AUSTIN, Texas – Austin is weird.
Actually, the tag line the city clings to is “Keep Austin Weird,” but the power of positive thought seems to be working for the quirky capital city, where community bicycles outnumber parking spots. It also makes Austin the perfect stage for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the PGA Tour’s weirdest event.
It all begins with the format, and match play is inherently weird, at least for a golf public conditioned on the relative certainty of stroke play.
Example No. 1,856 of this could be found on Kiradech Aphibarnrat’s scorecard.
The Asian “John Daly” easily advanced to the weekend knockout stage despite playing 49 holes in 5 under par, a nice middle-of-the-pack showing most weeks on Tour.
This is no knock on Aphibarnrat, he just made the most of a few favorable matches, and proved how a capricious format can make a normally straightforward game seem down right wacky.
“I think the same reasons I didn't make it [to the weekend] the first eight times is why I made it the last couple because it's crazy and you just don't ever know,” said Charles Howell III, who was 0-for-8 in trips to the weekend before the circuit transitioned to round-robin play.
Golf is not always the most predictable sport. Wind and inclement weather often provide a level of uncertainty and even the most perfectly executed shot can be pushed off line by all manner of outside influences. But match play, and in particular this Match Play, can be wildly fickle.
“They call it a tournament, but it’s luck,” said Bubba Watson, who advanced to the knockout rounds for the second consecutive year. “It's very difficult. It's one of those things where you have to just accept it. Last year I played Ross Fisher, and he played unbelievable golf. He had like seven birdies. On the back nine made four in a row. I walked home. I was under par. It wasn't like I played bad, but I went home.”
That kind of randomness can get to a player’s head and brings out the odd in even the game’s most grounded players.
“I'm a little disappointed in my attitude. I'm walking with my head down, and you know what happens when you walk with your head down, animals, they get eaten,” said Phil Mickelson, who was devoured by the curious math of pool play.
In Lefty’s defense, after starting his week with a loss to Howell, Mickelson won his next two matches and is now headed home. Only at the Match Play can you bat over .600 and still get pulled from the line-up.
But it’s not just the format that makes for strange days, it’s the Tour’s answer to match play that makes things really weird.
Since converting to round-robin play in 2015, the push back has been that the first three days are as confusing as they are uninspired.
Consider the fate of pod No. 10. Paul Casey, who was 2-0-0 to start the week, needed to lose his match to Matthew Fitzpatrick, who was 0-2-0 and had no way to advance, and either Kyle Stanley and Russell Henley needed to win the other match, not halve. Casey lost, Stanley won (with a birdie at the 18th hole, no less) and the American birdied the first extra hole to advance.
Got all that?
Although the circuit came to pool play as an honest attempt to spare marquee players an early exit, it has essentially created three watered down days and too many explanations.
I know, weird.
Even the ping-pong balls that dictated this week’s 16 pods proved to be weird, with Jordan Spieth questioning the “randomness” of a blind draw that put he and his Ryder and Presidents Cup stablemate Patrick Reed in the same group. At least that prime-time showdown provided a measure of predictability.
Spieth appeared outmatched early, opening his day with a tee shot out of bounds and quickly falling 2 down; but the duo were all square at the turn before it got odd, again.
With a chance to even the match, Spieth three-putted from 40 feet at the par-5 12th hole. At the 15th hole, Spieth three-jacked from 46 feet to fall 3 down with three to play, all of which is newsworthy because the “Golden Child” had just a dozen three-putts this entire season on Tour. He had three on Friday.
“It was just one of those days that with how the conditions were, it wasn't fun. It was hard, it was a grinder's day out there,” said Reed, who will face Alex Noren in Saturday’s Sweet 16. “You weren't going to see a ton of birdies.”
What we will see on Saturday is something approaching normalcy as the event transitions to the more familiar win-or-go-home format.Three days of confusing pool play have proven how weird things can get, now comes the wild part.