AUSTIN, Texas – Professional golf doesn’t have a Selection Sunday but every now and then when the seedings align and the math makes way for the magicians, you get a Frantic Friday.
It’s the kind of day that makes you appreciate match play and forget, at least for another year, the ongoing knockout vs. pool play debate. A day like Friday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when the cheers – that’s right, cheers at Austin Country Club – came at you with dizzying speed.
The day started standard enough. Dylan Frittelli, a geography major from Austin via South Africa, was the first to punch his ticket to the weekend just past lunch and became the first 64th-seeded player to advance to the knockout rounds since the transition to pool play in 2015. He was still on the course and trailing Will Zalatoris at the time, but the math was on his side after Tony Finau closed out Jason Kokrak to end his pod drama.
“My caddie mentioned to me on 16 green that we were going down 18 and Tony was 1 up so that secured it for me, so I had breathing room walking that hill to 17 tee box,” Frittelli said.
Tommy Fleetwood was next, holding off Bryson DeChambeau in what could be a Ryder Cup prelude. The only thing that was missing was Francesco Molinari, Fleetwood’s partner two years ago in Paris, and the Continent’s masses singing, “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy.”
But as the weekend bracket slowly emerged from the fog of pool play, there were two moments in rapid order that transformed an entertaining day into a frenzy.
Standing on the 18th tee trailing Adam Long by a single hole, Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre hit “one of the best and one of the luckiest golf shots I've hit in my life.”
From 371 yards, MacIntyre’s tee shot raced up the hill to within 3 feet of the hole just as Dustin Johnson, playing in the group ahead, was lining up his putt. The shot set up a walk-off eagle for a halve and a spot in the weekend field.
“I had to get it flighted, but my miss with that flighted shot is in the hazard left,” MacIntyre said. “But I was 1 down, I had to win the hole, so I thought, here we go. Let's get the low one going.”
The cheers were still echoing across Austin CC when Sergio Garcia put his stamp on the day’s theatrics. Having lost to Matt Wallace, 3 and 2, in Round 3, the Spaniard traded three pars with Lee Westwood to determine who from their group advanced to the one-and-done stages when he stepped to the fourth tee.
“I really don't know what to say. Obviously, yeah, a hole-in-one is amazing,” Garcia said of his walk-off ace from 160 yards to advance.
In all, a record eight playoffs were needed to fill out the Sweet 16 bracket.
Ian Poulter went 3-0-0 to advance because he’s Ian Poulter and, because of last year’s pandemic, whatever moon cycle transforms him into a superhero during Ryder Cup years travelled to 2021.
“Well, mine was obviously extremely boring according to what I've just heard. Sergio holing out for a hole-in-one against Westy to advance and MacIntyre just drives it to 3 feet and nudges in for eagle for half to go through,” Poulter laughed. “I just managed a 2-and-1 victory [over Lanto Griffin] and I'm through, so I guess it was quite lame.”
Lame. Looming. Whatever. When it comes to the Englishman and match play, he normally saves his heroics until the very end, like on Sunday with a title or the Ryder Cup on the line.
Matt Kuchar joined Poulter as the only players to post perfect pool-play records with his 2-and-1 victory over Kevin Kisner for a measure of redemption after Kisner beat him in the final of the last WGC-Match Play, held in 2019.
They weren’t all theatrical winners. The Jon Rahm-Ryan Palmer matinee, one of just two bouts on Day 3 between players who had won their first two matches, included a hole halved with double bogey (No. 14) and required extra holes for Rahm to advance.
There’s also the issue of an utterly upside-down bracket. Just a single player from the top 20 (Rahm) advanced to the weekend, an exodus that included world No. 1 Johnson. But even that loss came with a measure entertainment when Kevin Na – who defeated Johnson, 1 up – lectured DJ on the 11th green about conceded putts and an early scoop (we all have a friend who is guilty of the early scoop) and, as expected, Johnson didn’t respond well to being lectured.
“His [putt] lipped out and he had 6 inches and obviously it's good, but I hadn't said anything and he whacked it,” Na explained when asked about what happened on the 11th green. “I froze there and looked at [caddie Kenny Harms] and I wasn't going to say that's a penalty, you're going to lose the hole. I was going to say, you know what, that was good anyway.”
Also gone for the weekend will be the second-seed Justin Thomas, fourth-seed Collin Morikawa, fifth-seed DeChambeau and sixth-seed Xander Schauffele.
If this were the NCAA Tournament, they might cancel the remainder of the competition. But in golf the action provides the entertainment, not the seedings. If you didn’t enjoy Frantic Friday at Austin Country Club you don’t enjoy match play golf.