Once upon a time, it seemed that all eyes were on Rickie Fowler as the next big thing in golf. Not so much any more, but, for sure, the 34-year-old has arrested his free fall down the world rankings and is on an upward trajectory again heading into the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club in Texas.
A number of changes in personnel at the end of last season proved transformative. Fowler, who had fallen to 185th in the world rankings last September, reached out to his old coach Butch Harmon and at the same time also changed caddie, replacing Joe Skovron, his bagman of 13 years, with Ben Schomin.
Between the jigs and the reels of such comings and goings, Fowler found some stability. Indeed, he has moved to 59th in the latest world rankings, including three top-10s so far this season, and heads into the Match Play (in a group that includes world number two Jon Rahm) chasing a late ticket to next month’s Masters tournament.
To do so, Fowler most likely needs to progress as far as the quarter-finals in this 64-player event, where competitors compete in 16 round-robin groups for the opening three days before group winners advance.
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Fowler’s group is a tough one. Apart from Rahm, it also includes Billy Horschel, a winner of the event in 2021, and Keith Mitchell: “For me [to do well], I have to drive it well. Swing-wise, I hadn’t been feeling great the last few weeks. Driving it was one of the areas that felt the worst.
“If I go drive it well, I know I can contend and play with anyone out here this week. But obviously [I’ve got] some tough match-ups and you can’t really dictate a whole lot on how the other guy’s going to play. I’m going to need to play well all three days. No one’s going to lay down. There’s not going to be an easy match. But that’s what you expect when you’re coming to play against the best players in the world and it’s going to be a battle.”
Fowler is one of a number of players currently on the outside looking in when it comes to getting a late invitation to the Masters, with those ranked inside the top-50 in the world following the Match Play earning exemptions. Fowler is 59th, while Lucas Herbert (56th), Taylor Montgomery (57th), Denny McCarthy (58th), Adam Hadwin (62nd), Davis Riley (63rd) and Victor Perez (64th) are also in need of big weeks.
With a question mark over the future of the WGCs in professional golf’s ever evolving landscape, this week’s Match Play could yet prove to be the last edition played.
“We obviously wouldn’t want it every week, just because of how volatile it is, and it’s not always the guy that’s playing the best that week [that win it]. You can hit someone that gets hot for that day and knocks that person out. But I love match play. I would love to see a form of it be in the future on the tour,” added Fowler.
Rory McIlroy – a winner in 2015 when it was played at Harding Park before it moved to Austin – returns this year after skipping it last year as part of a scheduling tweak aimed at resting ahead of the Masters.
McIlroy is in a group this time around that also includes Keegan Bradley, Denny McCarthy and Scott Stallings, who he meets in his opening round match.
Shane Lowry, meanwhile, has yet to get out of the group phase in any of his past appearances. Lowry is in a group that also features Jordan Spieth, Mackenzie Hughes and his first-round opponent Taylor Montgomery.
Séamus Power reached the quarter-finals on his debut in the championship last year and, currently riding high in sixth in the FedEx Cup standings, the Waterford golfer will be looking for another good performance. Power is in a group with Sam Burns, Adam Hadwin and Adam Scott, who he meets in his first match.
Purse: €18.5 million (€3.5 million to the winner)
Where: Austin, Texas
The course: Austin Country Club – 7,108 yards, par 71 – is a Pete Dye design on the banks of the Colorada River (incorporating Lake Austin) with the iconic Pennybacker Bridge a notable backdrop on a number of holes. Dye’s design features a large number of strategically placed, deep bunkers. There are a number of standout holes, including the 12th – Iron Bridge – where players are tempted to rip long drives to the downhill running fairway while the finishing par-five 18th is a risk/reward hole perfect for match play should matches get that far. Some 1,200 trees on the course were damaged in an ice storm back in January.
The field: Eight players from the world’s top 10 are playing – Cameron Smith, who is not permitted to play after his move to LIV, and Justin Thomas, who has skipped the event as he eyes up the Masters in a fortnight’s time are absent – in a tournament with an increased prize fund for the 64-player field. The first three days of play features group round-robin fare with the winners of the 16 brackets progressing to the knock-out phases. In the group stages, a match win is worth one point, a halved match is worth a half-point and a loss is worth zero points. The player with the most points in his group after three days of round-robin advances to the knock-out (last 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final). If two or more players are tied in their group after the pool stage, then those players will compete in a sudden-death playoff to determine the group winner. Scottie Scheffler, seeking a third win in five weeks, is the defending champion in what could be the last staging of this tournament.
Quote-Unquote: “I love match play. I like the simplicity of it. All you have to do is just go out there and try and beat the guy that’s in front of you and if you don’t, you lose, and if you beat him, you win. So the simplicity of it is what I enjoy” – world number one and defending champion Scottie Scheffler on keeping things simple.
Irish in the field: Rory McIlroy (who opted to skip the event last year) returns for what will be his final outing ahead of the Masters and commences his group campaign against Scott Stallings (3.26pm Irish time); Shane Lowry (who has never managed to get out of the group stage) opens his campaign with a match against Taylor Montgomery (5.27pm); Séamus Power is up against Adam Scott (6.11pm) in his opening group match.
Betting: Scottie Scheffler’s defence of the title comes at a time when the world number one is again at the height of his game, with wins in the Phoenix Open and The Players inside the past five weeks. He is the 8-1 favourite to repeat last year’s success. Kevin Kisner’s form of late (four missed cuts in five) is hardly inspiring but he is a course specialist and odds of 66-1 represent decent each-way value. Nick Taylor blows a bit hot and cold but he does have three top-10s so far this year and is another each-way prospect at 125-1.
On TV: Live on Sky Sports Golf – live coverage from 2.15pm.