drama to the spectator and different incentives to the players. There are varying tournament formats and competitive circumstances in golf. The WGC strokeplay events have no cuts, so is Nick saying these should not be ranking tournaments? Several tournaments are played on more than one course (Farmers Insurance Open, AT&T Pebble Beach, Dunhill Links, Joburg Open). Is Nick saying that those tournaments are pretending to be something else as well? What if a tournament is reduced to 54 holes due to bad weather? Should these events not count for the Race to Dubai as well? As for matchplay events such as the WGC Matchplay or the Paul Lawrie, by Nick’s 54 hole lead logic, players who win matchplay matches 10&8 in the first round should be given a bye to the semi-final. The fact is, different tournament formats offer different incentives to competitors and different spectacles to viewers, and as long there is a good combination of spectator interest and player incentive then the competition has a chance of achieving its objectives. Fans and players welcome something new! In any event, Nick’s theory regarding the 54 hole leader curse also proved unfounded, as Brett Rumford, leading by five strokes after three rounds, took huge confidence and belief from his first three rounds into Sunday. He was also able to benefit from his seeded position in the top 8, meaning that he played one less match than Khongwatmai in the end, where fatigue may have told even for the athletic 17 year old Thai. Rumford described the final day format as “gruelling”. True, the organisers may wish to consider a slightly less gruelling system next year, however that point in itself is interesting and suggestive of something that would further contradict Dougherty’s logic, in that, if anything, this tournament should have a larger prize and Race to Dubai points pool and therefore count for even more given the enormity of the task required to finish in the higher places!