It's March Madness for the golf world with the world's best players in Austin, Texas this week for the WGC Dell Match Play. The 64-man match play event kicks off tomorrow (Wednesday), which is why you are getting this on Tuesday afternoon. Austin CC will host 59 of the top 64 players in the world rankings for 2018's second WGC event. Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and Adam Scott opted to sit out, while Brooks Koepka continues to be sidelined with a wrist injury.
A battle of heavyweights
Defending champion Dustin Johnson will headline the field and return to the event he dominated in 2017. Johnson never trailed in a single match and took down Jon Rahm in the finals 1-up. Rahm trailed Johnson four-down early in the back nine but staged a valiant comeback, pushing the match to the 18th where he was ultimately done in by a slammed port-a-potty door next to the 18th green.
The match play host is Austin Country Club, a 1983 Pete Dye design. The course is set in Austin's Hill Country on a rugged piece of land that required a great deal of dynamite to build a golf course. Trouble is prevalent off fairways, and the 7,108-yard course plays much shorter than its yardage due to firm and fast conditions and elevation changes. The course lends itself well to match play because of the numerous risk-reward holes, especially down the closing stretch. Here’s why Austin CC is a great match play venue.
The format for the Match Play event changed in 2015 from a 64-man single elimination bracket to its current round robin/match play format. The top 16 players in the world rankings each head up a four-man pod. The remaining 48 players are then drawn into the pods. Wednesday-Friday's rounds see players square off against each player in their respective pod. The winner of each pod moves onto the single elimination match play portion of the tournament. The final 16 square-off against each other until a winner is crowned.
The format can cause some issues. Friday leads to a number of meaningless matches, and if a player WDs, it's a disaster. Here's an article I wrote last year about alternative formats.
Pods to watch
Sergio Garcia (7), Xander Schauffele (20), Dylan Frittelli (41), Shubhankar Sharma (62)
A group with some international flair; each player represents a different country (Spain, USA, South Africa, India). Sergio Garcia now calls Austin home, and Dylan Frittelli played college golf at the University of Texas. Garcia will be the favorite, but 2017 Rookie of the Year Schauffele, Frittelli and Sharma are three bright young stars.
Rory McIlroy (6), Brian Harman (18), Jhonattan Vegas (44), Peter Uihlein (57)
Last week's winner, Rory McIlroy, headlines a pod with two other former Walker Cuppers (Harman & Uihlein). Former UT star, Vegas, joins the group to add some local flair.
Jordan Spieth (4), Patrick Reed (19), Haotong Li (34), Charl Schwartzel (49)
The Friday Spieth vs Reed match is the early round’s premier showdown of the regular Ryder Cup partners. The group's strength comes from its depth, with 22-year-old Chinese star, Li, and former Masters Champion, Schwartzel.
Tommy Fleetwood (9), Daniel Berger (26), Kevin Chappell (33), Ian Poulter (58)
It will be fascinating to watch the young English star, Fleetwood, square off against the aging Ryder Cup menace, Poulter, on Wednesday. Daniel Berger was impressive at last year's President's Cup and Chappell comes in with no finish worse than 31st in his last eight starts.
Alex Noren (13), Tony Finau (29), Thomas Pieters (39), Kevin Na (61)
Noren headlines a group that has a great deal of variety. Finau and Pieters are two of the longest players on the planet, while Kevin Na relies on consistency and accuracy. Na made it to the round of 16 last year and lost in a playoff to McIlroy in 2016 to advance out of match play.
With double barrel PGA Tour action, Paulie has picks for both the WGC Match Play and the Corales Punta Cana. Check out who he likes for DraftKings and one-and-done for both here.
The opposite start
The middle of the pack of the PGA Tour is in the Dominican Republic this week for the first-ever playing of the Corales Punta Cana. The event was a regular host on the Web.com Tour before getting promoted this year to the PGA Tour. The opposite field start offers a great opportunity for players to improve their standings in the FedEx Cup and on the priority list. The winner of the event will get a coveted two-year exemption on the PGA Tour.
The Punta Cana will draw headlines from its Sponsor Exemption, former NFL star Tony Romo. The now CBS Football analyst is an avid competitor in amateur tournaments and will tee it up in his first PGA Tour event. Vegas sports books don’t have much confidence in Romo setting the odds at 1500 to 1.
The course is a Tom Fazio design with wide fairways and fairway bunkering geared towards the modern game. If the wind kicks up, it can be a very difficult test of golf. More on Punta Cana.
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If you missed it, check out our podcast with Chicago superintendents Brian Palmer, Brian Moore and Scott Pavalko.