Scheffler a hard man to dethrone at Match Play


Best bets

2.5pts each-way Scottie Scheffler @ 8/1
1pt each-way Tyrrell Hatton @ 25/1
1pt each-way Max Homa @ 22/1
1pt each-way Jason Day @ 33/1
0.5pt each-way Tom Kim @ 40/1

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Up until last year the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship had been a thorn in my side and a pain in my pocket ever since it launched in 1999 with boringly straight Jeff Maggert, seeded 24, outlasting Andrew Magee, seeded 50, in the most tedious final imaginable at the 38th hole.

That was in the days when the final was over 36, now it’s over 18 thank goodness and this year’s finalists are hopefully going to be a bit more charismatic than those two American journeymen.

Not to find the winner that year was excusable but to have to hold my hand up 22 years later and admit I had never once tipped a finalist, never mind the winner was embarrassing. And that in the tournament Tiger Woods ran off with three times in his all-conquering prime and modern greats such as Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day had feasted upon.

But finally, finally last year I called it right. Not only the winner, good old Scottie Scheffler but finalist too, Kevin Kisner. Hallelujah and hurrah!

So no pressure this year then as the 64 runners line up at the start of this seven-round marathon on Wednesday. Call it golf’s Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, the long-distance race at last week’s emotional Cheltenham Festival.

Scheffler’s victory, his third in five outings with the Masters to come, hoisted the American to No. 1 in the world and after playing musical chairs with McIlroy and Jon Rahm for that prized berth in the interim, he’s back on top of the pile and deservedly favourite to retain his title and become the first back-to-back champ since Tiger in 2003-4.

Given that he was also runner-up the previous year when we didn’t know too much about him, it would be rash to leave Scottie out in what is the 24th and final edition of the Match Play. He is again in stonkingly good form as winner of the Phoenix Open and Players Championship on two of his last four starts.

It’s hard to pick holes in a 2023 record reading 11-1-12-4-1 – and his laid-back nonchalance and unflappability is perfect for eyeball-to-eyeball matchplay. To put the lid on it, as a longtime Texas resident this is virtually a home game for him.

To recap on the format: 16 groups of four, each one headed by a player seeded 1-16, play a round-robin for the first three days with each group’s winner going through to the last 16 on Friday afternoon. Two knockout rounds follow on Saturday reducing 16 down to four with semi-finals, final and third-place playoff decided on Sunday.

So it’s a test of stamina and fitness as well as skill, with the finalists having to play seven times in five days. It’s almost twice as demanding as the 72-hole strokeplay events they’re used to and important to realise seedings are based on medal golf not short-haul matchplay where anything can happen and usually does.

Remember Tiger getting knocked out early by Aussie makeweights Peter O’Malley and Nick O’Hern? That’s why we have the round-robin groups these days. Sponsors hated it when big drawcards exited almost as soon as they arrived. Now they’re guaranteed for a minimum three days.

They’ve had to go down to 77th on the world rankings to fill the 64 slots chiefly because the LIV defectors including Open champion Cameron Smith are barred. LIV stars apart, the chief absentees are the out-of-form Justin Thomas and Pebble Beach winner Justin Rose.

The Big Three, Scheffler, Rahm and McIlroy, predictably top the betting with Scheffler’s credentials standing out. Rory is a Match Play champion but that was at Harding Park, San Francisco, in 2015 and apart from reaching the semis in defence of his crown the following year, he has not shone since the move to the Pete Dye-designed Austin Country Club in 2016, the sponsors’ HQ being in the central Austin area.

To be fair, Rory hasn’t played this event every year which makes me think he’s chiefly there because he’s duty-bound to be as the Match Play is one of the elite tournaments boasting extravagant prize money, up from $12.5m to $20m with the first prize rising by $1.5m to $3.6m.

At 7108 yards par 71, Austin is fair to all sorts. One of the shortest hitters in the field, Kisner, has won there once and reached two other finals. Although matchplay strategy is more important than current form, Kisner is playing too badly to be recommended.

The same comment applies to Scheffler’s 2021 conqueror Billy Horschel, another finesse player who doesn’t crank it up with the driver. In fact, there are a number of holes at Austin where the big dog stays in the bag. It’s a positional course with a number of risk/reward holes, hilly on the front nine, flatter on the back.

Rahm is an obvious threat although the beefy Spaniard has not gone close to emulating his 2017 debut effort when he took the then world No. 1 DJ to the home green in a pulsating final. The best he has done since is a last-eight two years ago but it’s not for want of trying as he is passionate about regaining the No. 1 spot from Scheffler.

At bigger prices Max Homa, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Jason Day and bubbly young South Korean Tom Kim come into the conversation.

Day is the easiest to make a case for. Twice Match Play champion in the days when he ruled the world, the Aussie, 7-8-9-10-19 for his last five starts, is not that far away from returning to his pomp. What he lacks is a recent W on his record to restore full confidence. Like Will Zalatoris, he’s had serious back trouble in the past and betting him on such a long, gruelling week does involve risk.

Hatton, fourth at Bay Hill and runner-up at Sawgrass on his two most recent outings, looks the most dangerous floater along with wonder-boy Kim who isn’t frightened of anybody and demonstrated in the Presidents Cup what a tenacious match-player he is.

Homa pushed Rahm all the way when they went head-to-head in the final group at Riviera last month and took to matchplay like a duck to water on his Presidents Cup debut last autumn.

Only Jordan Spieth (5 from 5) bettered his 4–from-4 record. He knows how to win and there’s the consistency you want to see in his 2023 figures which read 3-1-39-2-14-6.

Homa’s on my team but I’m less keen on Spieth who should have given us a 12/1 winner at the Valspar on Sunday but carved his tee shot into the drink at 16, missed from 6.5ft for a crucial birdie at 17 and triple-putted the last. Still, a share of third place with our man Fleetwood represented the best finish of the year by both of them.

For Fleetwood, far too talented to be still looking for a US breakthrough after 112 attempts, it was a continuation of the fine form he displayed over the first three days at Sawgrass the previous week, though the less said the better about his final round when he faded from fourth to 27th.

The Southport star’s grind-them-down accuracy suits matchplay. He took eventual winner Horschel to extra holes in the 2021 quarter-finals here and arrives in better form now.

Backing one player in each quarter has been the Chapman betting strategy over the years. It took 23 years to work but on last year’s evidence we’re getting there!


Best bets

2pts each-way Taylor Pendrith @ 25/1
1pt each-way Chad Ramey @ 30/1
1pt each-way Ben Martin @ 30/1
1pt each-way Wyndham Clark @ 11/1

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Two non-televised tournaments in the Dominican Republic and South Africa back up the WGC-Dell Match Play and we have endured quite enough unwanted surprises after a weekend when it was game, set and match to the bookmakers on the golf front.

At 50/1, Valspar winner Taylor Moore, best previous PGA Tour finish 11th, was bad enough, Matthew Baldwin, on his 200th start and never better than second in a long off-and-on European career, was the last Brit I’d have backed when he dotted up by seven at 150/1 in the Eastern Cape, and Korean-born Kiwi Danny Lee, winless since 2015, shocked backers in a four-way Tucson shootout on only his second LIV outing.

Lee said he arrived in Arizona not even thinking about the $4m individual prize – “it’s so long since I won anything” – but just hoping to contribute to the team effort. He brushed in a 35ft putt from way off the green to dump Louis Oosthuizen, Carlos Ortiz and Brendan Steele at the third extra hole.

Following Charlie Howell’s Mayakoba triumph last month, that makes two LIV winners few would cross the road to see or buy a ticket for, even one of the discounted variety. LIV will hoping one of the star names it has shelled out $100m and more for will come to the party for Orlando on Friday week while UK fans need a British winner soon if they are to stay interested. Their highest-placed representative finished a pitiful 19th of 48.

This week’s PGA Tour earner for those not qualified for the Match Play’s big bucks is the annual jaunt to the Corales Puntecana in the Dominican Republic. A full field tackles one of the longest courses on the circuit, the 7670-yard par 72 Fazio layout where Chad Ramey posted his first win a year ago courtesy of the hottest putter in town.

It’s a wide-open track where the last two winners, Ramey and Hudson Swafford, finished in the top three on the putting stats. Even so, in a challenging wind, length off the tee is important. Ramey has been a revelation in far better company the last two weeks, leading the Players Championship for much of the way and again getting into the thick of the action at the Valspar.

Finishing 27th in both tournaments entirely fails to convey the influence he had over the first three days of each tournament. It was on the Sundays, when he shot 76 and 75, thst he came down to earth with a bump but when he gets on a birdie run, he’s hard to stop. Given his positive mental association with Corales, the swarthy Ramey could again set a hot pace and might, in this easier company, stay there this time.

There’s plenty of European interest with Thomas Detry, Nicolai Hojgaard and Matt Wallace – the Hillingdon man played a blinder for seventh at the Valspar – eager to gather Ryder Cup points but Canadian Taylor Pendrith is preferred to all three.

Runner-up in Detroit in October and with bags of impressive form last year, enough anyway to earn him a Presidents Cup call, he is one the biggest hitters at 309 yards and although his AmEx seventh is the lone top-ten on his 2023 CV, he’s fancied to  show his class at this modest level.

The same goes for the super-consistent Wyndham Clark, a deadeye putter who has made every cut since October with top-tens at Sea Island and Phoenix and a best-yet fifth on the testing Copperhead course on Sunday. He is the Fitzdares favourite and deserves to be.

Following up a 13th at Pebble and fifth at Honda with solid efforts at Sawgrass and Valspar, Ben Martin looks in ripe form and is dropped in grade. At least he knows how to win when the chance comes along – it seems a long time ago now but he took it at the 2015 Shriners, the same year Danny Lee landed only PGA Tour victory. Don’t be amazed if Lee’s $4m LIV weekend takeaway in Tucson inspires Ben.


Best bets

1.5pts each-way Tom McKibbin @ 40/1
1.5pts each-way Joost Luiten @ 18/1
1pt each-way Ewen Ferguson @ 33/1
1pt each-way Shaun Norris @ 50/1

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The Jonsson Workwear Open at Steyn City, the final leg of the DP World Tour’s African Swing, has much the same ingredients as last week’s SDC Championship – the usual Sunshine Tour suspects plus a smattering of European regulars, two of whom, Matthew Baldwin and Adri Arnaus, filled the first two places at St Francis Links on Sunday.

Long-serving Baldwin’s emphatic victory at the 200th attempt suggests every dog must have his day but Fitzdares’ 50/1 says he can’t do it again, at least not this quickly. It’s the same tournament under a different name to the one where Shaun Norris holed everything for a spectacular 25-under-par first DP World Tour triumph 12 months ago.

A multiple winner in Japan, Asia and South Africa, Norris had to wait until he was almost 40 to open his European account. There’s no doubt being a local played a big part in his Steyn City Championship story last year.

With home advantage on the Nicklaus layout he was able to produce golf of a quality beyond him when he competed in Europe, the best of his subsequent outings being only 18th and that in another home game, the Joburg Open. Don’t ignore Norris when a tournament is in his neck of the woods.

Steady Englishman Jordan Smith heads the Fitzdares market at 16/1, closely followed by Arnaus and Joost Luiten. All three obviously have chances but the golfer with the most potential in this line-up is 20-year-old Northern Irish prodigy – shades of Rory! – Tom McKibbin. He’s not quite there yet but clearly gets on well with South African courses (18-15-13-18 from four visits with a 12th in Singapore in between). This is the grade where he can get off the mark as a pro.

I’m also expecting good things from Glaswegian Ewen Ferguson. Only 26 but already a double winner in Europe, he’s taken time to get his act back together this campaign but a share of third place on Sunday suggests we need to start thinking of getting with the ambitious Scot again.

Veteran Luiten was up there too at the weekend and posted a decent tenth at Steyn City last year. It is high time this prolific winner tasted success again. Partly because of injury, it’s been five years since Oman, the last of his six main-tour victories. With last-three figures of 3-3-9, this flying Dutchman is ready to rumble.

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