Bulldog spirit & 'gorilla' golf key to matchplay

The WGC Match Play lets players free up their inner gorilla, says Paul Mahoney.

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Paul Mahoney
Wed, 29 Apr 2015
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“I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking, ‘I am going to bury you’.”

Confrontation was like oxygen to Seve Ballesteros. He had to make golf personal. Had to have something to fight for and against. Strokeplay was his day job but matchplay was his dream. 

Golf’’s Achilles’ heel is that its seemingly endless stodgy porridge diet of 72-hole strokeplay events lacks the mano-y-mano passion of every other major sport. But not this week.

The WGC-Cadillac Match Play will not identify the best player who can endure 18 holes a day over four days in fewer strokes than his rivals. It will identify the toughest and sometimes luckiest son of a balata.

Match Play: how the pros approach the head-to-head

The champion come Sunday will be the player who has intimidated his opponents into defeat or simply refused to be beaten. There will be winners and losers every day. Glory and despair.

Golf often forgets it is part of the entertainment business. How many people watch the first round of the Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere Local Sponsors Name Masters Championship?

This week, everyone will want to find out who beat whom on every day. That’s sport at its purest. As Paul Weller and The Jam once said: “That’s Entertainment.”

And we all know the players that love matchplay. “Looks like a strong Matchplay group,” tweeted Europe’s Ryder Cup talisman Ian Poulter. “Will make for some good passion and excitement. Pure form of golf. Head to Head. Let’s do this.”

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Poulter is in a group with Americans Jimmy Walker, Webb Simpson and Gary Woodland. Poulter, like Seve, loves beating Americans.

The matchplay format has been revamped this year, at new venue Harding Park in San Francisco, to ensure the biggest names remain until the weekend. 

The knockout format has been replaced with the top 64 in the world split into 16 groups of four – each headed by a top-16 player – with the remaining three drawn at random. The group winners go forward to the weekend with the round of 16 and four quarter-final matches on Saturday and the semi-finals and final on Sunday.

All of which, it is hoped, will produce a final between the top two seeds, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and avoid a Sunday like 2002 when world number 62 Kevin Sutherland beat world number 45 Scott McCarron over 36 holes, and only the tumbleweed bore witness.

Jordan Spieth: swing sequence

So, what makes a great match player? “Someone who is gutsy, hard, stubborn, ruthless, bulldoggish,” Poulter said. “The will to hang in. Sometimes when people say things aren’t possible, it makes you dig in even harder. I’ve certainly had that through my career and that’s where I pull from within to be a tough character, not rolling over.

“I think that’s probably the hardest bit for people to take when you think you’re out of the hole and all of a sudden you go and hole a chip shot or a bunker shot or a 30 foot putt or you stiff it from a position where you’re not expected to hit a miracle shot. I guess that, in itself, is the bit that winds your opponents up.”

There is a sense that the players see this week’s matchplay mash-up as an opportunity to free up their inner gorilla that they seem to have to keep caged up in strokeplay events.

It’s a chance to beat a rival, a human, rather than a course. It’s a time for establishing order in the playground, for settling vendettas, for revenge. See? It’s already more exciting that just another scorecard marathon.

World number one Rory McIlroy was drawn to face Americans Billy Horschel, Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner. “When I saw I was playing Billy, I had a little chuckle to myself,” he said. McIlroy and Horschel have history.

They didn’t exactly get along in the 2007 Walker Cup when the American won two of their three matches. “His antics really pissed me off,” McIlroy said at the time. “He was so loud and so obnoxious.” But don’t expect fisticuffs – this is still golf. It’s PGA, not WWF.

Rory McIlroy: swing sequence

“Fortunately, he’s mellowed considerably since then,” McIlroy said. “We’ve got a much better relationship now.” Shame. Their showdown is on Friday. As is Jordan Spieth versus Lee Westwood. The Masters champion versus last week's Indonesian Masters champion. The 21-year-old new poster boy of American golf versus the 42-year-old Ryder Cup legend.

Forget Mayweather v Pacquiao, someone’s going to be put in their place here. Someone’s gonna hit the deck, be knocked out, carried off on a stretcher. Too much hype? Apologies.

The first report of golfers squaring off against each other was in the 6 April 1724 edition of the Caledonian Mercury. The Honorable Alexander Elphinstone won 20 guineas (it might have been guinea pigs) off Captain John Porteous at Leith Links in Edinburgh in “a solemn match at golf”.

The stakes were higher for Elphinstone five years later at Leith, where he won a duel contested with implements rather more dangerous than a mashie niblick and a goose-feather ball.

Whether this week’s Group of Death is McIlroy, Horschel, Snedeker and Dufner; or Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez, the organisers have ensured everyone that losers will receive a suitcase of cash and a courtesy car to the airport and that no one will be settling scores with pistols or swords.

 

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