It’s fitting that the PGA Tour’s version of March Madness is held at the same time as the world’s most famous win-and-advance, bracket-busting event. Like the NCAA’s Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, golf’s not-quite-one-and-done grind held this week at Austin (Texas) CC requires a similar formula for success. To advance at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play golfers, like hoopsters, must stay in the moment, read the opponent, and maintain the advantage. The Match Play also requires a steely resolve not necessary for the PGA Tour’s weekly 72-hole marathons.
Although a rule change instituted in 2015, allowing for pool play during the first three days of the Match Play, took the luster away from the knock-out aspect of the tournament – Henrik Stenson says it’s why he skips the event – winning remains the key component. Since 2015, every player who reached the championship match was 3-0 in pool play. Winning, it seems, breeds winning.
So who are the tournament’s best match-play winners?
First, a few parameters: Although we take into consideration performances in other match-play tournaments, such as the Ryder Cup or the NCAA Championship, the focus of this exercise falls on the Dell Technologies Match Play. So to be considered for our top 10 a player must have a winning record in this tournament. That eliminates Justin Thomas, whose fine play in last year’s Presidents Cup can’t offset his 1-5-0 record in two Match Play appearances.
Second, we’re interested in recent history, giving priority to the last few years. Ian Poulter might be one of the greatest performers in tournament history, but he hasn’t played this event since 2015 or been on a Ryder Cup team since 2014. Thus, he’ll join Thomas on the sidelines.
Finally, to be on this list, you have to be playing this week. There’s no sense telling you how great a match-play performer Justin Rose or Rickie Fowler might be if you won’t see them play the format until the Ryder Cup.
Here’s our top 10 list of best match-play performers playing in this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
1. Rory McIlroy: Prior to last year’s Match Play, McIlroy identified ruthlessness, selfishness and pride as the key facets as to why he’s so good in this format. “I'm too proud to be beaten,” he said. “I won't let anyone get up on me. I think too much of myself to let anyone do that to me.” McIlroy has a career record of 23-9-2 in the Match Play and is 12-3-2 the last three years. He won in 2015 and lost in the semifinals in 2016, and he’s in pretty good form coming off his API triumph. Factor in his winning record in all three formats of play in the Ryder Cup and you should agree that match play is a perfect fit for McIlroy’s personality.
2. Jason Day: Day is a two-time winner of the Match Play (2014, 2016) and his career record of 21-9-0 is better than it looks, because he was given three losses when he withdrew during the first round of last year’s tournament to be with his ailing mother. In the last six Match Plays, Day is 5-0 against players in our top 10, including a 1-up win over McIlroy in the semifinals in 2016. Day ranks second because Rory has played better in all recent match-play competitions, and ultimately we can’t forgive Day’s underwhelming play in the last two Presidents Cups (1-7-2 record).
3. Dustin Johnson: The defending champion deserves kudos for his 12-3-0 record in the last three Match Plays. Johnson was so overwhelming a year ago, that he never trailed at any point during the week. His raw power and self-confidence are an intimidating combination. “It's amazing how he's able to keep cool the entire round,” said Jon Rahm after losing to Johnson in the 2017 final. “It amazes me. He's just a perfect, complete player."
4. Louis Oosthuizen: It’s hard to believe someone with the nickname Shrek could have a killer instinct, but you can’t argue with the results. Oosthuizen is 15-4-0 in the Match Play since 2014, losing in the championship match to Day in 2016, and reaching the quarterfinals two other times. He also has been the International team’s best player in the last two Presidents Cups, with a combined record of 6-2-2, including a 1-0-1 mark against Patrick Reed in singles.
5. Patrick Reed: Perhaps golf’s best current team performer, Reed’s fist-pumping, finger-waving singles victory over McIlroy in the 2016 Ryder Cup is what legends are made of. Reed is 10-4-4 in Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup play, and was 6-0 in match-play competition for Augusta University during the NCAA Championship. But although he excels in team formats, his performance in this week’s event leaves us wanting. Reed has advanced out of pool play just once in three years, and ultimately his 6-5-1 record keeps him out of our top four.
6. Jon Rahm: The latest in a long line of great Spanish match-play performers, Rahm appears to be a worthy successor to Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia. He’s such a young pro that there’s not much to go on other than his 6-1 record in 2017, where he took Johnson to the 18th hole before losing in the finals. He won two matches in the 2014 U.S. Amateur and reached the quarterfinals in 2015.
7. Rafael Cabrera-Bello: If Rahm is not Spain’s next match-play hero, perhaps it’s this 33-year-old star. A latecomer to the world golf scene compared to his Spanish compatriots, who all blossomed in their early 20s, the Canary Islands native is a worthy performer. He was unbeaten (2-0-1) in his first Ryder Cup in 2016, and has an 8-4-1 record in four Match Plays, including a 3-and-2 victory over McIlroy in the 2016 consolation match. He also reached the semifinals of the 2012 Volvo World Match Play.
8. Phil Mickelson: After a four-year absence from the Match Play, Mickelson barely missed advancing out of pool play in 2016 and reached the quarterfinals in 2017. A perennial member of U.S. Cup teams, he has an incredible 10-2-3 combined Presidents and Ryder Cup record since 2014 with a 3-0-1 mark in singles.
9. Jordan Spieth: He’s here because of his 9-4-1 record in the Match Play, his two U.S. Junior Amateur victories and because he beat Thomas in the 2012 NCAA Championship. So we’ll conveniently forget that he’s 0-5-0 in singles play in the Presidents and Ryder Cups.
10. Paul Casey: A two-time runner-up in the Match Play (2009, 2010), Casey is 7-4-1 (including a conceded loss) since pool play began.
Others of note: Matt Kuchar’s career record is even better than Casey’s (21-8-2), but he’s just a pedestrian 4-4-2 since 2015. … Thomas Pieters doesn’t qualify for the top 10 because he’s just 2-2-2 in the Match Play, but he was 4-1 as a Ryder Cup rookie in 2016 and beat Spieth in 2012 and Thomas in 2013 during the NCAA Championship. … Like Pieters, keep an eye on Kiradech Aphibarnrat. He’s only 2-2-0 in the Match Play, but two of his four European Tour victories are of the match-play variety (2015 Paul Lawrie, 2018 World Super 6 Perth).