| 13.8°C Dublin

'Big 3' not at peace with Dove layout

Close

Graeme McDowell hits his tee shot on the third hole during last year’s World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play at Dove Mountain.

Graeme McDowell hits his tee shot on the third hole during last year’s World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play at Dove Mountain.

Matt Kuchar celebrates with the trophy after defeating Hunter Mahan during last year’s final GETTY

Matt Kuchar celebrates with the trophy after defeating Hunter Mahan during last year’s final GETTY

Accenture: about to unfurl the flag?

Accenture: about to unfurl the flag?

/

Graeme McDowell hits his tee shot on the third hole during last year’s World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play at Dove Mountain.

NEITHER for pride nor money! It says much about modern professional golf that the prestige of a World Championship and the prospect of a $9m purse simply are not enough to persuade three of the game's four top-ranked performers to tee it up.

In one sense, it's unfair to harp on the absence of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott from this week's Accenture Match Play World Championship of Golf. After all, this trio has contributed precious little to one of the sport's most fascinating events since its move to The Ritz-Carlton Club at Dove Mountain in Arizona's Sonoran Desert.

Woods counts a record three match-play victories among a stunning tally of 18 World Championship wins, but, on the four occasions Tiger's played it on this Jack Nicklaus course, he fell twice in the first round and didn't make it beyond the second in the other two.

So, dropping the match play must have been a no-brainer for the 38-year-old as he focuses his energy on the desperate bid in 2014 to end his six-year drought at the Majors.

As for World No 2 Mickelson, he competed at eight successive Accentures up to 2009, but has played only one in four since – the 2011 championship in which he beat Australian Brendan Jones 6&5 in the first round before getting thumped by young American protégé Rickie Fowler by the same score the following day.

Of course, World No 2 Mickelson (43), a devoted family man, opted out of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera and this week's event to spend precious time with his kids, who are on half-term break from two different schools. More power to him.

Masters champion and World No 4 Scott has won only one of his five games at Dove Mountain since 2009 and he made no bones about the fact that the match play would reappear on his schedule if, as now seems certain, it moved elsewhere, saying "absolutely, no doubt!"

CURTAIN

Sponsors Accenture, expected to draw down the curtain on their 15-year relationship with the match play next Sunday, doubtless would have preferred to have three of the game's biggest names on hand in Tuscon at least until Wednesday's opening round.

That such high-profile players felt no obligation to turn up poses serious questions about the flagging status of golf's World Championships and probably made the sponsor's decision to end their long innings less difficult than it might have been.

Still, the historical failure of Woods, Mickelson and Scott to produce their best at a venue which Justin Rose last year described as "quite a fiddly golf course in terms of pin placement and on the greens," suggests they were unlikely to make much impact this week.

The modern masters of match play – England's Ian Poulter and Luke Donald, America's Hunter Mahan and defending champion Matt Kuchar, born-again Swede Henrik Stenson, rising Aussie Jason Day, Portrush's Graeme McDowell and, provided the mood takes him, Holywood's Rory McIlroy – were always going to make this a week to remember.

If these are tough times for 2011 Accenture champion Donald, whose ability to break hearts around and on the putting green has been undermined by a problematic swing change, Poulter's match-play alchemy comes almost entirely from within.

Nobody better exemplifies the art of man-to-man combat on a golf course than Poulter at the Ryder Cup. When he recaptures that spirit in individual competition, the 38-year-old is almost ubeatable, as he proved by winning this title in 2010 and Volvo's World Match Play crown the following season.

Confidence is the elixir. Without it, Poulter can be sent packing, as he was on Wednesday at Dove Mountain in 2011 and 2012, though he managed to tap into a little of that Medinah magic during last year's march into the semi-finals.

The key, according to Poulter, is "never tell yourself that it's going bad. Simple!

"You can hit one bad shot, but just don't make it two. If you hit two bad shots, don't make it three. Work through it, stay confident, trust what it is you've been working hard to do and never, ever, ever, tell yourself you're in bad form.

"Stay positive and go out there and execute the next shot as you intended to hit it."

In that frame of mind, nobody's tougher ... yet Poulter's not shown good enough form in his two outings so far in 2014, when he followed a share of 47th at Torrey Pines with a missed-cut in Phoenix, to sustain that grand illusory state.

With 2007 Accenture-winner Stenson coming back down to earth after his stellar FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai double and McIlroy still just a tad fragile after his bruising 2013 season, the men to beat this week are 2012 champion Mahan, the relentless Kuchar and Ireland's own G-Mac.

G-MAC FEELS 'IN BETTER PLACE TO PLAY GOLF'

 

RORY McILROY is not a new Tiger Woods.

Like Muhammad Ali, Woods exploded onto the world stage, blasting to smithereens golf convention with his power, his talent, his focus and, yes, his colour.

There never can be another Tiger. He changed forever the way in which the sport is viewed globally and played professionally.

Ben Hogan's place in the firmament appears equally safe and it's difficult to imagine McIlroy winning as many Major titles as Jack Nicklaus or having the seismic public impact of Arnie Palmer.

Still, the 24-year-old Ulsterman is a legend in the making. One of the most gifted and exciting performers in the new world of golf, he has the raw talent to aspire to the same status in his sport as Gary Player, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen.

Whether or not McIlroy manages to fulfil that potential will be determined over the next few years. So far, in the way of many bright, but headstrong young men, he has made the journey harder than it should be. The decision to change all 14 golf clubs and ball in one swoosh last year is an example.

Meanwhile, it's going to be interesting to see how McIlroy resolves his Olympic quandary within the next two years, while one winces at the potential impact on his game of the ongoing legal battle with his former agents at Horizon.

On the positive side, McIlroy and fiancée Caroline Wozniacki clearly are enjoying their engagement, while the golfer is delighted his new management team is up and running.

As he said last month in Abu Dhabi: "I'm in a great place, I'm happy."

Yet few of McIlroy's fellow Major champions appear to be in a better place right now than Graeme McDowell. At 34, G-Mac is 10 years older than Wee-Mac and, it seems, correspondingly wiser in the ways of the world.

Like Padraig Harrington, McDowell offers near-perfect example of how to maximise one's sporting talent and create an idyllic life.

Indeed, the canny Portrush man is acquiring near cult-hero status, especially in America, as a happy-go-lucky guy who'd be perfect company on the golf course or over a pint.

Recently married to interior designer Kristin Stape; happily settled into the home he built in Lake Nona and proud partner in a successful new bar-cum-bistro, Nona Blue, not far from the exclusive Orlando golf resort, McDowell has a lot going for him off the course.

Yet his ambitions, especially in Ryder Cup year, are focused firmly on golf and achieving more consistency after a bitter-sweet 2013 season which featured three tournament victories and a fair measure of frustration.

"I think I've done a fairly good job balancing everything that I've been up to in my life lately," McDowell explains. "I've taken a conscious decision to kind of cut back on my off course activities a bit this year, in regards days and events that I'm attending.

"I'm really trying to put the emphasis back on my golf," he adds. "Yeah, I've had a lot of things going on, but feel my life is quieting down off the course now as I achieve some balance and start to move on to some new chapters. I guess I feel like I'm in a better place to play golf now."

McDowell returned from an extended eight weeks winter break to claim an impressive share of seventh place behind Jimmy Walker at Pebble Beach last Sunday week.

He showed such good form with the putter on his return to the scene of his 2010 US Open triumph, that mano-a-mano combat specialist McDowell must be fancied to add the Accenture title to the Volvo World Match Play crown he donned in Bulgaria last May.

 

TIME FOR WGC EVENTS TO GO ON A WORLD TOUR

A pivotal moment will arrive in world golf when Accenture sever their ties with the match play championship after next Sunday. This story was first broken by veteran US golf writer Alex Miceli on the website of Golfweek magazine last month, promoting such classic non-denial denials from officialdom that it's patently true.

Knowing Miceli and the strength of his sources within the PGA Tour, it's reasonable to assume he's not far off the mark when reporting that a move from the Arizona Desert and maybe even its current spot on the calendar is also being considered for the event.

Of course, all will depend on the wishes of the incoming sponsors ... but circumstance has given golf an opportunity to amend two serious anomalies which, ultimately, are damaging to the sport globally.

For a start, there's a chance to amend the ludicrous situation in which three of four Majors and three of four World Golf Championships (the Match Play, Cadillac at Doral and Bridgestone in Akron) are staged in the United States.

The US PGA Championship may go international in the 2020s, but a decision should be taken now to send the Match Play WGC to the other continents, with Southern Hemisphere countries Australia or South Africa or a Middle East venue like Dubai perfect choices for this time of year.

Mortal fear that moving the World Golf Championships out of North America will cause the PGA Tour's finest to shun no longer has any real foundation.

The HSBC Champions WGC in China has been chipping away at that phobia.

Meanwhile, the absence of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott from Dove Mountain this week confirms that the game's biggest names will suit themselves and blank any tournament outside the Majors, even if it's played in their own back yard.

For sure, the experiment of staging the 2001 Accenture Match Play from January 3-7 at the Metropolitan Golf Club in Melbourne was a cataclysmic failure. Even defending champion Darren Clarke declined to travel along with 26 other members of the world's elite top 50, including six of the top 10.

Yet given a date not so soon after the Festive Season, the Match Play is perfectly suited to a globe-trotting brief. Visits to the Accenture at La Costa and Dove Mountain lead one to suspect that the American spectator is more likely to turn out for or tune into stroke play competition.

Which leads neatly to the second anomaly in the sport: the title 'World Match Play Championship' never could be attributed to the Accenture as it is owned by International Management Group and applies exclusively to the event, sponsored by Volvo, which celebrates its 50th anniversary at the London Club next October.

Since IMG already promote the HSBC Champions, might the time be right to take the Volvo World Match Play under the WGC umbrella too?

Especially given the desire of Volvo to take their events around the planet. McDowell won last May at the spectacular Thracian Cliffs in Varna, on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, while the Volvo Golf Champions has been staged in Manama, Bahrain, and Durban, South Africa.

How often in sport do the planets align so perfectly?

Indo Sport