Last few Masters spots on the line at Match Play
By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - For players trying to get into the top 50 for a Masters invitation, it was critical to get into the 64-man field at the Dell Technologies Match Play with big ranking points available in the final week to be eligible through the world ranking.
Trouble is, everyone from the top 66 - Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler are skipping - also is at Austin Country Club.
Eleven players in the field have yet to qualify for the Masters, and what's required of them at Match Play depends on their ranking. Russell Knox, Lee Westwood, Tom Lewis and Luke List likely will have to advance to Sunday's semifinals to break into the top 50.
Abraham Ancer and Chez Reavie likely would have to reach the quarterfinals, where players are assured a four-way tie for fifth.
Going into the week, the only current players in the top 50 not already eligible for the Masters are Shane Lowry (No. 48) and Justin Harding (No. 49). They might not have to advance from their groups to secure their positions, but winning or halving matches wouldn't hurt.
Others who are poised to make a move include Byeong Hun An, Andrew Putnam and Jim Furyk, who didn't even have the Masters in mind until his runner-up finish at The Players Championship moved him up more than 100 spots and into the Match Play field.
Harding and List are in the same group, while Lowry and Putnam also are in the same group.
Meanwhile, Sungjae Im closed with a 70 at Innisbrook last week and moved into a tie for fourth. That moved him up 13 spots to No. 59. Im is at the PGA Tour event in the Dominican Republic this week, which offers a minimum 24 points to the winner even with a weak field. He has a mathematical chance of getting into the top 50.
No one at the Hero Indian Open on the European Tour can get into the top 50.
No matter how it unfolds, Augusta National is assured of another small field, which is what the Masters wants to create the best experience for its guests. The field last year was 87, the smallest since 1997.
Currently, there are 84 players who have qualified and are expected to play.
European-born players are on quite a run, with Paul Casey (England), Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland) and Francesco Molinari (Italy) winning the past three weeks on the PGA Tour. It's the longest such streak since either 2012 or 2010, depending on context.
It was in 2010 that Justin Rose (England) at the Memorial, Lee Westwood (England) at the St. Jude Classic and Graeme McDowell (Northern Ireland) at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach won in successive weeks.
Fast forward to 2012, and McIlroy won the Honda Classic, Rose won at Doral and Luke Donald (England) won the Valspar Championship. However, George McNeill won in the Puerto Rico Open a few hours before Rose won his first World Golf Championship at Doral. The three European-born players in the field at Puerto Rico that year included Henrik Stenson, who was just starting to come out of a slump and was at No. 221 in the world.
It's not just Europeans who have had big runs. In 2014, there was a streak of six consecutive tournaments won by non-Americans - three by McIlroy (including two majors), the others by Tim Clark of South Africa, Geoff Ogilvy of Australia and Camilo Villegas of Colombia.
THE BATTLE FOR NO. 1
The top five players in the world ranking all have a chance to leave Texas at No. 1 in the world.
Dustin Johnson lost a chance to expand his lead at No. 1 last week when he played birdie-free for a 74 to tie for sixth. Rose, who had the No. 1 for two months before Johnson took over, remains at No. 2.
They are followed by Brooks Koepka, McIlroy and Justin Thomas.
All of them have reached No. 1 before, but it might be the most meaningful this time around for McIlroy. He has spent 95 weeks at No. 1, but not since Sept. 14, 2015.
Then again, Thomas might not agree.
"I didn't think getting to No. 1 in the world would mean as much to me until the fact I haven't had it in a while," said Thomas, who was last at the top of the ranking in early June last year. "It bothers me. It gets under my skin more than I thought it would now that I had it. You know everyone in the world isn't as good as you, and it's a cool feeling."
BIG EASY MILESTONE
Ernie Els made his debut in the world ranking in 1989 when he finished fourth in the South African Open at age 19.
That was his first top 10 worldwide, and the Big Easy hit a big milestone last week in the Maybank Championship in Malaysia when he tied for seventh. It was the 300th time in his 792 worldwide starts that he finished among the top 10 in tournaments that award world ranking points.
No other player has competed around the globe like Els from his generation.
Tiger Woods has 231 top 10s in 399 worldwide starts, a rate of 58 percent.
Els has a 38 percent rate of top 10s in tournaments around the world, but only 27 percent on the PGA Tour (compared with 54 percent in non-PGA Tour events).
Steve Stricker isn't one to fix something that isn't broken, including his putter.
Until that broke.
Stricker has used the same Odyssey putter for 17 years. But when he noticed the shaft slightly bent from years of practice and play, he took it to the equipment player to swap out the shaft. That's when they noticed another problem.
"The face was caved in," he said.
He was told to run a credit card across the face insert to check, and sure enough, there was an indentation.
The end of an era? Not quite. Stricker had a backup made with the same specifications, only to learn that he could have a new face insert. He got that back in time for the Valspar Championship, though it wasn't the happiest of reunions. He missed the cut by one shot with rounds of 73-71.
"It wasn't the putter," Stricker said. "It was the puttee."
Puggy Blackmon is retiring after 35 years as a college golf coach, primarily at Georgia Tech and South Carolina. Among his players at Georgia Tech was David Duval, who reached No. 1 in the world. ... The USGA appointed Jason Gore as its first senior director of player relations. ... The Australian PGA Championship is moving until after the Presidents Cup, capping off three straight weeks Down Under following the Australian Open and a Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne featuring Tiger Woods and Ernie Els as captains. The Australian PGA now will be played on Dec. 19-22. ... Nelly Korda is now the highest-ranked American in the women's world ranking at No. 6. ... Pratima Sherpa, the 19-year-old from Nepal who was featured on ESPN, plays her first professional event in America this week on the Symetra Tour in Beaumont, California. ... Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Lee Westwood are the only players in the Match Play field who were part of the inaugural event in 1999 at La Costa.
STAT OF THE WEEK
European-born players have won more times on the PGA Tour (4) than on the European Tour (3) this year.
"It doesn't matter what your rank is. It doesn't matter how you're playing. If you don't play well that day, you're probably going to lose. It's pretty simple." - Dustin Johnson on match play.
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