The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play pairings were announced Monday night, and though the event lacks the gravitas of the NCAA bracket unveiling, the pairings didn't fall short in drama.
For those that forget, the Match Play revamped its format in 2015, partially leaving single-elimination in favor of 16 "pods" of four players, with everyone playing a round robin against the other three competitors. The players come from four categories divided by rank; the top 16 players are considered the "A" group, the next 16 classified as "B" and so forth. The players are grouped randomly by a ping-pong machine.
From there, the 16 group victors advance to a single-elimination bracket, contested over four rounds on Saturday (Sweet 16 and quarterfinals) and Sunday (semifinals and finals).
This year's Match Play returns to Austin Country Club, where it made its debut appearance in 2016. Jason Day is the reigning champ, soundly defeating Louis Oosthuizen, 5 and 4, to claim his second career Match Play crown.
Here are the round-robin pairings, as well as our breakdown of each group.
Jordan Spieth, Ryan Moore, Yuta Ikeda and Hideto Tanihara
Spieth is the obvious favorite, not only for his 2017 exploits (he ranks first in strokes gained/approach and fifth in strokes gained) but for the Austin home-field advantage (he played the course often in his 18 months on the UT men's golf team). But while Spieth has played well in three Match Play appearances, don't sleep on Moore, his Ryder Cup teammate. The 34-year-old made the tournament's quarterfinals last year and clinched the American victory at Hazeltine with his Sunday singles win over Lee Westwood. And if that didn't solidify his match-play credentials, there's that 2004 U.S. Amateur and two U.S. PubLinks titles on his trophy mantel. Ikeda is the X-factor, a terrific ball-striker yet a streaky player. He finished 2016 with four top-two finishes in his last five events but hasn't made a cut this season.
Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen, Ross Fisher, Jim Furyk
Matsuyama's had mixed results at this event. Conversely, he ranks third in birdies this year and is one of the five best golfers in the game, so maybe we take his past with a grain of salt. Oosthuizen thrives in this environment, finishing second to Day in 2016 with consecutive quarterfinals appearances in 2014 and 2015. He made a nice run at Phoenix in February, and his game has been consistent, if not spectacular, since. Fisher is experiencing a career revival at 36, making his first appearance at the event since 2011. He also won the 2009 Volvo World Match Play Championship, circling him as a formidable opponent. In an unrelated note, these seem like four dudes who would get along splendidly, so don't envision any Keegan Bradley-Miguel Angel Jimenez fireworks from this pod.
Rory McIlroy, Emiliano Grillo, Gary Woodland, Soren Kjeldsen
Grillo went 68 or lower in three rounds at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a positive sign given his putting struggles this season. Woodland's been hot with four top-10s and two second-place finishes in 2017, and if that record doesn't frighten his opponents, his runner-up finish at this event in 2015 should. Of course, the guy he lost to happens to be … McIlroy. Along with his 2015 victory, Rory finished fourth last year and second in 2012. Better yet, his showings in Mexico and Bay Hill testify the four-time major winner doesn't seem to suffering any lingering effects of his rib injury. (Programming note: Rory showed up on set with a "You're going to ask me about Patrick Reed, aren't you?" look on his grill, and damned if Todd Lewis didn't throw a Reed jab his way. Keep this in mind if McIlroy has the fire of Hephaestus in his eyes this weekend.)
Tyrrell Hatton, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Jeunghun Wang, Charles Howell III
As Cabrera Bello proved at Hazeltine, he can be a beast in this format. He also enters Austin in prime form, with five top-20s in his last eight outings. Howell is an interesting study, as he's enjoyed a promising start to the season but has historically withered in this event, with zero quarterfinal appearances in eight tries. But the name to know is Hatton, one of the three hottest players in the sport. The 25-year-old has a whopping eight top-10s in his last 11 starts, with his worst finish a T-25 in that span. He's making his Match Play debut, but don't be surprised if the Englishman makes some noise in Austin … and at Augusta National in two weeks. (Also, for those of a gambling persuasion, Vegas has Hatton at 26-to-1 odds. We mentioned those eight top-10s, right?)
Matt Kuchar, Tommy Fleetwood, Zach Johnson, Brendan Steele
Though this group make lack the pizzazz of some of the other pods—these four could show up to your neighborhood barbecue and no one would bat an eye—it might have the best depth. Kuchar and Johnson are veterans with 19 combined Match Play appearances, Fleetwood is on a roll with six top-12s in his last eight starts, and Steele is enjoying a breakout campaign (in the top 20 in three strokes gained categories, eighth in FedEx Cup points). This will be a dog fight.
Justin Thomas, Matt Fitzpatrick, Kevin Na, Chris Wood
To those worried about Thomas' three missed cuts in his last five outings (clears throat): HE'S ALREADY WON THREE TIMES THIS SEASON. And if you're harping on those tournaments gone awry, don't forget to mention his T-5 at the WGC-Mexico a few weeks back. Na and Wood seem like tantalizing sleepers until realizing they've done bupkis in seven combined Match Play appearances. On the other end of the spectrum, Fitzpatrick will be an fascinating watch. Some view him as England's next great hope, while others scoff at his lack of distance and consistency. The distance won't be a factor at Austin, and for those worried about durability, well, he's only 22. Don't be shocked if he translates a promising display at Bay Hill into Texas dividends.
Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm, Kevin Chappell, Shane Lowry
A nice-sized audience gathered for Monday night's event in Austin, and it was clear that visions of Rahm, the fledging superstar, matched against the likes of Spieth, Rory, Jason Day or Dustin Johnson danced in their heads. When Rahm's name followed Garcia's, the audience's disappointment was palpable. Which isn't fair; confirmed with a victory in Dubai, Sergio has plenty of gas in his tank. In that same breath, the group will have its hands full with Rahm, who ranks third in strokes gained and fifth in scoring average. Chappell is making his tournament debut thanks to a phenomenal 2016. That said, he's desperately seeking signs of life, finishing inside the top 40 just once in his last nine starts.
Alex Noren, Francesco Molinari, Bernd Wiesberger, Thongchai Jaidee
Noren's considerably cooled off since winning four times in the second half of 2016 and has been out of sorts on North American soil (MC at Oakmont, T-49 at Baltusrol, T-55 in Mexico City, T-49 at Bay Hill). Molinari has only finished better than T-33 once in six Match Play tries, and Wiesberger's track record is similarly unremarkable. Jaidee, with a sound approach game, could be a tougher out than his world ranking suggests.
Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Kevin Kisner, Jason Dufner
Whatever the over/under is on Reed Ryder Cup highlights during the round-robin format, take the over. At first glance, this is one of the tougher pods in round-robin play, and it certainly boasts name recognition. In truth, however, the bark is worse than the bite. Reed hasn't finished inside the top 25 in his last five starts, and his iron work is a mess (ranks 187th in strokes gained/approach). Duf has been consistent this season, yet hasn't challenged in a tournament and sits 76th in the FedEx Cup. And something is really up with Koepka: In six starts in 2017, he has four missed cuts, a T-42 in Phoenix and T-48 in Mexico City. The only saving grace is Kisner, who finished T-2 at Bay Hill, owns four top-12s on the year and ranks seventh in strokes gained.
Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker, Martin Kaymer, Webb Simpson
Here's your Group of Death. All major winners, with three playing in last year's Ryder Cup. Johnson enters as the World No. 1, and with good reason. He's won his last two events, finished inside the top six in six of his past seven tournaments and ranks first in strokes gained. If you're looking for a weakness, he's reached the Match Play quarterfinals just once in eight attempts. Walker has quietly bounced back from a slow start with three straight top-25s, while Kaymer has enjoyed a nice run as well (six top-25s in seven starts). Whoever emerges will be a threat to win the tournament.
Jason Day, Marc Leishman, Lee Westwood, Pat Perez
Got to feel for Day. His title defense begins against last week's API winner, another competitor that already has a tour victory this season and a player with 10 Ryder Cups under his belt. Then again, Day has captured this event two of the past three years and finished third in 2014, so he's likely not too startled. Day's wins and Westwood's experience make them favorites, but don't count out Leishman. He ranks second on tour in strokes gained/putting and fourth in scoring average, attributes that correlate to Match Play success.
Danny Willett, Russell Knox, Bill Haas, K.T. Kim
Poor Willett is out of sorts, with just one finish inside the top 50 in his past five tournaments. Luckily, Match Play has been kind to the reigning Masters champ (finishing third in 2015) and offers a platform for Willett to right the ship. Haas is too competent not to have better results at Match Play (0-for-6 in quarterfinal appearances), and though he hasn't transferred last year's goodwill to 2017, Knox's penchant for red scores (eighth in birdie average) makes him a menacing adversary in this format. (Plus, Knox is an unreasonably nice guy. It's always the friendly ones who can drive a stake through your heart.)
Paul Casey, Charl Schwartzel, Byeong-Hun An, Joost Luiten
Casey's back-to-back silver medals in Match Play will grab headlines from this group. While those displays warrant attention, be wary of the 39-year-old on the dance floor. He ranks 174th in total putting and 141st in strokes gained/putting. Casey remains excellent with an iron or wedge in his hand, but the flat stick can be the bane of your existence in Match Play. An's distance off the tee could present its share of scoring opportunities, but Schwartzel—who can ride a birdie streak with the best of them—will be the headache in this pod. Assuming he can avoid errant shots from his playing partners, that is.
Bubba Watson, Thomas Pieters, Scott Piercy, Jhonattan Vegas
One doesn't normally associate Bubba as a Match Play savant, yet his record begs to differ. The two-time Masters winner could be a tricky out, and frankly, Watson needs to find something in Austin before traveling to Augusta, flaunting only two top-10s in the past calendar year. The popular pick will be Pieters, with many remembering his feats at Hazeltine to justify his cause. He's certainly shown flashes, finishing second at the Genesis Open and T-5 in Mexico City, but he hasn't found a way to stop the bleeding when things go bad, with three missed cuts in his last six events. If he wants to do damage this week, he needs to stabilize his "B" game.
Phil Mickelson, J.B. Holmes, Daniel Berger, Si Woo Kim
It's staggering that Mickelson endures as an "A" player at age 46. Equally stunning: Mickelson's reached the tournament's quarterfinals only once. For a guy that loves the spotlight this event bestows, one would think he'd have any entire cabinet of Match Play silverware by now. Berger has been frustratingly streaky this year, but high marks in putting (17th in strokes gained) and birdie average (11th) circles him as this group's dark horse. Also, pray for Kim. Cat is one of the shortest hitters on tour (averaging less than 280 yards off the tee) and has the misfortune of competing against this trio of rocket launchers. "Drive for show, putt for dough" loses its luster when you're 40 yards behind Holmes every hole, you know?
Branden Grace, Brandt Snedeker, Will McGirt, Andy Sullivan
There are a handful of guys that, when you watch them on the range, you wonder, "How the hell don't they win more?" Grace certainly fits that bill. The 28-year-old has been on a roller coaster in 2017, with a couple nice tournaments mixed in with missed cuts and a WD. His sabermetrics this year are dreadful, but if he reverts back to 2016's performance, his approach game will put the heat on his opponents. Speaking of bringing the fire, Sneds and his short game will make many a rival uneasy. Any weekend prospects, however, reside in his approach game. The Vandy product is not necessarily long off the tee; if his irons continue to produce "eh" results, any hopes of mustering a charge will be for naught.