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This must be a scary week for the PGA Tour brass. Essentially, this week is a TV executive’s nightmare: golf’s most unpredictable week of the year, the prospect of filling six hours of TV time, the potential match up of Victor Dubuisson vs Kiradech Aphibanrat, and, oh yeah, the field not including names like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott.
Even still, this is one of the most exciting events to watch and is the favorite non-major event of the year for many golf fans. For the sixth and final time, The Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz., plays host. The 7,791-yard, Jack Nicklaus design is no preference of the players, ranking 51 of 52 PGA Tour courses in a player’s poll in 2012 - which could be the reason why some of the top players skip this event each year. Weather has played a major factor in the past – remember the snow-covered greens in two of the last three years? Well, that shouldn’t be an issue this time around, as the forecast is calling for temperatures in the mid 80’s and sunny skies.
Part of the allure of match play is that truly anyone can win – or at least advance deep into the tournament. Recent play has not factored much in the past; Ryder Cup records do not translate directly. Players have to make birdies, make putts and expect their opponent to get up and down from anywhere and everywhere. Both bombers and plotters can advance and in short, it's a crapshoot where the matchups almost exclusively dictate the outcomes. This event is nearly impossible to predict; all it takes is a hot nine-hole stretch and one of the top seeds or favorites is packing his bags and on a private jet headed home. But, here’s my best attempt to break down the brackets and make some predictions sure to go wrong:
Bobby Jones Bracket
Top seed: Henrik Stenson
Coming in Hot: Graham DeLaet
Not in form: Louis Oosthuizen
Potential Bracket Buster: Kiradech Aphibanrat
Key First-Round Match: Patrick Reed (11) vs. Graham DeLaet (6)
This is the type of bracket where a ton of upsets can happen, as many of the top seeds aren’t playing their best golf. Top seed Stenson is still battling a wrist injury and had a lackluster Middle East Tour to start the New Year. No. 3 seed Steve Stricker is making his 2014 debut after his brother received a liver transplant this past week, so his form and mindset might not be in sync yet. No. 4 seed Brandt Snedeker has failed to find the same game he showed early in 2013.
The middle seeds in the bracket provide several coin-flip matches – Watney vs Oosthizen, Donaldson vs Horschel and DeLaet vs Reed. This bracket feels wide open, as five or six guys could make it out. It is a matter of which player gets hot.
Top Half: Aphibanrat introduces himself to more of the golf world by upsetting the top seed Henrik Stenson, and then dispatches the winner of Watney and Oosty. Aphibanrat will most likely run into Snedeker or Simpson, either of which would be a tough ask in his first appearance. I like Webb to take this half.
Bottom Half: Plenty of ball strikers in this half of the bracket, but the favorites have to be Day, Stricker and DeLaet. Day has never lost in the first round here so he is a good bet to move on. Stricker’s past results indicate that he is one of the most unpredictable players in the field as he is just as likely to lose in Round 1 as he is to win three matches. Prior to Pebble Beach, Day was arguably the hottest player on the planet and boats an impressive record in Match Play. A match-up between Day and Presidents Cup star DeLaet would be fun to watch, and DeLaet could fairway-and green-to-death anybody he plays against. The Canadian takes the bottom half of the bracket.
Winner: Simpson vs DeLaet. Neither player played particularly well at Riviera but both have had strong starts to the 2014 season. Simpson made it to the quarterfinals in 2013 and boasts impressive stats like 3rd in strokes gained, 7th in scrambling and 3rd in the Overall ranking, which should serve him very well in the Match Play format – No. 5 seed Webb Simpson wins the Jones Bracket.
Ben Hogan Bracket
Top seed: Rory McIlroy
Coming in Hot: Jimmy Walker
Not in form: Rickie Fowler
Potential Bracket Buster: Harris English
Key First-Round Match: Harris English (9) vs Lee Westwood (8)
The second strongest bracket top to bottom, world-class ball strikers are a dime a dozen in the Hogan Bracket. Rory, Boo, Westwood, English, Furyk, Sergio, Schwartzel, and Haas are all some of the best driver and iron players in the world. While upsets are usually common and frequent in Match Play, this bracket is loaded with top-tier players that look poised to make the chalk popular picks. The Hogan Bracket also has a European 2014 Ryder Cup feel to it, with likely team members Rory, Westwood, Sergio, Poulter, as well as potential player or assistant captain “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” aka Miguel A. Jimenez.
Top Half: Rory comes into this event in a much better place than last year and should be able to handle Boo Weekley in his opening match rather easily. I love English’s game (he’s already won twice on tour this year) and thought he would be able to do some damage in this tournament, but even if he upsets Westwood in round 1, playing Rory next is a tough draw. After his top 5 at Riviera, Schwartzel looks to have a favorable road to the Sweet 16, most likely having to go through Kevin Stadler and Jim Furyk. Nike will be smiling ear to ear with the matchup of Rory vs Charl, but in the end Rory is on a mission to make a statement early in 2014.
Bottom Half: Jimmy Walker is clearly the hottest player in the world with three wins in his past nine events, but Match Play is a different animal. The two names that stick out in this half of the bracket are the Match Play Ninja, Ian Poulter, and the No. 2 seed, Sergio Garcia. They should be on a collision course with the winner moving on to play Rory. Though I think Sergio is primed to have a big 2014, it’s too hard to go against Poulter in this format.
Winner: McIlroy vs. Poulter. Poulter should get up for this type of match up but Rory’s distance advantage off the tee will be too much to overcome, Rory is your Hogan Bracket winner.
Gary Player Bracket
Top seed: Justin Rose
Coming in Hot: Jordan Spieth
Not in form: Matt Kuchar
Potential Bracket Buster: Ryan Moore
Key First-Round Match: Matteo Manassero (12) vs Luke Donald (5)
In what looks to be the weakest bracket this year, Justin Rose is the top seed followed by defending champ Matt Kuchar, Jordan Spieth, Jason Dufner and Luke Donald in that order. This bracket would look a lot different if Kuchar and Dufner were coming in on top of their games, but neither is playing well at the moment. A case can be made that Kuchar is the best Match Play player in the world, sporting a 15-3 record at this event and making it to at least the quarterfinals every trip since 2011. The MC at Riviera has to be of some concern, but hard to think he doesn’t advance far enough to face off with Spieth. Donald (2011 winner) also possesses a very good Match Play record and a stellar short game so he is very capable of making a run. All of that said, Jordan Spieth will happen again just like it’s been happening the last 12 months.
Top Half: Seriously, who knows? Nobody really sticks out, nobody really playing their best. Rose might find some form after making his season debut last week, but I don’t think anybody would be shocked if he was knocked out day 1. Els vs Gallacher is a sleepy matchup, as is Dufner vs Stallings. Donald vs Manassero pits two great putters against each other, and I think the winner of this match will go on to take the top half of the Player bracket. Luke Donald gets the nod based on his overall record.
Bottom Half: The bottom half of the Player comes down to three guys for me: Kuchar, Spieth and Ryan Moore. None has a particular tough opening round opponent and Spieth in particular probably has the easiest first couple rounds of any top player. The winner of the Moore-Kuchar match will provide Spieth with a stern test, but the kid is already proving himself to be one of the best players in the world. The two-time Junior Amateur champ has the look of a Match Play buzzsaw.
Winner: Donald vs. Spieth. If Donald can get the putter going, he is capable of beating anyone, but Spieth will prove to be too much. The 20-year-old has a complete game and the kind of attitude that is made for match play.
Sam Snead Bracket
Top seed: Zach Johnson
Coming in Hot: Bubba Watson
Not in form: Nobody?
Potential Bracket Buster: Martin Kaymer
Key First-Round Match: Martin Kaymer (12) vs. Hedeki Matsuyama (5)
Wow. Every year there is a bracket that people will term, “the group of death,” but this year the Sam Snead really is a gauntlet. The top seed is Zach Johnson, but nobody really expects him to make it past his potential second-round matchup with last year’s runner up, Hunter Mahan. Dustin Johnson, last week’s champ Bubba Watson, Graeme McDowell, Hideki Matsuyama, and Keegan Bradley round out the other top seeds. The first-round matchups of Matsuyama vs Kaymer and GMac vs Woodland could be the best of the opening round. In many peoples’ eyes, Mahan -- the 8 seed -- is the favorite, advancing to the finals each of the past two seasons and owning a 15-5 record overall. The two bombers, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, both come in on fire and can overpower any opponent. Bubba won last week and is a combined 30-under par in his last two events, while DJ comes in having finished runner up in consecutive weeks. Neither will be easy to beat. And, I didn’t even get to mention Keegan Bradley – the Ian Poulter for the Americans in the last Ryder Cup and rising match play stalwart.
Top Half: Mahan and Johnson look to be fairly safe bets to make it onto the second round for head to head match up. Johnson is one of the few that can hang with Mahan tee to green and is the better putter of the two, but there is something about this event that brings out the best in Mahan. Woodland vs GMAC will be an interesting matchup of contrasting styles, but the Matsuyama vs Kaymer matchup is the one to watch. Kaymer was a name I circled as a sleeper before the brackets were released and has the ability to go deep in this format. However, drawing the budding Japanese star isn’t very favorable. Matsuyama, like Jordan Spieth, has every shot in the bag and I expect him to advance past Kaymer, Woodland and Mahan.
Bottom Half: Some serious power in the bottom half of the Snead bracket. Kevin Streelman has to feel like requesting he be able to play from the forward tees. The three players that immediately jump off the page are Bubba, DJ and Keegan -- each are great drivers of the ball but can be hot and cold on the greens. Whichever guy can get hot with the putter is the player that will move on to face Matsuyama, and my money is on Keegan.
Winner: Bradley vs Matsuyama. This could be a future Presidents Cup match for many years to come. Matsuyama has been so good the past year, he is too hard to ignore, rookie or not.
Championship: Rory McIlroy vs Jordan Speith
Winner: Rory McIlroy
Best Darkhorse: Kiradech Aphibanrat
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