Big names missing at the Match Play

The look of a completely sane man.

The look of a completely sane man.

When you look at the players who are competing in the WGC-Dell Match Play this week, there’s something that sticks out that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been following the game closely over the last year or so. Many of the sixty four teeing it up either have very little or no professional match play experience, and for a lot of them that do have some experience, it hasn’t come at the WGC, the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup.

Matthew Fitzpatrick, Justin Thomas, Emiliano Grillo, Smylie Kaufman, Thomas Pieters and others are making their first appearance at this event, and considering that the field is populated entirely based on the Official World Golf Rankings, we’re absolutely looking at the best players in the game today. The youth movement that the golf world has been waiting for has quite obviously arrived.

That’s not to say that older players aren’t still playing at a high level. Guys like Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar were comfortably qualified for the event months ago, as was Jim Furyk who won’t be playing due to a wrist injury, but the shift is apparent. Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood, two of the most prolific players in the modern game, just barely squeaked into the field but some other big names weren’t as fortunate.

Keegan Bradley hasn’t missed this event since 2011, but we’re coming up on four years since his most recent win at the 2012 Bridgestone, and while he has shown some signs of life in recent weeks, the play has been wildly inconsistent over the past few years. Hunter Mahan won the match play in 2012 defeating Rory McIlroy in the final and has played in this event every year since 2008, but he’s dangerously close to falling out of the top 100 in the OWGR. Webb Simpson hasn’t missed it since 2011, Francesco Molinari since 2009, and Miguel Angel Jimenez, who nearly came to blows with Bradley at Harding Park last year, in more than a decade. All of these guys will be absent this week.

Two other names stand out though, and not just because of them missing out on the field. Ian Poulter and Luke Donald, Ryder Cup stars and holders of some of the most remarkable individual match play records in the game today, will not be at the Austin Country Club. Poulter hasn’t missed the event since 2003. Donald has qualified every year since 2005, but didn’t play last year due to his brother getting married the week of the event.

However, they are playing this week, as they are both teeing it up at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club in Puerto Rico. That’s right: Poulter and Donald will be at the opposite field event at the Puerto Rico Open while the best players in the world are at the match play. I’m not mentioning this to disparage Poulter, Donald, the other players in the field or the tournament, but it’s a shock to the system to see two of the most visible players in the game for the past decade, even if they’ve struggled recently, at an opposite field event.

It also points to a willingness to try and fix whatever is ailing them and you have to give them credit for that. Let’s be clear: there are many, many worse things to have to do than play a golf tournament in Puerto Rico, but both players could have just as easily sat at home and done nothing. Retief Goosen and David Toms, two other players who don’t need to be in the field are there for the same reason.

Realistically, the margin for error at the professional level is so small, and especially in the case of Poulter who missed the WGC by one spot in the rankings, there probably isn’t a whole lot that is truly wrong with the way they’re playing. It’s just that the youth movement that has taken place has moved them further out of the picture, and while this obviously isn’t a brand new and unique situation, the speed at which it has happened is pretty remarkable.

At this time last year, both players were comfortably in the top-50 in the world rankings. Two years ago, both were in the top-25 and in March of 2013, both Donald and Poulter were inside the top-10. Are they worse players now? Absolutely. Considerably worse? Probably not, but the players who have come up to take their spots have blown by them, and now it’s time to grind. Twenty eight of the sixty four players in the match play field are under the age of 30, with many more right around that number. With Donald approaching 40 and Poulter already there, it’s easy to look at their situations and envisioning it getting worse from here. That’s why getting reps, even in an event that they’ve never played in because they’ve never had to be there, is important.

Whether Luke Donald and Ian Poulter will get back to form is impossible to know, but what we do know is that if they don’t, it won’t be from a lack of effort.

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