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. (Actually, we take that back. While Golf Channel presented a more scaled-down program than in years past, the pairing of GC's Ryan Burr—a favorite in these parts, although he seemed a little too animated for the proceedings, as if he had just chugged a keg of Red Bull before air time—and PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell—who had the enthusiasm of a man trying to remember if he had picked up his drying cleaning—was an instant-classic. If you're reading this Netflix, give these two an eight-part travel series ASAP.)
Austin Country Club is serving as Match Play host for the fourth straight season. The event revamped its format in 2015, partially leaving single-elimination in favor of 16 "pods" of four-player, round-robin competition. 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 18-hole rounds on Saturday (Sweet 16 and quarterfinals) and Sunday (semifinals and finals).
Here are the round-robin pods for the 2019 WGC-Match Play:
Group 1: Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Branden Grace, Chez Reavie
Dustin Johnson is the tournament favorite, and not just because of his torrid start to 2019 (two wins, six top-10s). DJ won the Match Play two years ago and reached the quarterfinals the season before. However, his first three days will be no cake walk. Hideki Matsuyama is slowly rounding back into his 2017 form, ranking second in strokes gained/tee-to-green and has three top-10s in last six starts. Branden Grace is having a so-so season and has only one Sweet 16 Match Play appearance, but has shown in the Presidents Cup (including the 2015 matches, flaunting a 5-0 record) that he's no pushover. And though Chez Reavie is making just his second Match Play start, his driving accuracy (third on tour) and second-shot prowess (24th in approach) don't offer his opponents much room for error.
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Group 2: Justin Rose, Gary Woodland, Eddie Pepperell, Emiliano Grillo
There’s not much missing on Justin Rose’s curriculum vitae, making his Match Play struggles all the more perplexing. In 11 appearances, Rose has made it out of the Round of 32 just once. It won't be easy sledding this week, either. Gary Woodland is seventh in strokes gained/tee-to-green, and has two runner-ups and six top-10s this season. Given his runner-up finish at this event in 2015, Woodland is as tough a "B" player as you'll find. Also providing a headache is Eddie Pepperell, who is coming off a T-3 at the Players and is supremely talented with his irons. As for Emiliano Grillo, the former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year appears to be a formidable foe, ranking 10th in approach and 31st in sg/off-the-tee, but until he gets right with his short game (191st around-the-green, 210th in sg/putting), he's a threat only in the abstract.
One thing we can guarantee from this group: Eddie P writing an eloquent-yet-biting essay on the overrated nature of Austin barbecue. Frankly, we're overdue for another English-American dust-up.
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Group 3: Brooks Koepka, Alex Noren, Haotong Li, Tom Lewis
Are we going to get the three-majors-in-last-six-tries Brooks Koepka, or the “I have no feels because of this unspecified weight loss,” one-top-20-in-six-starts Koepka?
Koepka's retributive mindset is one conducive to Match Play, with a quarterfinals run in 2016 and Sweet 16 in 2017. And, as evidenced by winners in Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Austin C.C. can be a bit of a bomber’s paradise. Also helping matters for Koepka is a mostly favorable draw. Alex Noren finished third at last year's Match Play but hasn't cracked the top 40 in five tour starts this season, while Haotong Li—who went 0-3 at the '18 Match Play—has missed two consecutive cuts. Even Tom Lewis, whose Euro Tour breakout at the end of 2018 jumped him from 436th in the OWGR to his current standing in the top 64, is coming in cold. In short, the perfect platform for Koepka to get right before Augusta.
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Group 4: Rory McIlroy, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Justin Harding, Luke List
The Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee called this a brutal draw; we respectfully argue otherwise. Statistically speaking, Rory McIlroy (first in strokes gained, six consecutive top-six finishes and a resounding victor at the Players) is operating on a plane eerily similar to his historic 2014 campaign. And, as a former Match Play champ, it doesn't appear McIlroy will be particularly tested early on.
Matthew Fitzpatrick is a talent that continues to be labeled a fledgling star, but that hype has not translated to results—at least on the PGA Tour, where courses tend to be longer than their European counterparts. That includes this event: in all three appearances at Match Play, Fitzpatrick has been eliminated in the round-robin stage. At 33, Justin Harding has enjoyed a mid-career epiphany; ranked outside the top 700 at the start of 2018, the South African has five worldwide wins in the past 15 months, including earlier this month at the Qatar Masters. Conversely, with Harding making his WGC debut, to bank on him making a spirited run this week seems like a stretch. The list is short of players more potent with the big stick than Luke List (third in distance, fifth in sg/off-the-tee), and he just posted a T-10 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. However, List, the last man into this year's Match Play field, has yet to do anything of merit in a major or WGC outing.
Essentially, this is Rory's to lose.
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Group 5: Justin Thomas, Keegan Bradley, Matt Wallace, Lucas Bjerregaard
The impressive starts of McIlroy and Johnson have somewhat cast a shadow on Justin Thomas. All the 2017 PGA champ has done is turn in five top-10s in nine starts this year (to say nothing of raging a war against the USGA). Thomas was a semifinalist in Austin in 2018, and look for his ability to go low (first in tour in birdies, 10th in eagles) to spur another long stay.
In Thomas' way is Keegan Bradley, who continues to have a career renaissance. Bradley ranks fifth in approach and 22nd in sg/tee-to-green, but he has not advanced to the Sweet 16 in five Match Play appearances. If he hopes to make the weekend, Bradley will need to keep his flighty flat stick (209th in sg/putting) at bay. Rounding out the group are Matt Wallace and Lucas Bjerregaard. Wallace won three times in Europe last season, and boasts a runner-up in Dubai and a T-6 at Bay Hill this season, while Bjerregaard quietly posted respectable showings at the Honda Classic (T-12) and Players (T-30) heading into Match Play.
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Group 6: Bryson DeChambeau, Marc Leishman, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Russell Knox
A study in contrasts in Group 6. Bryson DeChambeau is one of the more excitable players in the sport. Over three days, he'll face: Marc Leishman, the most unflappable, happy-go-luck player on tour; Kiradech Aphibarnrat, a cat so cool that he belongs in an Elmore Leonard novel; and Russell Knox, who celebrated an albatross at the Valspar with the gusto of parallel parking.
DeChambeau was on a special type of heater from the end of last season to the start of this one, but the flames have started to die. If the Mad Scientist wants to re-ignite that fire in Texas, he'll have to keep his composure against a stoic lineup.
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Group 7: Francesco Molinari, Webb Simpson, Thorbjorn Olesen, Satoshi Kodaira
Kids, do not play a drinking game centered around broadcast mentions of Francesco Molinari's Ryder Cup performance. You will die.
Interestingly, Molinari has not advanced to the Sweet 16 in eight Match Play starts. Luckily for the recent Bay Hill winner, he shouldn't be sweating too much in the round robin. Webb Simpson is 31st in strokes gained and does have a quarterfinals appearance at Match Play, but has struggled in his two previous starts in Austin. Olesen has not advanced to the weekend in three Match Play starts, and enters this year having failed to break the top 40 in five of his last six outings. Similarly, Satoshi Kodaira was a quick Match Play exit last year and has been one of the worst players on tour in 2019 (205th in strokes gained). Would be a major upset if Molinari doesn't reach Saturday.
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Group 8: Jon Rahm, Matt Kuchar, J.B. Holmes, Si Woo Kim
That Jon Rahm, who has eight top-12 finishes in his last nine starts, is No. 8 in the world underlines how fierce and deep the sport's upper echelon is at the moment. Much will be made about the Spaniard's new outlook to control his temper and how that battle could be a detriment to his game. Just remember that he gave DJ a hell of a scare in the championship match two years ago.
Not that we're automatically advancing Rahm to Saturday. His chief obstacle is Matt Kuchar, sneakily one of the best Match Player competitors in golf. In his last eight appearances Kuchar has made the Sweet 16 six times, highlighted by a win in 2013 and a third-place finish in 2011. Fifth in accuracy and first in greens in regulation percentage, Kuchar appeared primed for another memorable Match Play push. Also don't sleep on Si Woo Kim, who won his pod last season as a "D" player. J.B. Holmes' distance could cause fits, but his inconsistency (T-48/MC/T-26/MC/Win/MC/MC) shouldn't make him long for the week.
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Group 9: Xander Schauffele, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Tyrrell Hatton, Lee Westwood
Call this the assassin pod. These guys never get much publicity, from fans or media … and without fail, they are always lurking on the leader board come the weekend.
Xander Schauffele went a respectable 2-1 in his Match Play debut last year, and with two victories under his belt and ranking fourth in strokes gained in 2019, the X-Man's game is in good position to build off that first foray. For those looking for dark horses, keep tabs on Rafa Cabrera Bello. Though he's yet to win on the PGA Tour, he has 15 top-10s in just 79 career starts. Tyrrell Hatton won his pod last year, although his form is not exactly at its peak with three missed cuts in his last five starts. In a somewhat peculiar note, Lee Westwood, in order to preserve his OWGR standing, played just once in the last six weeks. Making his 18th career appearance at the event, don't be shocked if rust is an upshot of Westwood's gambit.
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Group 10: Paul Casey, Cam Smith, Charles Howell III, Abraham Ancer
Hard not to like Paul Casey's chances. Repeated at the Valspar Championship last weekend, is 12th in sg/tee-to-green and has two runner-ups at this event. The putting, as usual, could be his downfall (183rd in sg/putting), but clearly his hot streak—Casey also finished second at Pebble Beach and T-3 in Mexico—hasn't been hampered by it.
Conversely, it's easy to be tempted by Cameron Smith's lights-out short game (20th around the green, 19th in putting), but he's simply giving up too much with the driver (187th in sg/off-the-tee) to be a factor for seven straight matches. Though his game isn't "sexy," Charles Howell III has made it out of the round robin the last two years, and with eight top-25s—including a win—in 12 starts this season, the vet certainly won't be an easy out. Abraham Ancer is on the verge of his first tour win, and though he's a long shot to get it this week, he is as dangerous as a "D" player as you'll find in the field.
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Group 11: Tommy Fleetwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Kyle Stanley, Ben An
You'll hear the "Group of Death" cliche ad nauseam towards the following quad (more on this in a moment), and it's not necessarily wrong. But good gravy, Group 11 is a gauntlet of ball-strikers.
Both Fleetwood and Stanley have reached the quarterfinals of this event, with Shrek making the Sweet 16 (including a runner-up in 2016) four of the past five seasons. The wildcard is An. The 27-year-old ranks 11th in sg/off-the-tee, second in sg/around the green and sixth in tee-to-green. So why does he have just one top-10 in eight starts? Might have something to do with his work on the greens, where he ranks 204th in sg/putting. Though that makes him an unlikely pick to reach Sunday, his other talents will make him a nightmare match-up. Plus he's got the incentive of being 51st in the World Ranking and needing to play just well enough to move into the top 50 by week's end to get a late Masters invite.
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Group 12: Jason Day, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Jim Furyk
Okay, we'll give it up. When the worst player is Henrik Stenson, a former Match Play champ and a guy you definitely don't want to play car-car-house against no matter the strokes given, that's a pretty damn good group.
Since his win at Pebble, Mickelson has looked lost (T-37/T-39/MC/MC), and despite his reputation at the Ryder and Presidents Cup, match play is not his forte, reaching the quarterfinals just twice in his career. Of course, the man defies conventionality on a daily basis, so don't be surprised at a weekend run. Also defying expectations: Jim Furyk. The Ryder Cup captain backed up his sterling performance at the Players with a T-18 at the Valspar. A high finish this week will get Furyk into the Masters; never bet against a man with an Augusta National invite on the line.
But the primary focus of this group is Jason Day. The Aussie is a two-time champ at the Match Play, with another third-place finish to boot. Recent strong displays (T-8 at Sawgrass, T-4 at Pebble and T-5 at Torrey Pines) also help his case. Yet Day comes with a big caveat, as worries remain on the health of his back. In one sense, he was able to withstand the rigors of the Players Championship; in that same breath, seven rounds in five days is a big ask.
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Group 13: Tiger Woods, Patrick Cantlay, Brandt Snedeker, Aaron Wise
Tiger Woods has won the WGC-Match Play three times. He's also reached Saturday just once since 2004 and is making his first appearance since 2013. Though he doesn't have the results as he did in the lead-up to last year's Masters, Woods is playing well this season, ranking sixth in strokes gained and third in GIR percentage. Making it to Sunday may be a bridge too far, but Tiger's current form is good enough to reach weekend play.
That ambition would be easier if Patrick Cantlay wasn't involved. The former No. 1 amateur is 11th in strokes gained, has four top-10s in eight starts and went 2-1 in his Match Play debut last season. Brandt Snedeker is also coming in pistols blazing with a T-5 at the Players. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Aaron Wise. In the midst of a sophomore slump, the former NCAA champ from the University of Oregon has missed four of his last six cuts. Not exactly the ideal form for one making their first Match Play start, against one of the two greatest golfers of all-time, no less.
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Group 14: Tony Finau, Ian Poulter, Kevin Kisner, Keith Mitchell
Kevin Kisner reached the Match Play finals last season. Keith Mitchell has a win and T-6 in two of his last three starts. Ian Poulter might be the most dreaded match play opponent in the sport. So, yeah, congrats on that "A" status, Tony Finau.
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Group 15: Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Billy Horschel, Kevin Na
We were a group away from Speith-vs-Reed. What could have been.
Spieth has been a mixed bag at the Match Play, reaching the quarterfinals in his debut in 2014 but making it out of the round robin just once in three tries. However, this group does present an opportunity for Spieth to right the ship before the Masters. Bubba Watson is the defending champ, but Watson remarked he doesn't like playing in this event on Sunday, so who knows which Bubba will show up to Austin. Billy Horschel hasn't been bad by any means; would also be a stretch to say he's had a good 2019 (151st tee-to-green, 71st in strokes gained). And the last time Kevin Na finished inside the top 30 of an event was in the fall.
Again, match play is a fickle, fickle beast. Yet, for a man in desperate need of a confidence boost, Spieth received as good a draw as he could hope.
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Group 16: Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Shane Lowry, Andrew Putnam
Andrew Putnam had a nice beginning to 2019, but enters with missed cuts in three of his last four starts. Ditto Shane Lowry, who hasn't had a tour top-10 since 2017 (although he did win in Abu Dhabi this winter). Patrick Reed is such a mess that he just changed swing coaches. Not a group firing on all cylinders.
The saving grace is Sergio Garcia. The 2017 Masters champ made news for the wrong reasons this year, but since his public dust-up, Garcia posted a T-6 at the WGC-Mexico, a T-9 at the Honda and a decent showing at the Players (T-22). There aren't many WGC-Match Play highlights in Garcia's career (advanced past the Sweet 16 only once) but his pod gives him a chance to do so this week.