After a couple of years of iffy weather in the former February time slot; ok, worse than iffy – the tournament was plagued by snow and hail in the Arizona mountains over the last two years – the 2015 WGC Cadillac Match Play Championships have come to a friendlier, more accessible venue, San Francisco’s Harding Park, over five days, from April 29 to May 2. With better weather, and a new format, the event promises to be more fan-friendly than the previous, conventional one-and-done match play format.
The new format features a round-robin opening phase, with groups of four players competing within their group to determine who advances to the round of 16, which is when win-or-go-home single elimination kicks in. The advantage of this new format is that fans get to see all the players for at least three days, and players have a chance to recover from a bad round rather than being bounced for having one bad day. The new format is also advantageous for the television people and corporate sponsors; no more “Tiger lost in the first round – there goes the television audience!”
Of course, Tiger Woods is not in the tournament. The field for the Match Play Championship consists of the top 64 players in the OWGR, and at last count, Tiger was still trying to claw his way back into the Top 100. Still, there are plenty of other well-known names in the field, among them current World #1 Rory McIlroy, and World #2 & 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth. Other names and faces in the field that will be recognizable to the casual golf fan include Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, and Rickie Fowler.
One familiar name which will be absent from the fairways and greens of Harding Park this weekend is Phil Mickelson, who pulled out of the event two days ago citing personal reasons. A handful of other players in the Top 64 are also absent from the field, so their spots have been filled by players from spots 65 and lower – the lowest-ranked player in the field this week is Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who is ranked 70th in the OWGR this week.
The 16 playing groups are based on the top 16 players in the OWGR. Each of those players headlines a four-man group which was filled out by a random draw of names from the remaining 48 players in the Top 64. Similar to the format which is used in the World Cup soccer tournament, the random draw can lead to some tougher and some easier groups – it’s purely the luck of the draw. Much has been made, for example, of the group headed by Jimmy Walker, the Oklahoman out of Texas who is ranked 11th in the world. Walker’s group includes Englishman Ian Poulter (#27), 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson (#46), and long-hitting Gary Woodland (#50).
Poulter, who has a decent record in Ryder Cup competition, is well-regarded in match play situations because of that fact. On balance, though, is he so much to be feared? He has played in 11 Ryder Cup matches, has a creditable 8-3-0 record – but only three of those matches were singles matches. OK, he won all three of his singles matches over the years, but that doesn’t necessarily make him Jack-the-Giant-Killer.
Ian Poulter has had other success in match play competitions, including the 2010 WGC Match Play title, but his last win of any kind came in 2011. Outside of the Ryder Cup his play has been relatively flat in the last couple of years, so Walker, who has had a hot hand since racking up his first PGA Tour win at the 2013 Frys.com Open, recording four more wins in that time, along with two second-place finishes, one third-place and eight other top 10 finishes, is in a pretty good position.
With a wide array of American and international players, all drawn from the top echelons of the game and competing head-to-head on the fairways and greens of one of the west coast’s finest municipal golf course, Bay Area golf fans are in for a treat between now and Sunday evening.