Just a fortnight out from the season's first major championship, we change up the format this week and test the world's best at Match Play.
The first weekend of the NCAA Basketball Tournament has come and gone, and gone are the perfect brackets. However, new life and new opportunity have arrived. It is the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play, set for Wednesday through Sunday.
Similar to college basketball's bracketology, the Match Play sets up as a 64-player tournament field with golfers facing off head-to-head, eventually arriving at a Final Four, then crowning a champion. Players are seeded and divided into regions, just as they are on the hardwood. However, a few stars have skipped this week's event, including Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, and Brooks Keopka, who continues to be sidelined by injury.
For the third straight year, the event will be held at Austin Country Club in Austin, Texas. It is a Pete Dye design and sets up remarkably well for a match-play format due to the number of risk-reward scenarios. It is a relatively short par-71 layout; the three par-5 holes are reachable in two shots, and there is a short, drivable par 4. In the way of hazards, the course has very deep sand bunkers and a river that runs throughout the layout. Aggressive play can be handsomely rewarded or severely punished, making for some dramatic competition.
While match play is tremendous to watch, it is a very difficult handicap compared to a four-day stroke-play event. You have one player facing another player head-to-head for what might not even end up being 18-holes, rather than players competing against the field over four days. Then there is the science of match play as some journeymen players can flourish in this format while oftentimes the top players in the world can falter. One very important aspect of this week's handicap is looking at how these players have fared in match play in the past -- in this tournament and also the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.
The WGC Match Play used to be a one-and-done format. If you lost your match Wednesday, you went home. Because they have switched to pool play, with each player within a four-player group getting a match against every other player in that group -- and then the player with the best record in the group play advancing to the next round -- we have seen more star power rise to the top in terms of winning this championship. The winners the past three years have been Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, and Rory McIlroy.
Rory McIlroy (+832 Pinnacle): McIlroy won this event a few years back in San Francisco. Will he cool down a bit from last week when he seemed to make everything he looked at, playing the final 13 holes of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Bay Hill, Florida, in 8-under par? McIlroy was fourth here two years ago.
Dustin Johnson (+928 Pinnacle): Johnson is the defending champion, following a fifth-place finish in 2016. Entering last year's WGC Match Play he was off of wins in Los Angeles and Mexico. He is not nearly as hot this year but still holds a lifetime match-play record of 18-10-and-1.
Justin Thomas (+1221 Pinnacle): Thomas' match-play record is actually very poor at 1-and-6, but there are not many people in the world playing better right now. He is coming off of a win at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and a playoff loss at the WGC Mexico.The Contenders
Jon Rahm (+1409 Bookmaker): Last year, in his first time playing this event, Rahm went all the way to the finals before losing to Dustin Johnson. He loves to attack this course with his length and use his soft touch around the greens. Will he be rusty, though? We've seen Rahm in action only twice in the past six weeks.
Jason Day (+1406 Bookmaker): A two-time winner of this championship, Day loves match play. He won here in 2016 and in Tucson, Arizona, in 2014.
Jordan Spieth (+1602 Bookmaker): Spieth has done well at this event and at this course, being very familiar with Austin CC from his University of Texas days. His record, however, is very poor at the Presidents and Ryder Cups, and he is coming off a missed cut two weeks ago at the Valspar in Palm Harbor, Florida.The Long Shots
Patrick Reed (+3000 5Dimes): If there was ever an American poster boy for the Ryder Cup, right? Reed is 10-8-and-2 in match play for his career and took ninth here in 2016. He arrives off consecutive top-10 finishes.
Branden Grace (+5224 Pinnacle): Grace has been very strong at the Presidents Cup, and his short game is firing on all cylinders. He recorded his first top-10 finish of the season two weeks ago at the Valspar.
Matt Kuchar (+6600 5Dimes): Kuchar won this event in 2013 in Tucson, Arizona, and owns three additional top-10 finishes. He's at his best at this event ; his record in the Presidents and Ryder Cups is 1-and-7.The Pick
Zach Johnson (+7000 5Dimes): The two-time major champion is playing some excellent golf, having not missed a cut in nearly eight months. He is a very strong match-play player, above .500 for his career and 3-1-and-1 at the Ryder Cup. Johnson has finished ninth in this event here the past two seasons. He is steady off the tee and one of the best in the game from the approach on in, and I like a good short game in match play. Finally, he has won three other times in Texas -- twice at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, and once at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio. I like him to end up again as the Lone Star this weekend.