The Masters is on the minds of many, but before we take a stroll down Magnolia Lane, one of the most exciting tournaments on the golf docket awaits.
The WGC-Match Play event, which has bounced around the PGA Tour schedule, finds a new date in 2016, taking place two weeks before the sport heads to Augusta National. Because the competition has undergone so much change in the past few seasons, fans may have questions on what to expect from this year's event. Luckily for you, we have all your bases covered:
History: While no longer in its infancy, the WGC-Match Play's biography is relatively short. Started in 1999, the Match Play is one of the four World Golf Championships founded by the International Federation of PGA Tours (the others being the Cadillac Championship at Doral, the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club and the HSBC Champions at Sheshan Golf Club).
Aside from team events in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, this tournament is the only contest on the PGA Tour that uses a match play scoring system. Prior to this year, the event has been held at five different courses. Tiger Woods has the most tournament victories with three, while Geoff Ogilvy owns two titles.
Field: The top 64 players according to the Official World Golf Ranking as of March 13. Henrik Stenson, ranked No. 7, has dropped out of the event, citing this year's place on the schedule as reason for skipping (although it should be noted Stenson is not a fan of the new format; more on this in a moment). Jim Furyk is also out as he recovers from wrist surgery. Patton Kizzire and Thorbjorn Olesen will serve as alternates.
Format: Until last season, the Match Play was a single-elimination contest, where the top four players were placed in separate brackets. The No. 1 seed in each region would play the No. 16 player, with that winner playing the victor of the No. 8-9 matchup, and so forth down the line.
However, in 2015, this layout was restructured by 16 round-robin groups. In this format, the top 16 players are placed in separate divisions. The rest of the 48 players are put in three pools (Nos. 17–32, Nos. 33–48, Nos. 49–64), with a golfer from each pool randomly drawn and slotted in one of the 16 groups.
Each player in the group faces the other three in an 18-hole match, which happens on Wednesday to Friday. On Saturday, the round of 16 and quarterfinals are conducted -- also 18 holes each -- with the final four and championship matches held on Sunday.
The new format has not been well-received by players, as it can render a handful of Friday matches inconsequential. "I understand why they've done it," the aforementioned Stenson said. "They want more players to stay longer. Match play is always more intense. A match is like Sunday in contention. Three rounds of that and not advancing takes a lot out of you."
Venue: After a one-season stop at TPC Harding Park, the Match Play will be at Austin Country Club for the next four years. A Pete Dye design, what Austin CC lacks in distance it makes up for in shotmaking. Like another Lone Star course, Colonial, Austin CC calls for strategy and accuracy, with anything less penalized severely. And, like many Dye creations, half the battle lies in the visual obstacles.
The course is scenic, with sprawling views of Lake Austin, bridges and the Texas hill country. Austin CC is best known as the home of Harvey Penick, former Texas golf coach and legendary teacher to pros like Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Mickey Wright.
Defending Champion: Rory McIlroy went undefeated in pool play against Billy Horschel, Jason Dufner, Brandt Snedeker, then dispatched of Hideki Matsuyama, Paul Casey and Jim Furyk to reach the finals against Gary Woodland. There, McIlroy bested Woodland by a 4&2 score to claim his first Match Play title.
The real drama in the event surrounded McIlroy's intentions to catch the Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao fight in person. Alas, due to a late tee time McIlroy was forced to watch the boxing match with the lowly media.
TV Schedule: Wednesday-Friday -- 2:00 - 8:00 PM EST, Golf Channel; Saturday -- 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM EST Golf Channel, 2:00 - 6:00 PM EST NBC; Sunday -- 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM EST Golf Channel, 3:00 - 7:00 PM EST NBC
What To Watch: Jason Day, coming off a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, has a strong record in match play events...Jordan Spieth failed to make it out of pool play in 2015, and hasn't placed inside the top 15 since his win at Kapalua on January 10. However, the No. 1 player in the world will have the crowd in his favor, as he returns to his college town...Though his six double-bogeys at Bay Hill have people talking, the fact that McIlroy was 16-under on his other 66 holes makes him a formidable match-play opponent...With a premium on shotmaking, look for approach savants like Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed and Brendan Grace to be tough outs.