The last time I wrote a WGC-Match Play preview was in 2019 and the college basketball bracket was producing a chalk fest of an event.
What a difference two years can make as this week we enter with some true madness taking place on the basketball side of the story.
Will this week's WGC-Match Play provide some more stable results or will the underdogs continue to dance?
The current tournament format allows for round-robin play over the first three days (starting on Wednesday) and then single elimination for the 16 golfers that escape from the group stage.
There are pros and cons to this format but it does allow every golfer at least two meaningful matches (possibly one meaningless match). That is what the sponsors of the event like to see as it ensures a bit more star power during the initial stages of the event.
Let's jump into a quick preview of the course and then dive into some Group-by-Group analysis that may help us fill out our brackets this week.
Austin Country Club is hosting this event for the fifth time.
This Pete Dye design has received mostly rave reviews from the players when it comes to playing it as a Match Play course. The risk-reward elements provide plenty of fireworks.
The course is somewhat generous off the tee. There is water on a handful of holes but as long as you avoid those hazards then you'll likely have a good chance of advancing to the green on your second shots.
Kevin Kisner explained this well when asked whether he would compare this to other classical courses like Colonial or Hilton Head, "It’s a Pete Dye, which I do pretty well on over the course of time. But I’m not sure. I’m not sure that I would. There’s too much room off the tee. There’s not as much rough and guys can play from odd areas that I’ve noticed this week. But the Hilton Heads and the Colonials you don’t play from there. I think that’s the biggest difference is there’s more room here."
A keyword thrown around here is "tricky". A part of that is all of the humps and bumps, perhaps somewhat similar to Kapalua or Augusta National in regard. Another piece of the tricky equation is the wind that usually surfaces here in Austin. That is common whenever the TOUR stops in the Lone Star State.
Here are a few quotes that talk about how tricky the course is:
"This golf course is tricky. There’s so many moving parts on this golf course. Not only the wind comes all over the place but these mounds. The Tour staff, as I said earlier in the week, these pins are probably half a step harder than they would be in stroke play. So they’re putting them in spots where, yeah, we can potentially putt off greens, chip of greens, balls are careening into tough spots." - Tiger Woods
"It doesn’t suit any type of player or any type of golf. It’s really tricky right now. It’s like a Valderrama almost in some ways. With the wind blowing, you’ve got to hit shots. By that I mean there’s no standard stock shot out here, you’re trying to hold it against the wind, knock it down. You’re always trying to do something, fit the ball into the green. So it demands a lot of your game. The short game around here is really tricky, which is great preparation going into the Masters. You get a lot of similar style chips. " -Justin Rose
Going back to water hazards, they are a big deal here. Especially when you consider the format of golfers sometimes needing to be aggressive when they otherwise wouldn't, if it were stroke play.
"Thank goodness it’s match play, wouldn’t want to play stroke play. Packed an extra dozen balls for the week, because you could lose a couple out there very quickly." -Paul Casey
For turf, the golfers will see overseeded bermuda on the fairways while the bermuda remains dormant in the rough. This is the same as the 2019 setup. However, the area was obviously hit by that heavy ice storm in mid-February so the bermudagrass may be a bit slower to grow in this year compared to past editions. The greens are TifEagle Bermuda and they get overseeded with poa trivialis.
Now for the fun stuff. Let's dive into the round-robin groups and see who stands out.
I will take a data-driven approach while providing some comments where I can say whether I agree with the numbers or not.
Long-term Performance: Weighted Stroke Play Performance on the PGA TOUR, Korn Ferry Tour, and Euro Tour over the last year.
Current Form: Weighted Performance over the Last 6 weeks on the PGA TOUR and Euro Tour.
Match Play History: Hole-by-Hole performance over Average in all singles matches over the last 10 years. This also accounts for opponent strength.
Final Verdict: MacIntyre and Long are wildcards here but the likely candidate to advance here is World No. 1 Dustin Johnson with Kevin Na providing the darkhorse angle if DJ struggles with the driver.
Final Verdict: It's odd to see recent PLAYERS champ, Justin Thomas, losing to Oosthuizen in the recent form department but Thomas was nearly dead-last at Riviera which is what drags his recent form down just a bit. Overall, this is one of the strongest groups because you a superstar in JT but also have elite match-play history with Kuchar, Oosthuizen, and Kisner.
Final Verdict: Rahm is one of the few golfers in the field who is nearly unbeatable if they bring their A-Game. Palmer and Munoz both sport Texas ties so they are somewhat lively in this group if Rahm falters. As for Lowry, he's known for his performance in tough conditions so he's also lively if the wind kicks up like if often does in Texas. A very strong group but Rahm is my pick here.
Final Verdict: Morikawa is one of the best iron players in the world. Homa is riding a run of hot form. Horschel is the only golfer in the group with any match play experience as a pro. I think Poston is at the back of the pack here for me but the other three are live with Horschel being my early-week lean.
Final Verdict: DeChambeau brings Texas ties and recent form to the table. I think he's the man to beat out of this group.
Final Verdict: Day has a very strong singles record but not playing as steady as Schauffele or Scheffler. It's a toss-up for me between those three but I like the Texas Longhorn (Scheffler) so advance on home soil.
Final Verdict: Watson dominated this event in 2018 but the others are playing much better golf at the moment. Reed brings the best combination of baseline and match-play performance. I would lean toward the Texan.
Final Verdict: If this was a week ago, or if Westy would have skipped the Honda, then he'd be the leader in recent form of this group. However, he hit a wall last week so it'll be interesting to see if he rebounds this week. For me, it comes down to Hatton vs. Garcia in Group 8.
Final Verdict: Gooch is a bit of a darkhorse here, arriving with some good recent results combined with his ties to the region (Oklahoma). From a pure class standpoint, it's Casey and Simpson who stand out in Group 9. Simpson has really struggled at Austin CC so I would give a slight lean to Casey here.
Final Verdict: Cantlay is the lead dog here but Harman ousted Rory McIlroy here in 2018 and he sports a similar play style as the 2019 champ, Kevin Kisner. If you are looking for spots to pick a sleeper then I like Harman but Cantlay is the most likely to advance.
Final Verdict: Poulter sports the reputation as a match-play star but he's losing his luster with a 8-9-1 record over his last 18 singles matches played. McIlroy isn't playing his best golf right now but I think this is still his group to lose.
Final Verdict: Frittelli brings the local angle as a Texas alum. The other three golfers lap him in baseline performance, though. I think Finau should be the favorite to advance from this group but the Texan, Zalatoris is very lively as an upset pick.
Final Verdict: I think this is a two-man race with Ancer bringing Texas ties to the table in addition to his extreme precision off the tee. That puts a lot of pressure on an opponent in match play, when you are rarely in trouble. As for Hovland, he is still the favorite here because he sports the best baseline performance of the group and played his college golf just up a state at Oklahoma State, very comfortable in the wind.
Final Verdict: Berger is playing great golf over the last year but he is just 2-7-0 in singles play as a pro and he is dealing with a rib injury. That makes him very vulnerable to be upset with the likely candidate being Harris English but English's recent play doesn't inspire much confidence. A very tough group to predict here.
Final Verdict: A lot of good play recently from this group as Spieth is surging lately but still finds himself third in my performance rank over the last six weeks. Spieth brings Texas comfort to the table in addition to that recent surge so he will be my pick to advance out of Group 15. I think Conners will provide you with the most leverage as he won in Texas, is playing really well recently, and won't attract many clicks because Spieth is so popular and Fitzpatrick is the top seed.
Final Verdict: From a baseline-performance perspective, this is a two-man race between Henley and Im. Both of them landed top 10s last week at the Honda so confidence won't be a problem for either. I will likely flip and flop between Im and Henley over the next few days when trying to decide who advances out of Group 16.
Hopefully, this quick rundown has given you some info to snack on. Now here are the Top 15 performance from each of the three angles used above.
Match Play Performance