Rory McIlroy – who bypassed the Honda Classic for some rest and to work on his game – eased his way back into a competitive mindset when joined by his dad, Gerry, in the annual member-professional event at iconic Seminole on Monday, although word would have made its way to him that his group at this week’s WGC-Dell Match Play Championship will be a far tougher affair.
A couple of weeks ago, McIlroy was among those at a table of four who had shot a combined plus-29 in a round at The Players. Ian Poulter was the schemer in taking the short video clip and posting it onto social media. The conviviality of that table setting will be put to one side when Poulter – known as The Postman for his tendency to deliver time after time for Europe in Ryder Cup matches – serves as the starter for McIlroy's bid to use the mano a mano combat of match play to revitalise his game. They tee off at 2.30pm Irish time on Wednesday.
McIlroy, Poulter, in-form Australian Cameron Smith and American Lanto Griffin were the names pulled out to form Group 11 in the 64-man field megabucks tournament, where the round-robin group winners progress on to the knockout stage at the last-16. The winner of their group will take on the winners of Group 7, which features Patrick Reed, Joaquin Niemann, Christiaan Bezedenhuit and Bubba Watson.
For Shane Lowry, who also used his Monday to play in Seminole, his opening group match will see him face American Ryan Palmer in Group 3 where top seeded Spaniard Jon Rahm will open up his bid against Colombia's Sebastian Munoz.
There were a couple of candidates for the old group of death claim. How about Group 2 of Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen, Kevin Kisner and Matt Kuchar? Or, perhaps, even the all-European Group 8 that threw Tyrrell Hatton, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Matt Wallace into the same lot?
Kisner is effectively the defending champion, having won in 2019 and with no event taking place last year due to the closedown forced by Covid-19.
Lightly raced so far this year, Kisner explained: “My game’s not been up to the level that I want it to be but I’ve only played five times in 15 weeks. I’ve had a third child and spent a lot of time with the family, kind of more important at this stage in life. But this is my stretch right here; starting in Austin I’m getting ready to play five of the next six and then continue on through the summer where I like to play a lot of golf.
“So hopefully this is another turning point for me to get the game rolling . . . I had last week off and I have next week off, so I’ll get my rest afterward, if I can make it that far. It’s obviously a gruelling, gruelling test to play 36 [holes] at that level Saturday and Sunday, but I learned a lot in the last two times getting there and obviously prevailed better the second time.”
Kisner, who overcame Bubba Watson in the final two years ago, is a fan of the match play format. As he explained, “I would definitely say there’s a difference in the way the strategy works, how you prepare to play and how you have to be ready to change throughout the match.
“Normally in a stroke play event I kind of have the same mindset for all 18 holes. [In match play] I know how I want to attack the golf course from the get-go, but added features are if someone’s in trouble or someone’s playing aggressive, I may have to change strategy on the go. So I think there’s a huge different dynamic one-on-one versus 72 hole stroke play against 150 others.”
The leading 64 players available off the world rankings at the cut-off point after The Players made it into the field, with five of those eligible not playing due to various reasons: Brooks Koepka (injury), Adam Scott (scheduling), Justin Rose (injury), Gary Woodland (Covid-19) and Tiger Woods (injury).
Group 1: Dustin Johnson, Kevin Na, Robert MacIntyre, Adam Long
Group 2: Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen, Kevin Kisner, Matt Kuchar
Group 3: Jon Rahm, Ryan Palmer, Shane Lowry, Sebastian Munoz
Group 4: Collin Morikawa, Billy Horschel, Max Homa, JT Poston
Group 5: Bryson DeChambeau, Tommy Fleetwood, SW Kim, Antoine Rozner
Group 6: Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler, Jason Day, Andy Sullivan
Group 7: Patrick Reed, Joaquin Niemann, Christiaan Bezedenhuit, Bubba Watson
Group 8: Tyrrell Hatton, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Matt Wallace
Group 9: Webb Simpson, Paul Casey, Mackenzie Hughes, Talor Gooch
Group 10: Patrick Cantlay, Hideki Matsuyama, Carlos Ortiz, Brian Harman
Group 11: Rory McIlroy, Cameron Smith, Lanto Griffin, Ian Poulter
Group 12: Tony Finau, Jason Kokrak, Will Zalatoris, Dylan Frittelli
Group 13: Viktor Hovland, Abraham Ancer, Bernd Wiesberger, Kevin Streelman
Group 14: Daniel Berger, Harris English, Brendon Todd, Eric Van Rooyen
Group 15: Matt Fitzpatrick, Matthew Wolff, Corey Conners, Jordan Spieth
Group 16: Sungjae Im, Victor Perez, Marc Leishman, Russell Henley