AUSTIN, Texas – Don’t try to convince Justin Thomas there’s a Group of Death this week at Austin Country Club. Nor does the American want to hear arguments that his group at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, or any group for that matter, should be considered an “easier” draw.
“I understand that Golf Channel, they need things to talk about, but to look at some groups and be like, oh, that's an easy group,” Thomas said on Tuesday. “Everyone here is really, really, really good, and it is funny how it's like, this is the Group of Death or this is that. Let's all just calm down and go play golf.”
Keep calm, play on.
We get it, but that ignores the best part of round-robin play at the Match Play. In exchange for the head-to-head drama of true match play, officials introduced group play in 2015, a twist that screamed for just this kind of micro-analysis.
At first brush there are certain groups that stand out among the 16 foursomes. Rory McIlroy’s group, for example, includes the Northern Irishman, who finished tied for fourth last week at Bay Hill; Emiliano Grillo, who was seventh last week; and Gary Woodland, who has a pair of top-5s in his last two starts.
Similarly, defending champion Jason Day’s pod of Marc Leishman, winner last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Lee Westwood and Pat Perez holds some intrigue for those looking for the path of most resistance.
But with the bracket for this week’s event based on the Official World Golf Ranking, each group is mathematically equal at least as it applies to the relative strength or weakness of a particularly group, so any suggestion that a particular pod is more daunting than the next is based on recent form, historical match play performances and hunches.
Thomas has a valid point that none of the 16 groups is a particularly appealing draw, but if any pod were to qualify as the Group of Death it would be the foursome of Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm, Kevin Chappell and Shane Lowry.
“I don't think there's any easy groups out there, but obviously I'm in a group with guys that are great players,” Garcia said. “It's not an easy group. It's a challenging one. But the good thing is, the way I look at it, is if I can get out of this group, it means that I'm playing really well because none of those guys are going to give anything away.”
Garcia is playing his 14th Match Play this week, has an 18-17 overall record and won earlier this year on the European Tour in Dubai; while Rahm is making his first start at this event but is one of the hottest players in the game right now following his first Tour victory at the Farmers Insurance Open and top-10 finishes in last two starts.
Although Chappell is winless on Tour, he finished runner-up four times last season and Lowry has something of a penchant for upsetting higher-seeded players in this event, like he did when he beat McIlroy in ’13 and Graeme McDowell two years ago, both on Day 1.
Higher-seeded players have historically lived up to that billing at the World Golf Championship, but there are exceptions, like in 2015 when McIlroy, the No. 1 seeded player, beat Woodland, from the 11th group, in the finals; and last year when Day defeated Louis Oosthuizen, the 16th overall seeded player, in the championship match.
Thomas’ point is valid. Professional golf’s version of March Madness doesn’t exactly fit the bracket-ology narrative and maybe all groups are created equal, but where’s the fun in that?