The new and improved (well, they hope!) WGC-Cadillac Match Play has its starting lineup.
The makeup of the 16 four-man pods was announced Monday in a live telecast. Hmm, does that make it a podcast then? I’ll have to get back to you on that.
I’d like to get Alanis Morissette’s take on this, but I’m pretty sure it’s on the highest order of ironic. The PGA Tour changed the 64-man Match Play’s format from a straight single-elimination bracket tournament to groups of round-robin play. The four players in each pod will play three 18-hole matches, one against each other player within their pod.
The players were chosen based on their world ranking as if they were on a Chinese restaurant menu -- one from Column A (world rank 1-16), one from Column B (17-32), one from Column C (33-48) and one from Column D (49-64 or as I like to call them, The Dregs).
The player with the best won-lost record in each pod advances to the Sweet Sixteen and the original single-elimination match-play format on the weekend. After double sessions Saturday and Sunday, if every day’s play comes off without any delays, you’ll have your Match Play champion by Sunday evening.
The ironic part? Sponsors, television execs and fans hated the win-or-go-home format because too often, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were gone long before the weekend. The new setup guaranteed that Tiger and Phil would play at least three days and make everyone happy. Well, sorry, Alanis, but Tiger is no longer among the top 64-ranked players in the world and isn’t invited to Harding Park in San Francisco for this week’s love-in. And Phil? He pulled out for undisclosed reasons, certainly not just to tweak his favorite foil, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, and remind him who’s really the boss. Maybe if Phil had gotten a first-round bye, he might be playing. But he’s not, and all you can say is, that’s just Phil being Phil.
At least now we’re guaranteed to have Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth around for three days. That’s not a bad deal at all.
Here’s my look at the pods and how they came down, along with my picks to win, with the understanding that coin flips would be an equally accurate prediction method:
Hey, isn’t the No. 1-ranked player in the world supposed to have the easiest path to the Sweet Sixteen? Instead, Rory McIlroy looks like he might be in the strongest foursome in the field. He’s in with FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel, former PGA champ Jason Dufner and the wily Brandt Snedeker. Which of these four guys would you like to face in the first round of match play? The correct answer is, ‘None of them.’ This is like being in a poker tournament and squaring off with Phil Helmuth, Amarillo Slim and Secretariat ( I know that sounds weird, but he must be a world-class bluffer to get in this field).
The Pick: Only a fool would go against No. 1 Rory. Despite that, I’m going with Rory.
This is the Jordan Spieth foursome. He’s the best clutch putter in golf. He’s got the best short game in golf. He is exactly the kind of guy you’d hate to face in match play. Matt Every just won at Bay Hill and Lee Westwood won in Indonesia, but Jordo won in Augusta. Mikko Ilonen? He probably won something in Finland once upon a time.
The Pick: The man wearing the green jacket.
A trio of solid ballstrikers highlight this pod -- Henrik Stenson, Bill Haas and iron-player extraordinaire John Sendon are joined by Brendon Todd, a scrambling maniac. It’s not about hitting the ball, it’s about getting it in the hole.
The Pick: I’ll go with Brendon Todd, the poor man’s Jordan Spieth.
Welcome to the Match Play’s Fab Four pod. You’ve got three major champions -- Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen and Keegan Bradley -- plus Miguel Angel Jimenez, who’s always a tough out in the Ryder Cup. This is one glitzy group, especially if you include Jimenez’s ponytail, cigar and viral warm-up video.
The Pick: Coin toss, but King Louie has been playing the best golf this year, so it’s Oosty.
Nobody is tougher than a former paratrooper -- Thonchai Jaidee -- but Jim Furyk showed just how tough he was at Hilton Head, making 11 birdies in 20 holes to get his first win in five years. Martin Kaymer has a fifth gear that is unbeatable, but he hasn’t found it lately. Coetzee is underrated.
The Pick: Furyk’s short game and his revived putting stroke get the nod.
You don’t need rose-colored glasses to spot the class in this group, Zurich Classic winner Justin Rose. He’s up against Ryan Palmer of Texas, Anirban Lahiri of India and Marc Leishman of Australia. Rose’s win in New Orleans looked emotionally draining, plus there’s always a few surprises in the Sweet 16.
The Pick: I’ll have another Ryan Palmer, hold the lemon slice, thanks.
Wow, here’s another really strong grouping. Jason Day has top five in the world ability if he ever straightens out his putting. Zach Johnson has a Masters jacket and a deadly short game. Branden Grace has won all over the world except in the U.S., and Charley Hoffman, you may recall, was chasing Spieth at the Masters.
The Pick: When in doubt, go with the best putter -- that would be The Zach Attack.
Wow, here’s another really strong grouping. (It’s true, I’ve never written that sentence before in my life.) Dustin Johnson, one win a year for seven straight years; France’s Victor Dubuisson, last year’s Match Play runner-up; Masters champ Charl Schwartzel and short-gamer Matt Jones. Dubuisson looked like a real desert fox last year in Tucson, but the playing field has moved to Harding Park.
The Pick: Schwartzel has shown occasional flashes of his green-jacketed self of late. Watch out for him.
Which putting style is Adam Scott using this week? Stay tuned. Chris Kirk and Francesco Molinari are very good players while Paul Casey is enjoying a nice comeback rise into the top 50 in the world.
The Pick: Casey has a total game and lost in a playoff at the Honda Classic a few days after I ran into him in the clubhouse at Seminole when we were both there playing as guests. That has to mean something, besides the fact that I didn’t deserve to be there.
This is the rock group Foreigner. We’ve got Sergio Garcia of Spain; Ryder Cup hero Jamie Donaldson of Wales; Bernd Wiesberger (NOT burnt cheeseburger) of Austria; and Tommy Fleetwood of England. Donaldson has played terribly since finishing sixth at the Honda Classic. Sergio is 14th in scoring despite being only 85th in greens hit in regulation.
The Pick: Garcia is getting the ball in the hole even though his long game isn’t firing on all cylinders.
Wow, here’s another really strong pairing. (Hey, I’m telling you, I am definitely writing this sentence for the very first time.) Ian Poulter is the reigning king of all things match play, but he’s got Webb Simpson, Gary Woodland and Jimmy Walker to deal with.
The Pick: Poulter has The Stare, but Walker drives it straighter and longer and putts just as well.
Meet the Mad Bombers. No other foursome has the firepower to match J.B. Holmes and Brooks Koepka. They are long. Russell Henley and Marc Warren will have to rely on their wits.
The Pick: Holmes has played the flashiest golf of anyone this year. It’s easy to forget how low he can go.
There’s nobody in this foursome that you’d be pleased to face, yikes. Rickie Fowler is coming off a year of great major finishes, Graeme McDowell drives it straight and putts well, Shane Lowry is underappreciated in the U.S., and Harris English is steady Eddie.
The Pick: When you’ve made a putt to win a Ryder Cup with whole continent breathing down your neck, no mere World Golf Championship is going to make you gag. Take McDowell.
This looks like the NFL’s doing. You know how they like to schedule an early-season rematch of the latest Super Bowl showdown? Well, here’s 2013 Match Play champ Matt Kuchar up against 2013 Match Play runner-up Hunter Mahan. Plus Ryder Cupper Stephen Gallacher and Ben Martin.
The Pick: Kuchar’s short game and putting makes him stronger than dirt in match play.
Patrick Reed is in this group and he really, really, really wants to beat anyone in his way.
The Pick: Don’t mess with Patrick Reed.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama has a complete game, which he showed off in last year’s Memorial Tournament win. Kevin Na ranks among the best chippers on Tour. The wild cards are Joost Luiten and Alexander Levy.
The Pick: Na has been fiddly with his putting this year, so I’ll stick with Matsuyama.
And the winner is … If my pod picks are correct (I’ll wait for the laughter to die down before proceeding), Spieth and Reed would square off Saturday morning in the Sweet Sixteen round. The winner of that match goes on to take it all: Patrick Reed.