What a month it’s turning out to be! This March, Ides of not, has turned out to be all about resurgence of form by the biggest names in the game. Tiger Woods’ comeback has happened, and it’s going better than anyone could have possibly foreseen. Yes, it can be said, without a doubt, Woods is back. Appropriately, Woods’ bete noire—Phil Mickelson—getting on in years and five years without a victory coming into the WGC Mexico Championship, scripted a comeback of his own by prevailing over Justin Thomas in a playoff. Thomas, by far the man to beat in 2017-18, matched Mickelson’s play, but had no answers when the veteran hit a shot through the trees no one else could have visualised, let alone hit. It was the kind of shot that’s been definitive of the Mickelson brand of golf. And if he could hit that on demand, with the tournament on the line, then it’s obvious that the confidence has returned; 47 years old he may be, but Lefty’s not done yet.
The sweet-swinging Ulsterman, Rory Mc IlRoy, put on a putting display to shoot 64 in the final round and win the Arnold Palmer Invitational to record his first triumph since 2016. McIlRoy looked as unbeatable as he is wont to at his best: booming drives fearlessly a mile down, and putting like a man possessed. He never really went away, but the former world number one has announced his intentions to reclaim his spot at the top of the world rankings. McIlRoy is the man to watch out for at Augusta next month. And, for those who don’t follow the Ladies Tours, 54-year-old Laura Davies nearly pulled a Tom Watson out of the bag by shooting a 63 at the Founders Cup. Seeking to become the oldest winner ever, Davies very nearly got the job done untill Inbee Park’s relentless birdies on the closing holes nixed her bid. But the takeaway is that Davies is back—a living legend if there were one.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat hasn’t been making any news. But that’s the way the big-hitting Thai likes to do it—slowly, imperceptibly inching his way into the rareified group of the top 20 golfers on the planet. Now ranked 31st, Aphibarnrat is the sort of golfer who thrives in anonymity and must absolutely relish being the outlier in the Dell World Matchplay Championships. At the time this column is being written, he’s already topped his group and made it to the elimination stage of the event. When Asia’s ‘John Daly’, as he’s referred to (meant well, obviously, but a rather uni-dimensional moniker in your columnist’s opinion), took down world number three—Jon Rahm—on Friday, golf fans in the west suddenly sat up and took notice. Aphibarnrat has arrived.
And what a stage he’s chosen to shine on. The World Matchplay Championships—a one-of-a-kind tournament with gruelling round robin rounds followed by elimination rounds crowns the best matchplay player in the world. In a strange turn of fortune, none of the players making news this month are in the mix. Rory blamed fatigue for the 5 & 3 spanking handed to him by world number 22 Brian Harmon, and is on the plane home. The top player in the world, Dustin Johnson, is in the throes of another dip in form, and crashed out of the event with two losses in the opening stages of the tournament. Phil Mickelson managed to eke out one win over Japan’s Satoshi Kodaira, but that wasn’t good enough to get him to the elimination rounds.
I’m guessing that the event organisers would have given an arm and a leg to finagle an invite to Woods. Viewership figures for the last two tournaments where he’s been on the leaderboard attest to this man’s singular ability to draw eyeballs and interest into the game. Unfortunately, the Matchplay Championship is only restricted to the top 64-ranked players in the world. Woods, for all his fantastic play over the past couple of months, is on the verge of breaking back into the top 100. As things stand, hours before the elimination rounds begin, the only really big name players in the field left at the Matchplay championships are Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Thomas—who we all agree cannot put a foot wrong this year—and Bubba Watson. And then there’s Kiradech, who we all know well in Asia, but has golf commentators scratching their heads in the West.
The fact that it’s so hard to predict a winner in this format is an indication of how little pro golf is played this way, and by implication, how much more of matchplay we need. Two guys going head to head is something weekend golfers can relate to and it brings the human element back into a sport. It makes golf a spectator sport. Strokeplay, it can be argued, places too much of an emphasis on consistency, forcing players to play percentage golf, which, let’s agree, isn’t as much fun to watch as someone taking the big risk-and-reward route.
Just by dint of performances in this format, the favourite, at this point, has to be Patrick Reed. Who can forget his slugfest with Rory at the 2016 Ryder Cup—possibly the most entertaining duel at that event ever witnessed. Then there’s Oosthuizen, who’s got a penchant for coming very close to winning this tournament; perhaps the South African will get his act together this time. And then there’s Matt Kuchar, the only man in the field who’s won here before. No one really spares a thought for a reticent Thai who’s playing the event for the very first time. It’s a delicious possbility to contemplate.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game