AUSTIN, Texas – Seven tournaments into the year, Jordan Spieth has two top 10s, two missed cuts and no serious chances at winning.
He also sees no reason to panic just yet.
Certainly not this week.
His stretch run to the Masters begins Wednesday with the Dell Technologies Match Play, and while Spieth has made it out of group play just once in three years of this format, it’s the first time all year he won’t have a scorecard in his hand.
It’s about winning matches, not posting scores. That might be just what he needs.
“This match play could free me up a bit to play more aggressive and putt more aggressively, and it could be a trigger for a successful rest of the year,” Spieth said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Spieth has spent most of the year watching everyone else win and build momentum toward Augusta National.
Dustin Johnson smoked the field at Kapalua to win by eight. Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Justin Thomas and yes, even Phil Mickelson, all won in playoffs. Rory McIlroy joined them last week with a flawless finish at Bay Hill to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
McIlroy had gone 18 months since his last victory, and on the Wednesday before the tournament began, he was looking ahead to the format at Match Play and said, “It can change your year.”
It also can be a very short week.
Spieth has drawn former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel in the opening round Wednesday at Austin Country Club. More attention is on his final match of round-robin play on Friday when he faces Patrick Reed, an annoying figure for opponents in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and Spieth’s partner in 11 cup matches.
The winner from each of the 16 groups advance to a weekend of single elimination.
Spieth has played plenty at Austin Country Club from his three semesters at the University of Texas, though that didn’t help him much the first year when Louis Oosthuizen took him out in the fourth round.
He has the Match Play and the Houston Open before getting to the Masters, where he won in 2015 and was runner-up twice. Last year he tied for 11th, and he still was within two shots of the lead going into Sunday.
Twice he missed the cut before the Masters. Another year he won and had consecutive runner-up finishes.
Either way, the Masters has been good to him.
“I think going into Augusta, if you can generate momentum, whether it’s a win or just strong finishes, you certainly step on the first tee there feeling a little bit better about it,” he said. “I’m looking forward, I’m not looking back. I’ve got an opportunity this week and next week to generate that momentum.”
McIlroy is upbeat for a couple of reasons. He won on the PGA Tour for the first time since September 2016, and he loves match play. Of the 64-man field, McIlroy has won the most matches (23) against the fewest losses (9).
He has reached the championship match twice – losing to Hunter Mahan in 2012, beating Gary Woodland in 2015 – and the semifinals three times.
Does that make him the favorite?
Not really. Anything goes over 18 holes of match play, and that appeals to McIlroy.
“I’ve always liked this tournament because it’s the least pressured event of the year, because anyone can beat anyone in 18 holes,” McIlroy said. “The field is the top guys in the world. You don’t have any easy matches.”
He recalled 2011 at Dove Mountain in Arizona when his match against Ben Crane ended on the 11th hole – Crane won, 8 and 7.
“You can run into someone like that who just has a really good day,” McIlroy said. “Or you can get a little bit of luck of the draw on the guys that you play against don’t play that good. I remember the next year, I think for the first three rounds I was even par for those three days. And I won every match. If I had been against anyone else in the field, I was going home. And I got to the final that year.”
Spieth last year lost his first match to Hideto Tanihara, and it wound up costing him a chance to advance to the weekend. Even so, the Match Play comes at a good time for someone who has been trying to regain his putting touch, trying to keep pace with the leaders, trying to at least contend.
“Sometimes you take your chances in match play instead of paying attention to the score,” he said. “I know anything can happen. You may as well take your chances.”
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