Golf’s version of March Madness gets underway Wednesday at Austin Country Club.
But unlike the NCAA Tournament, which saw favorites Villanova, Duke and Louisville fail to survive the first weekend, there will be no early exits this week at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
All 64 players are guaranteed to play at least three matches. Sixteen groups of four players compete in pool play Wednesday through Friday. The winner of each group advances to the single-elimination knockout stage over the weekend.
Sixty-four of the top 70 players in the world are in the field, with Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and Adam Hadwin opting not to play.
“It’s fun how it’s done now,” said Jordan Spieth, who is back in Austin, where he helped Texas win a NCAA team title in 2012. “It’s an opportunity for us to play more rounds, but also for the fans and the viewing audience to see players they want to see play multiple rounds instead of just one round on Wednesday and you’re out. The draw is the draw – you’ve got to play well no matter what.”
The top player with the most difficult draw is Hideki Matsuyama, who will have to face Louis Oosthuizen, who is 13-3 in this event the past three years, Ross Fisher, who tied for third at the WGC-Mexico earlier this month, and Jim Furyk, who has plenty of match-play experience.
Not far behind is the All-American Group 9, where top seed Patrick Reed will have to get past Brooks Koepka, Kevin Kisner and Jason Dufner. Interestingly, the lower seeds arrive in Texas playing the best in the group: Kisner, who tied for second at Bay Hill, and Dufner, who has four consecutive top 25s.
The top overall seed is Dustin Johnson, but he has a treacherous road ahead, with four major champions in his group – reigning PGA champion Jimmy Walker, two-time winner Martin Kaymer and former U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson. The Match Play is the only WGC event that Johnson hasn’t won.
Defending champion Jason Day drew Bay Hill winner Marc Leishman, veteran Lee Westwood and fiery Pat Perez.
Of course, there is no easy route to victory when the best players in the world go head to head.
Since switching to the round-robin format, players ranked in the top 2 in the world have won each of the past two years: Rory McIlroy in 2015 and Day last year, when he shook off an early-week back injury to capture the title.
McIlroy has an 11-2-1 record in this event, after cruising to victory at TPC Harding Park. The player he beat in the final there – Gary Woodland – will get a chance at a rematch in pool play.
“I’m proud of my match-play record,” McIlroy said, “I feel like I’m good in that part of the game. I really pride myself on playing match play.”
Here are all of the groups:
Group 1: Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker (18), Martin Kaymer (41), Webb Simpson (58)
Group 2: Rory McIlroy, Emiliano Grillo (26), Gary Woodland (33), Soren Kjeldsen (62)
Group 3: Jason Day, Marc Leishman (28), Lee Westwood (43), Pat Perez (56)
Group 4: Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen (23), Ross Fisher (47), Jim Furyk (51)
Group 5: Jordan Spieth, Ryan Moore (32), Yuta Ikeda (37), Hideto Tanihara (54)
Group 6: Justin Thomas, Matt Fitzpatrick (27), Kevin Na (46), Chris Wood (49)
Group 7: Sergio Garcia, Jon Rahm (21), Kevin Chappell (38), Shane Lowry (53)
Group 8: Alex Noren, Francesco Molinari (25), Bernd Wiesberger (36), Thongchai Jaidee (57)
Group 9: Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka (20), Kevin Kisner (34), Jason Dufner (59)
Group 10: Tyrrell Hatton, Rafa Cabrera Bello (22), Jeunghun Wang (40), Charles Howell III (61)
Group 11: Danny Willett, Russell Knox (17), Bill Haas (42), K.T. Kim (64)
Group 12: Paul Casey, Charl Schwartzel (24), Byeong-Hun An (45), Joost Luiten (60)
Group 13: Bubba Watson, Thomas Pieters (30), Scott Piercy (39), Jhonattan Vegas (55)
Group 14: Phil Mickelson, J.B. Holmes (31), Daniel Berger (35), Si Woo Kim (63)
Group 15: Branden Grace, Brandt Snedeker (19), William McGirt (48), Andy Sullivan (52)
Group 16: Matt Kuchar, Tommy Fleetwood (29), Zach Johnson (44), Brendan Steele (50)