Each spring, I get incredibly excited for a tournament that brings in the best in the sport, centers around brackets, and normally features a few upsets and Cinderella runs. That’s right, it’s time for the annual WGC Match Play event!
This is normally one of the more interesting tournaments on the schedule, and the only one to deviate from the traditional stroke play format. The WGC event status also attracts top names; players qualify by being among the top 64 in the Official World Golf Ranking (Jim Furyk and Henrik Stenson are both sitting out, being replaced by the next two players in the rankings.) That means this is the first tournament of the year to feature all of the world’s top-10 players.
The tournament used to be a straightforward March Madness recreation, with all 64 players seeded and bracketed into a single-elimination format. That made for a very exciting first two days, and then a less-exciting weekend, as 48 players were gone after two days. Last year the event turned to a new setup, with 16 groups of four golfers, drawn from seeded pods. The players play round-robin matches over the first three days, receiving one point for a win, and a half-point point for a draw. The winner of each group moves on to the weekend round of 16, where things are once again single-elimination, with a champion being crowned Sunday.
The tournament has a new sponsor (Dell) and a new home this year, moving to the Austin Country Club in, you guessed it, Austin. The Pete Dye design should provide a fun test for match play, a type of competition that rewards playing your competitor as opposed to the course itself. It also minimizes the damage done from poor holes; there’s obviously no difference between a par and a triple bogey if your opponent birdies the hole. There are some fun groups, as broken down below, and if you need some sports action aside from the NCAA Tournament this weekend, you could do far worse than this event.
Coverage runs on the Golf Channel, PGATOUR.com, and the NBC Live Extra app from 2-8 PM ET, Wednesday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday, coverage starts at 10 AM ET on Golf Channel, then finishes from 3-7 PM on NBC.
Group 1 (overall seed in parentheses)
Jordan Spieth (1), Justin Thomas (31), Victor Dubuisson (39), Jamie Donaldson (51)
Not the easiest draw for Spieth, playing a longtime friend Thomas, a former WGC-Match Play finalist in Dubuisson, and Donaldson, the player who clinched the 2014 Ryder Cup for Europe. But considering Spieth’s comfort in Texas, I’d lean toward him.
Jason Day (2), Paul Casey (23), Thongchai Jaidee (36), Graeme McDowell (62)
Another tough draw, though with the depth of quality players in today’s game, it’s tough to find a weak group in this bunch. I think Paul Casey gets through here.
Rory McIlroy (3), Kevin Na (26), Smylie Kaufman (46), Thorbjorn Olesen (64)
Okay, this is a weak group. If Rory doesn’t advance, he should be disappointed.
Bubba Watson (4), J.B. Holmes (21), Emiliano Grillo (33), Patton Kizzire (63)
Two big hitters in Watson and Holmes, I’d tend to lean towards Bubba, who has played well on Pete Dye courses before, and is in impeccable form, with a win and a solo second in his last two starts.
Rickie Fowler (5), Byeong-Hun An (27), Scott Piercy (47), Jason Dufner (58)
Fowler won last year’s Player’s Championship at Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass, and he’s had three consecutive top-10 finishes.
Adam Scott (6), Bill Haas (30), Chris Wood (41), Thomas Pieters (55)
Everything tells me I should take Adam Scott, but frankly, I find him too handsome. Bill Haas with the upset.
Justin Rose (7), Matt Kuchar (28), Anirban Lahiri (48), Fabian Gomez (57)
I’ve long had a weird distrust of Matt Kuchar. He tends to be a fantastic player early in the week, before fading on the weekend. However, that should serve him well here, and I like him to advance, and then lose shortly after.
Dustin Johnson (8), Jimmy Walker (22), Kiradech Aphibarnrat (37), Robert Streb (49)
I met Robert Streb when he attended a corporate function at my last employer. I firmly believe golf is a sport played by athletes, but goodness, I couldn’t have picked the top-50 player in the world while he was wearing khakis and a fleece in a room full of other people in khakis and fleeces. Also he’s a nice guy. Dustin Johnson will advance.
Patrick Reed (9), Phil Mickelson (17), Matthew Fitzpatrick (42), Daniel Berger (53)
Reed vs Mickelson is a juicy matchup, but don’t sleep on Daniel Berger. He’s a big hitter. That said, I love what Phil’s done this year with his game, and I think he’ll round into form as he gears up for Augusta.
Danny Willett (10), Brooks Koepka (18), Billy Horschel (40), Jaco Van Zyl (50)
Willett is a great match play player, and he’s played quite well lately. But no one cares about that. Jaco Van Zyl!!! I should have scrapped this whole post and just done a “WGC Match Play Participant or Star Wars Character?”
Branden Grace (11), Russell Knox (32), David Lingmerth (38), Chris Kirk (54)
Here’s another relatively weak group. Kirk finished tied for 12th last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but Russell Knox is Scottish. Knox it is for me.
Hideki Matsuyama (12), Kevin Kisner (20), Soren Kjeldsen (43), Rafa Cabrera Bello (52)
Matsuyama is a fantastic talent, and I think he gets through here.
Sergio Garcia (13), Marc Leishman (25), Ryan Moore (45), Lee Westwood (59)
A random fact about me: I might be the biggest Ryan Moore fan in the world. This is obviously random, and has no real basis in anything beyond the fact that I saw him playing The Masters while wearing a tie a few years back. That said, I’m certainly picking him here.
Zach Johnson (14), Shane Lowry (24), Martin Kaymer (44), Marcus Fraser (60)
Take Zach Johnson in your lively WGC office pools, and don’t look back.
Brandt Snedeker (15), Charl Schwartzel (19), Danny Lee (34), Charley Hoffman (56)
By the numbers, this is a fairly strong group, and well-balanced. Paradoxically, I’ll pick the lowest-ranked player in the group to advance. Hoffman has been playing well lately.
Louis Oosthuizen (16), Andy Sullivan (29), Bernd Wiesberger (35), Matt Jones (61)
You’re likely not still reading this. If you are, please write in, and tell us why. But as a reward, here’s one final hot tip: Andy Sullivan.
I’ll take a final four of Phil Mickelson, Ryan Moore, Paul Casey, and Zach Johnson, with Johnson over Mickelson in the final. This prediction has basically guaranteed that none of this will happen. Feel free to treat it as a “what not to do” sort of thing.