AUSTIN, Texas – Although professional golf’s version of March Madness is considered just plain maddening in some circles following the switch to round-robin play three years ago, it’s still one of the game’s most compelling weeks after a steady diet of stroke play.
With this week’s lineup having been set Monday night via a blind draw, we take a deep dive into WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play bracketology (current world golf rankings in parentheses):
Pool play will begin Wednesday, with the winner from each of the 16 groups advancing to knockout play beginning Saturday:
Group 1: (1) Dustin Johnson, (32) Kevin Kisner, (38) Adam Hadwin, (52) Bernd Wiesberger
Teeing off: This sounds like the beginning of a joke that’s made the rounds at the United Nations, but what do you get when a pair of South Carolinians, a Canadian and an Austrian walk onto the first tee? Group 1 and what, on paper, looks like it could be the week’s most lopsided pod with the world No. 1, who never trailed on his way to victory last year, poised to pick up where he left off.
Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas, (21) Francesco Molinari, (48) Patton Kizzire, (60) Luke List
Teeing off: This isn’t exactly an Iron Bowl rematch, but having Thomas (Alabama) and Kizzire (Auburn) in the same group seems to be pandering to the Southeastern Conference crowd.
Group 3: (3) Jon Rahm, (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat, (43) Chez Reavie, (63) Keegan Bradley
Teeing off: The Asian John Daly (aka Aphibarnrat) will have his hands full with Rahm, who lost the championship match to Johnson last year; while Bradley may be this group’s Cinderella after making a late push to qualify for the Match Play.
Group 4: (4) Jordan Spieth, (19) Patrick Reed, (34) Haotong Li, (49) Charl Schwartzel
Teeing off: This may be the week’s most awkward pairing, with Spieth and Reed turning what has been one of the United States' most successful tandems (they are 7-2-2 as partners in Presidents and Ryder Cup play) into an early-week highlight. It will be “shhh” vs. “Go Get that.”
Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama, (30) Patrick Cantlay, (46) Cameron Smith, (53) Yusaku Miyazato
Teeing off: Cantlay could be the Tour’s most reserved player, Smith isn’t much more outspoken and Matsuyama and Miyazato speak limited English. This will be the quietest pod, and it’ll have nothing to do with gamesmanship.
Group 6: (6) Rory McIlroy, (18) Brian Harman, (44) Jhonattan Vegas, (51) Peter Uihlein
Teeing off: We're going to declare this the “group of death,” with McIlroy coming off a commanding victory last week at Bay Hill and Harman being one of the Tour’s most gritty competitors.
Group 7: (7) Sergio Garcia, (20) Xander Schauffele, (41) Dylan Frittelli, (62) Shubankhar Sharma
Teeing off: Three weeks ago, Phil Mickelson confused Sharma for a member of the media when he tried to introduce himself at the WGC-Mexico Championship. As a public service announcement: it’s SHAR-ma. You may be hearing it a lot this week.
Group 8: (8) Jason Day, (25) Louis Oosthuizen, (42) Jason Dufner, (56) James Hahn
Teeing off: This pod has a Presidents Cup flair to it, but Day and Oosthuizen should hope for a better outcome considering the International side’s awful record in the biennial bout.
Group 9: (9) Tommy Fleetwood, (26) Daniel Berger, (33) Kevin Chappell, (58) Ian Poulter
Teeing off: We showed up in Austin and a Ryder Cup broke out. Fleetwood is all but a lock to make this year’s European team, and fellow Englishman Poulter (23-14) has forged a career on his match-play prowess. For Berger and Chappell, who both played last year’s Presidents Cup, it’s a chance to impress U.S. captain Jim Furyk.
Group 10: (10) Paul Casey, (31) Matthew Fitzpatrick, (45) Kyle Stanley, (51) Russell Henley
Teeing off: Casey has a stellar record at the Match Play (23-13-1) and having finally ended his victory drought two weeks ago at the Valspar Championship the Englishman could likely seal his Ryder Cup fate with a solid week at Austin Country Club.
Group 11: (11) Marc Leishman, (23) Branden Grace, (35) Bubba Watson, (64) Julian Suri
Teeing off: The best part of March Madness is the potential upsets, and while Suri, the last man in the field, isn’t exactly UMBC over Virginia, don’t be surprised if the little-known player from St. Augustine, Fla., stuns some big names this week.
Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton, (22) Charley Hoffman, (36) Brendan Steele, (55) Alexander Levy
Teeing off: If Levy hopes to make the European Ryder Cup team he should consider this his audition. That is if captain Thomas Bjorn is watching.
Group 13: (13) Alex Noren, (29) Tony Finau, (39) Thomas Pieters, (61) Kevin Na
Teeing off: Finau and Pieters have the firepower to play with anyone in the field and Noren’s record the last few months has been impressive, but Na looks like one of those Princeton teams who can wear down anyone.
Group 14: (14) Phil Mickelson, (17) Rafael Cabrera-Bello, (40) Sotashi Kodaira, (59) Charles Howell III
Teeing off: Mickelson has been rejuvenated by his victory at the last World Golf Championship, Cabrera Bello is poised to earn a spot on this year’s European Ryder Cup team and Howell is playing some of the best golf of his career. Note to Kodaira, don’t try to introduce yourself to Lefty before your match.
Group 15: (15) Pat Perez, (24) Gary Woodland, (37) Webb Simpson, (50) Si Woo Kim
Teeing off: Perez explained that during a practice round on Monday he was talking trash with Branden Grace. Not sure Kim will be down for some trash talking, but it would certainly be entertaining and probably a little confusing for him.
Group 16: (16) Matt Kuchar, (27) Ross Fisher, (47) Yuta Ikeda, (54) Zach Johnson
Teeing off: If any of these matches comes down to a tie, may we suggest officials go to a sudden-death ping-pong match. No one can compete with Kuchar on a table, but it would be must-see TV nonetheless.