After a Tuesday pro-am day that played out under grey skies in a chilly breeze, Wednesday’s opening day of play at the 2015 WGC Cadillac Match Play at San Francisco’s Harding Park Golf Course saw a few fitful clouds fleeing the scene as the first few groups teed off, followed by sunny skies for the remainder of the day. For five days, April 29 through May 2, (one day longer than a stroke-play Tour event) the top 64 pro golfers in the world will be hoping that this beautiful weather continues as they battle their way through the revised round-robin match play format that has been adopted for the first time in this event.
Reactions to the new format from players will come into sharper focus after the event, but the benefits to fans and the Tour’s broadcast partners are obvious: with all 64 players guaranteed at least three rounds, none of the big names will go “one-and-done”, disappearing after the first day of play. Above and beyond the new format (which will be familiar to fans of World Cup soccer), match play itself is a new viewing experience for many fans.
With match play comes odd sights like seeing Jimmy Walker walk up to the green on 14 (also known as #18) and pick up his ball after a great approach shot from the right rough, 140 yards away – because his opponent, Gary Woodland holed out a 127-yard shot from the fairway. In stroke play Walker would have been sweating that 18-foot putt for birdie; in match play his putt is moot – his opponent won the hole, move on to the next tee.
The new format will mean a lot of golf for the players who make it through to single-elimination. Three rounds (at minimum) to win their “pool”, then the round of sixteen, quarterfinals, semi-finals, and the championship or consolation match – when all is said and done the eventual winner and second through fourth-place players will have played seven rounds of golf in five days, including two a day on the weekend.
Another change that accompanies the new format is a re-ordering of the holes of the TPC Harding Park course to accommodate match play. Rounds will start on what is normally the 10th hole, and eventually, after a little judicious back-and-forthing, the holes that are normally 14 through 18 become 10 through 14. The logic behind this change stems from the setting of the 18th hole, a 440-yard par-4 which features an intimidating carry over a neck of Lake Merced, and a second shot to an elevated green. More often than not match play rounds don’t get as far as the 18th hole of a course before being decided, so the rerouting ensures that the drama and beauty of Harding Park’s signature hole will be a feature of the event.
Locals who have played this course and come to spectate at stroke play events here in the past may be a bit turned around by the re-ordering, but it actually works quite well, with only one awkward trek, from 9 green to 10 tee (original routing 3 green to 14 tee) coming about as a result of the changes.
Notable results on the day:
World # 2 and newly-minted Masters champion Jordan Spieth handled 68-seed Mikko Ilonen of Finland 4 and 2, exhibiting the energy that only a 21-year-old can possess in the wake of his Masters win three weeks ago, the subsequent whirlwind media blitz which now accompanies a Masters win, and honoring a commitment to play the Heritage Classic at Harbour Town the following week.
Webb Simpson, who became a U. S. Open champion just across the lake at the Olympic Club in 2012, put a 3 and 2 drubbing on England’s Ian Poulter that was worse than the score would indicate. Simpson went up in the match on the first hole and never fell lower than 2-up on Poulter, whose match play record in the Ryder Cup, Volvo Match Play and this event in past years has established him as a player to be reckoned with in this format. The flamboyant Brit hung tough through the match but never gained the traction necessary to make up any ground and challenge his opponent.
Group 11, which Simpson and Poulter share with Jimmy Walker and Gary Woodland, was seen by many as a tough group because of Poulter’s presence, but after Walker and Woodland’s 19-hole match (won 1-up by Woodland), it appears that Simpson may just be the sleeper man-to-beat in the group.
Southern California’s Charley Hoffman, he of the (formerly) flowing blond locks, might have been seen as punching above his weight when, as the 61 seed, he drew the 7 seed, Aussie Jason Day for his first match, but Hoffman handled Day with aplomb, taking the lead by one at the fourth hole, then putting his foot down hard from the twelfth hole onwards after Day brought the match back to square at #10. Hoffman made three birdies in the last four holes, setting a pace that the Aussie, who went par-bogey-bogey-par in the same stretch, just couldn’t match.
Flamboyant left-hander Bubba Watson, the 2012 and 2014 Masters champion and #4 seed, took down an equally flamboyant opponent, Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, 5 and 4, closing out the win over the 63 seed on the scenic 14th (née 18th) hole.
In a match of one-and-done (so far) major winners, the 2010 Open Championship winner, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, pulled the plug on 2010 PGA champion Keegan Bradley’s tour of the course at the 13th hole with a 6 and 5 victory.
Soon-to-be-defending U.S. Open Champion Martin Kaymer of Germany, defeated Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand 3 and 1.
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell learned the hard way about the difficulty of playing out of Harding Park’s Kentucky bluegrass/perennial ryegrass/fine fescue rough while attempting a chip out of the deep fluffy stuff surrounding a greenside bunker at the 16th hole during his match against Ireland’s Shane Lowry. Coming through the shot with a little less enthusiasm that it required, his ball flopped short of the green in the somewhat shaggy collar surrounding the putting surface, took a hop backwards and skittled back to almost exactly the spot it had started from.
A second attempt, made with more gusto, was rewarded with a 9-inch kick-in, but it was for bogey to his opponent’s birdie. Lowry, in turn, duffed a greenside chip shot short out of the rough at the following hole, the par-three 17th, leading to a double-bogey and loss of the hole, dropping his lead to one with one to play. Lowry took the win after the duo split the 18th hole.
Jason Dufner, contending with an unenviable draw that pitted him against #1 seed Rory McIlroy, dropped a shot at the 3rd hole to go one down, then pretty much stopped making putts altogether after the seventh hole, quickly going to 4-down against the reigning World #1. The match concluded at the 14th hole after a bit of unrequited drama.
Dufner’s drive clipped the big cypress that guards the line to the fairway from the back tees, dropping short and in the rough. His second landed short of the green, and a chip that could have won the hole and extended the match lipped out, opening the door that McIlroy closed with two putts from the fringe.
Second-round play picks up Friday morning at 9:50, with live television coverage on Golf Channel from 1 PM to 7 PM.