AUSTIN, Texas — Jon Rahm is struggling with his putter. Dustin Johnson hasn’t won in over a year and Jordan Spieth’s comeback seems to have stalled as the anniversary of his drought win approaches.

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Over the past few days, the above statements have all been dismissed as reasons why the current world No. 1 and a few multiple major winners will not be playing at the World Golf Championships – Dell Technologies Match Play. But those pushing the narrative should beware.

While it’s true that the trio aren’t currently playing at their peak, the format change in Austin presents the perfect opportunity for them, and other players, to get back into shape in early spring.

Without the shackles of consequences, this could be the turning point we’ll all be looking at in the months to come. With no stroke play position on the leaderboard to protect, the three, and anyone looking for a bit of their best, can let their natural flow return.

It means pulling on pins. Attempt wild recovery shots or big draws, cuts, fades and hooks. In short, it means entertainment.

Defending champion Billy Horschel says: “Match play means you don’t have to be perfect”, while world number 3 Viktor Hovland adds: “Sometimes (in stroke play) I tend to be a bit shy but in match play, you’re trying to birdie. You’re not necessarily too focused on making mistakes, it’s about trying to hit the right shots.

With any luck, you might also see warning signs for those trying to claim a green jacket in a few weeks. You may recall that a certain Tiger Woods surprised a few with a T5 finish at Austin in 2019 before making history at Augusta National.

“You can definitely work your way up to some confidence. I can only speak for myself, but that’s exactly why I’m here. To aim for a few pins and extract some confidence from an aggressive mindset,” former Masters champion Adam Scott said during his practice round at Austin Country Club. “You can go get a few pins and play a few shots knowing that the consequence is at worst a loss of a hole. It’s the exact opposite of usual. Like at THE PLAYERS, I stood on 18 there on my first round and played aggressive but got two in the water and my tournament was over. That’s not the case here. »

Playing with Johnson on Tuesday, Scott saw firsthand what the 2017 champion of this event is gearing up for. Johnson’s last PGA TOUR victory came in November 2020 at the postponed Masters, and the 24-time TOUR winner sits in a stunning 139th place in this season’s FedExCup. But a final round 63 at THE PLAYERS was a precursor to change.

“A player like DJ – you can put his name against anybody in that area and you’d be hard pressed to find a solid reason why he couldn’t win his game,” Scott said. “Now it’s true that on 18 holes, anyone in this field can beat anyone in a game. The game is full of talent, but they say you should never strike out a champion, right? isn’t it?”

Until he was suspended with the tough side of the draw at The PLAYERS (T55), Rahm’s six starts in 2022 had been no worse than a T21 at the Genesis Invitational, with one runner-up and one third place as well. But some unusual short misses with his putter, and some experimenting with his equipment on the greens, have their tongues wagging.

Rahm has dropped shots on the court in his last four starts, the first time in his PGA TOUR career he has done so in four consecutive games. But any suggestion that it’s a problem irks the world No.1 a bit.

“I’m a little tired of answering the same question every week. When you’re #1 off the tee and in the top 10 of Strokes Gained: Approach, my putting stats won’t be in the top 20. That’s absolutely impossible unless I’m winning every week by eights,” argues Rahm. “Is it as good as it gets? No, but I think the stats show it’s worse than I feel, just because I’m hitting so many greens and hitting it so well… It’s not as bad as it sounds . He feels much better than he looks. Maybe I haven’t gotten the results yet, but I don’t mind.

Here in Austin, where Rahm is in a group with Patrick Reed, Cameron Young and Sebastian Munoz, he can torch his putter with a little more freedom. It might be just what he needs, even if he doesn’t think there is a problem.

“When it’s do or die, you get a strange sense of freedom in the sense that you only have one option. You have to succeed and that’s it,” Rahm said of the match play. “In my case, I was able to do it a few times. It kind of gives you a bit more focus.

Spieth ended a long winning drought a year ago at the Valero Texas Open, and has since notched three second-place results, including last year’s Open Championship and this AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. season. But he hasn’t had a sub-par weekend since that close call and struggled to a 72-79, albeit in bad weather, in his last start at THE PLAYERS.

The local favorite feels confident with his game, but if anything goes wrong he sees his group rounds against Keegan Bradley, Scott and Justin Rose as a great tonic.

“You have more chances to play shots under pressure, especially when you go down the stretch every game,” Spieth said of the game-by-game format. “And then you get opportunities with a lot of freedom shots where you can swing aggressively when other people make mistakes. There’s definitely something to that where the abnormality of that can help if you’re trying to put back things on the right track.

So don’t despair if your favorite player hasn’t shown what you’re used to lately, because chances are the week in Austin will be just the boost he needs.

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