Forget the NCAA Tournament. The real madness in March is happening on the PGA Tour.
The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play pairings were announced Monday night, and though the reveal lacks the gravitas of college basketball's selection show, the drama that lies ahead does not disappoint. A sentiment evidenced in 2017, as neophyte Jon Rahm took World No. 1 Dustin Johnson to the final hole before Johnson ultimately prevailed, winning his third straight tour event in the process.
Austin Country Club is serving as Match Play host for the third straight season. The event 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 winners advance to a single-elimination bracket, contested over four rounds on Saturday (Sweet 16 and quarterfinals) and Sunday (semifinals and finals).
Here are the round-robin pairings for the 2018 WGC-Match Play:
Group 1: Dustin Johnson, Kevin Kisner, Adam Hadwin, Bernd Wiesberger
At first glance, this might not seem like the most formidable foes facing the defending champ, especially with Kevin Kisner struggling to duplicate last season's success. But Hadwin rolls in with four top-12s in his last six starts, and Wiesberger's stout approach game makes him a nightmare in this format. Still, it will be tough sledding for this trio to topple Johnson, who leads the tour in scoring and strokes gained.
Group 2: Justin Thomas, Francesco Molinari, Patton Kizzire, Luke List
A win delivers Thomas the World No. 1 ranking, although he's got some work to do in group play. Kizzire has won twice this year, and Molinari finished third in strokes gained/approach last season. Despite Thomas' penchant for red numbers (second in eagles, seventh in birdie average), he needs to be on upset alert early, as List will look to avenge his Honda Classic playoff loss.
Group 3: Jon Rahm, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Chez Reavie, Keegan Bradley
Aphibarnrat's short-game wizardry is a sight to behold, and he recently won the match play centric World Super 6 Perth. Bradley hasn't done much in this event, although his intimidating tee-to-green game (sixth in that strokes gained category) makes him far from a pushover. Throw in a battle with fellow ASU alum Reavie, Rahm will have his hands full.
Group 4: Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Haotong Li, Charl Schwartzel
Admit it: That Patrick Reed, "I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth" rules official spat adds a little spice to this tamale. Though the matchup between Team USA's dynamic duo is the featured bout, don't sleep on the trouble that Li (who followed up his third-place Open finish with a win at Dubai) and former Masters champ Schwartzel can cause.
Group 5: Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Cantlay, Cameron Smith, Yusaku Miyazato
Spieth-Reed will garner more attention, but the Matsuyama-Cantlay tilt is arguably the best in the opening-round slate. Smith has been quietly cobbling together a solid resume, posting nine top-20s in his last 12 starts. Miyazato has enjoyed international success, but hasn't translated to the PGA Tour, logging just two top-25s in 21 career starts.
Group 6: Rory McIlroy, Brian Harman, Jhonattan Vegas, Peter Uihlein
What a gauntlet. McIlroy is a match-play savant, owning a win, runner-up and fourth-place finish at this event (to say nothing of his Ryder Cup theatrics). While Harman is making his Match Play debut, his bulldog demeanor makes him a fierce opponent. Same goes for Uihlein, whose U.S. Amateur win proves his chops in this format. Throw in the local support for Vegas (a Texas native and former Longhorn), mark this quadrant as the Group of Death.
Group 7: Sergio Garcia, Xander Schauffele, Dylan Frittelli, Shubankhar Sharma
For all his Ryder Cup gallantry, Sergio's made the semifinals just once in 15 Match Play appearances. Schauffele comes in with three straight top 18s, while Frittelli and Sharma are two of the hottest names in golf. A nice equilibrium of talent across this board.
Group 8: Jason Day, Louis Oosthuizen, Jason Dufner, James Hahn
We're sticking by our Group of Death stamp for pod No. 6...but holy cow, this is no walk through the park either. Day has been lights-out at Match Play, winning twice and finishing in third in 2013. Oosthuizen's record is also solid, coming second to Day in 2016 (to say nothing of the claret jug on his mantle). And though Hahn is the only one without a major in this group, he's no "cream puff" match, with his sharp iron game (13th in sg: approach) capable of wreaking havoc.
Group 9: Tommy Fleetwood, Daniel Berger, Kevin Chappell, Ian Poulter
Fleetwood has four top 15s in six worldwide starts this year. If his flatstick (109th in strokes gained: putting) can stay out of the way of his tee-to-green performance (3rd) he could be a tough out. Berger has been quietly solid with four top 14s in 2018, and Chappell's coming off a T-7 at the API. Poulter isn't the player he once was, yet few have the Match Play bravdo of the Englishman, with the bite (win, two semifinals appearances) that lives up to the bark.
Group 10: Paul Casey, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Kyle Stanley, Russell Henley
Thanks to the Ryder Cup, Poulter has the reputation of a match-play maven, yet Casey's been just as good, boasting two runner-ups and two T-5 finishes. The leader in strokes gained: tee-to-green will face a murderer's row of ball-strikers in Fitzpatrick, Stanley and Henley.
Group 11: Marc Leishman, Branden Grace, Bubba Watson, Julian Suri
Suri was a last-minute addition to the event, and his invite will be put to the test early. Leishman's logged seven top 10s in his last 13 outings, Grace has bounced back nicely in the early going from a down year in 2017 (21st in strokes gained), and Watson's revival has been so impressive that he's now on the short list of Masters favorites.
Group 12: Tyrrell Hatton, Charley Hoffman, Brendan Steele, Alexander Levy
Remember when the USGA used thematic pairings for the U.S. Open? The motif here is "unappreciated," as this quad rarely gets the respect their game's deserve. Hatton has two top 3s in his last four starts, while Hoffman and Steele are two of the more consistent veterans on tour. For those unfamiliar with Levy, here's your chance to get initiated, as there's a decent chance he'll be on the Euro Ryder Cup this fall.
Group 13: Alex Noren, Tony Finau, Thomas Pieters, Kevin Na
Noren, ranked sixth in strokes gained, has seamlessly made the transition to the PGA Tour this year, finishing second at Torrey Pines and third at PGA National. To keep that momentum going he'll have to take on Finau's power and finesse dexterity and Na's, ahem, distinctive pace . Keep on eye on Pieters, who's struggled over the last nine months but showed at the 2016 Ryder Cup he can be a tour de force in this format.
Group 14: Phil Mickelson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Sotashi Kodaira, Charles Howell III
This has been one of the few tournaments that hasn't jived with Mickelson, with zero semifinal appearances in 13 starts. Cabrera-Bello is no longer just a Euro Tour dynamo, posting four top 11s on tour this season (including a T-3 at the WGC-Mexico), and his second-shot prowess (first in strokes gained: approach) should propel him deep into the tournament. Although he's been a regular at this event, Howell has never advanced to the quarterfinals.
Group 15: Pat Perez, Gary Woodland, Webb Simpson, Si Woo Kim
Woodland and Perez have already hit pay dirt this season, while Simpson's enjoying something of a mid-career rejuvenation the past year. Though Kim's been up-and-down, he showed at TPC Sawgrass he can prevail under the most arduous of conditions.
Group 16: Matt Kuchar, Ross Fisher, Yuta Ikeda, Zach Johnson
Kuchar doesn't get much love as a former champ, pitted against Johnson (a Ryder Cup veteran who's made 14 Match Play appearances) and Fisher, who made a run to the quarterfinals last season and also boasts a fourth-place finish in 2009.