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Wednesday, 23 January, 2019

Rampant Rahm ready to go one better than last year

Patrick Cantlay could go far on his debut

Jon Rahm has been buzzing in practice
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Sky Sports Golf, 2.30pm Wednesday

Rory McIlroy used the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday to remind the world of just how good he can be when he finds top gear – a spectacular final-round 64 secured a three-shot triumph – and the little master has resumed the role of favourite for golf tournaments.

McIlroy, who conjured an exceptional putting performance at Bay Hill, was 18-1 for the Arnold Palmer, but is only 8-1 for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and 9-1 for next month's Masters. McIlroy won the Match Play in 2015 at a different venue, but he was a semi-final loser at Austin Country Club two years ago, so clearly acts on this ground too.

McIlroy has a fantastic matchplay record, is bursting with confidence, and should dominate weak opposition in his group, but the price is no bargain given how difficult this tournament is to win. There is little margin for error.

Seven 18-hole matches must be negotiated, and going quiet for nine holes can mean curtains. Rory is the most likely winner, but juicier prices on others are preferred.

Palmer's top tip
Jon Rahm 14-1

The best players seem to thrive in the WGC Match Play, holding a psychological edge in head-to-head combat, intimidating their opponent before any balls are struck. One of the top two seeds has made the final in five of the last seven editions. The number one seed has won five times since 2003 and 11 of the last 15 winners were seeded ninth or better.

McIlroy must be afforded great respect, but the best value of the market principals is arguably number three seed Jon Rahm, who fell in love with this event 12 months ago. The Spanish youngster turned up at Austin Country Club as a rookie, seeded 21st, but won all his group matches, including a 6&4 thrashing of Sergio Garcia, then cruised through to the final.

Inexperience and the daunting occasion were probably the reasons for his slow start in the final against Dustin Johnson, but Rahm fought back manfully to take the top seed to the 18th green, losing one-down. ACC is clearly a track Rahm enjoys and there must be every chance of the beast from the Basque Country going deep in the competition again.

Rahm has won three times since his last visit to Austin, establishing himself as one of the elite, and he can be expected to top his group by outclassing Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Chez Reavie and Keegan Bradley. From there, Phil Mickelson seems a likely last-16 opponent, and Rahm would be strong favourite for the match. They are regular practice partners and Mickelson is the first to admit his brilliant buddy typically gets the better of him.

A potential quarter-final meeting with McIlroy is obviously a concern, but punters are probably wise not to look too far ahead with regards to the draw. A few upsets are inevitable over the first few days – they happen every year – and nothing can be taken for granted. Marc Leishman, Branden Grace or Bubba Watson are all tricky potential last-16 opposition for McIlroy.

The short McIlroy price is based mostly on his sensational Bay Hill Sunday, but while the Northern Irishman was going birdie crazy in Florida, Rahm was doing likewise in Texas. At West Canyon GC, three hours' drive from ACC, Rahm carded a 13-under-par 59 in practice with friends. Eleven birdies and an eagle, with only 19 putts, sent him to Austin full of beans. A fortnight away from competitive golf has freshened Rahm nicely for this gruelling five-day battle.

Next best
Patrick Cantlay 50-1

Patrick Cantlay does not have much matchplay experience as a professional, but he was runner-up in the 2011 US Amateur, so showed he could handle the format as a youngster. This increasingly assured 26-year-old should prove a tough opponent for anyone this week.

Cantlay can take advantage of a vulnerable top seed in his group – Hideki Matsuyama was poor at Bay Hill last week on his return from six weeks on the sidelines nursing a wrist injury. Cantlay, hugely impressive over the last 12 months, can overcome Matsuyama, Cameron Smith and Yusaku Miyazato to progress to the knockout stages.

There is nothing for Cantlay to fear in the last-16 – Group 12 lacks star quality – and the Shriners Open champion is classy enough to press on from there. He was fourth at Riviera a month ago and is a rock-solid all-rounder who will annoy the hell out of his opponents with his slow play.

Other selections
Kevin Chappell 80-1
Dylan Frittelli 125-1

The last time Kevin Chappell competed in the Lone Star State he won his maiden US Tour title in the Texas Open so the increasingly confident 31-year-old will be thrilled to have returned. He was Texas Open runner-up in 2011 and has an excellent record in the state.

Chappell has started this year strongly and he closed with a 67 for seventh place at Bay Hill on Sunday. That followed sixth spot in the CareerBuilder Challenge and eighth at Pebble Beach, and Chappell has been walking with more swagger since helping the United States crush the Internationals in the Presidents Cup at the end of last season.

Chappell is well capable of overcoming group rivals Tommy Fleetwood, Daniel Berger and Ian Poulter, and would fancy his chances against the potential last-16 opposition from Group eight.

Another outsider who could shock the big names is Dylan Frittelli, who is playing on familiar turf this week. The South African went to college in Austin and has made the city his home. He watched the Match Play as a mere spectator last year, but comfortably qualified this time from a world ranking of 45th.

Frittelli is something of a hero in these parts, having won the decisive match with a 30-foot putt on the 18th green to lead Texas Longhorns to victory in the 2012 NCAA Championship. He has since established himself as a two-time European Tour champion, who showed with 11th place in the Honda Classic a month ago that he may be ready for a grander stage.

Jordan Spieth is probably the only player in this field who has more ACC practice rounds under his belt than his Longhorns teammate Frittelli. The pair had 18 holes together on Monday. While Spieth is lacking self-belief at the moment and was unlucky to get Patrick Reed in his group, improving Frittelli is full of cheer and got a decent draw.

Chappell v Cantlay, and Frittelli v Rahm are the predictions for the semi-finals , although Dustin Johnson, Reed, Justin Thomas, McIlroy and Leishman could easily ruin these plans.

Others to note

Patrick Reed
Captain America, as he is known for his matchplay heroics when representing the United States, has got his equipment issues sorted and is in fine form. Huge danger if defeats Spieth in his group.

Justin Thomas
The Honda Classic champion could become world number one for the first time if he wins on Sunday. His group looks easy, but his record in Texas is poor, including at ACC.

Dustin Johnson
The world number one never fell behind in any match at ACC last year and could easily defend his title. Loves playing in Texas, but his form is not quite as good this year as it was last.

Marc Leishman
The Australian is unbeaten in three Presidents Cup singles matches, defeating Spieth in 2015. A closing 67 for seventh spot at Bay Hill on Sunday is encouraging, but McIlroy seems likely to be waiting at the last-16 stage.

Jason Day
The 2016 champion got back to winning ways in the Farmers Insurance Open at the end of January. Obvious runner, but the injury-plagued Aussie is a risky betting proposition over a five-day, seven-round event.

Thomas Pieters
The Belgian beanpole was the star of the 2016 Ryder Cup and is a fearless matchplay competitor. Could go far if negotiating a potential last-16 blockbuster with Reed or Spieth.

Staking plan
J Rahm
3pts each-way 14-1 general
P Cantlay
1.5pts each-way 50-1 general
K Chappell
1pt each-way 80-1 general
D Frittelli
1pt each-way 125-1 Betfred, Sky Bet

Tournament lowdown

Course Austin Country Club, Austin, Texas

Prize money $10m ($1.66m to the winner)

Length 7,108 yards

Par 71

Field 64

Format Round-robin format in the opening stage to keep everyone involved until Friday night. Players are in 16 four-man groups of 18-hole matchplay, with the group winners moving into a weekend knockout competition.
The player with the best W-D-L record (most points) wins the group and matches can be halved (one point for win, half-point for draw). In the event of ties for first place in a group, sudden-death playoffs take place for the last-16 spots.
The top 16 in the world rankings are top seeds in each of the 16 groups. A draw on Monday completed the sections. There are 32 group matches on Wednesday, 32 on Thursday and 32 on Friday. The last-16 matches and quarter-finals are on Saturday, with the semi-finals, consolation (third-place) match and final on Sunday.

Course winners taking part Jason Day, Dustin Johnson

Tournament record Tiger Woods beat Stephen Ames 9&8 (2006 first round)

When to bet By 2.30pm Wednesday

Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 2.30pm Wednesday

Time difference Texas is five hours behind the UK and Ireland

Last week – Arnold Palmer Invitational 1 R McIlroy (18-1), 2 B DeChambeau (150-1), 3 J Rose (14-1), 4 H Stenson (30-1), T5 T Woods (6-1), R Moore (100-1)

Course overview TPC Harding Park in California took over from The Golf Club at Dove Mountain as the host venue in 2015, but Harding Park was axed immediately, with Austin Country Club handed the reins.
Dell took over from Cadillac as the new sponsors of a tournament which was the Accenture for 14 years. The straight-knockout format was dropped for the first time in 2015, replaced by three days of group competition.
The course at Austin Country Club was designed by Pete Dye and opened in 1984. It features deep pot bunkers, heavily undulating turf, dramatic fairway falls, creeks, canyons and forced carries. There are some short par-fours which are reachable by big-hitters.
The back nine borders on Lake Austin, with watery graves everywhere you turn. The 2016 edition was the first US Tour event to be staged at ACC.

Story of last year Dustin Johnson was imperious, never falling behind in any of his matches, defeating Jon Rahm one-up in the final

Weather forecast Unsettled, with a thunderstorm threat all week. Friday is set to be the hottest day, with Saturday the windiest

Type of player suited to challenge A bank of experience in competitive matchplay golf, whether it be in this event, the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, EurAsia Cup or the World Match Play on the European circuit, is an advantage. Big-hitters have contested the final in each of the previous two editions at ACC and certain sections of the course can be overpowered, but keeping your ball in play is most important.

Key attribute Accuracy

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Rahm has won three times since his last visit to Austin, establishing himself as one of the elite
E.W. Terms
Sky bet