So what if your bracket is busted. The real madness in March is happening this week on the PGA Tour.
The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play pairings were announced Monday morning and the drama that lies ahead does not disappoint. Austin Country Club has proven to be a more-than- suitable locale for fireworks since taking over hosting duties in 2016, and while five of the world’s top 64 are not making the trip to Texas, the field is not short on starpower.
The event revamped its format in 2015, partially leaving single-elimination in favour of 16 “pods” of four players, with everyone playing a round robin against the other three competitors. The players come from four categories divided by rank; the top 16 players are considered the “A” group, the next 16 classified as “B” and so forth. The players are grouped randomly by a ping-pong machine. From there, the 16 group winners advance to a single-elimination bracket, contested over 18-hole matches on Saturday (Sweet 16 and quarterfinals) and Sunday (semifinals and finals).
Here are the round-robin pairings for the 2021 WGC-Dell Match Play:
Group 1: Dustin Johnson, Kevin Na, Robert MacIntyre, Adam Long
Johnson, the World No. 1, has a bit of mixed record at this event. He won in 2017 and made the quarterfinals the year before, but also has been bounced early in seven of 11 starts. Luckily for Johnson, he’s drawn a favourable pod.
Na did make the Match Play quarters in 2019 and won in Hawaii to start the new year but is coming off a WD with back spasms at the Players and his renowned short game hasn’t been there this season (150th in strokes gained/putting). And after a strong fall Long is in a slump, missing the cut in five of his last second events. The wild card is MacIntyre. Bobby Mac has struggled in a handful of events in the U.S., but the Scotsman carries himself like a top-10 player and has proven so against some of the best fields on the European Tour. With an eye on making the Ryder Cup, MacIntyre could boost his resume with a big-game takedown against DJ.
Group 2: Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen, Kevin Kisner, Matt Kuchar
Congrats on winning the Players Championship, JT. Your reward is the reigning Match Play winner, a former winner and a former finalist.
Thomas is known for his ability to paint a scoreboard red (first in birdie average, second in scoring) and he’s been a tour de force in Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup appearances. But in four career starts those attributes haven’t quite translated to this event; Thomas has made it out of round-robin play just once. This draw won’t help turn the tide. Oosthuizen is enjoying another solid season, ranking 10th in strokes gained and third in SG/putting. Kisner is coming in a bit cold with zero top-20s in 2021; conversely, his 2019 Match Play win was not an aberration, as he finished runner-up in Austin the year before. The one to watch will be Kuchar. He’s having one of the worst campaigns of his career (179th in the FedEx Cup, 151st in strokes gained), and at 42, it’s fair to wonder how much gas is left in the tank. Kuch also has a gold, silver and bronze medal at Match Play and is 28-10-2 in his tournament.
Shane Lowry. Photo by Golffile
Group 3: Jon Rahm, Ryan Palmer, Shane Lowry, Sebastian Munoz
Rahm finished runner-up to Dustin Johnson in his inaugural Match Play in 2017 but has failed to advance out of pod play since. He has a good chance to do so this week, although his pod is more formidable than it looks at first glance. Palmer continues to enjoy a later-career boom, posting three top-four finishes in his last seven starts and ranking third in birdie average. Lowry comes in off a top-10 at TPC Sawgrass, and though Munoz is in a funk, his tee-to-green performance (34th on tour last season) will make Rahm work for his W.
Group 4: Collin Morikawa, Billy Horschel, Max Homa, J.T. Poston
A sneaky-fun round robin with arguably the deepest pool of talent. Horschel is the only one with experience in this event and has three top-10s in 12 starts this season. In that same breath, Morikawa is the reigning PGA champ and notched a WGC win a few weeks back at The Concession while Homa beat a tough field and tougher course at Riviera last month. And don’t overlook Poston; his short game (fifth in SG/putting) could make him a nightmare matchup. Interesting watch here will be Morikawa. His second-shot prowess (first in SG/approach) should make him a favorite, but his occasional woes on the greens make him vulnerable to an upset.
Group 5: Bryson DeChambeau, Tommy Fleetwood, Si Woo Kim, Antoine Rozner
Do not take a drink every time Fleetwood’s 2018 Ryder Cup performance is mentioned. You will die.
Fleetwood missed the cut at the Players but had been showing signs of life after a rough 2020. (Although that can be said for all of us can’t it?) Kim has been very hit-or-miss: He won The American Express and finished T-9 at the Players, but in five starts between those displays had three missed cuts, a WD and T-50.
Essentially, the type of guy who can go 0-2 on Wednesday and Thursday and ruin someone’s weekend Friday afternoon. Rozner is a name the American audience won’t recognize, but the Frenchman has two wins in his last six European Tour starts, highlighted by winning the Qatar Masters two weeks ago thanks to a 60-footer on the final hole. As for Bryson, the man is clearly the hottest player in the game and his 2015 U.S. Amateur title shows he knows how to get it done in this format.
Group 6: Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler, Jason Day, Andy Sullivan
The PGA Tour Live broadcast dubbed the JT/Louie/Kiz/Kuch quartet the “Group of Death,” but in our opinion it’s this group that warrants the title.
After a few years of being in the wilderness, Day is finally healthy and has quietly posted four-straight finishes of T-35 or better, plus he commands respect as a two-time Match Play champ. Scheffler hasn’t returned to the heights reached in his rookie campaign last year yet is starting to turn the corner with a T-7 at the WMPO and a fifth-place finish at the WGC-Workday at The Concession, and his power and ability to go low will make him a tough out. Sullivan has not advanced out of the first round in three previous Match Play tries, but can be a pain in the behind to play against. As for Schauffele, it’s become a cliché to claim his game is without holes, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. As long as he can keep his drives in the ballpark—and Austin C.C. is not the tightest of confines on tour—Xander could go deep if he gets out of his gauntlet.
Group 7: Patrick Reed, Joaquin Niemann, Christian Bezuidenhout, Bubba Watson
Despite his reputation as a match-play savant, Reed has never advanced out of the Sweet 16 of this event. This pod won’t do him any favors. Niemann is seventh in SG/off-the-tee and 11th in strokes gained this season, and Austin C.C. suits his game well. Bezuidenhout won three times in 2020 and showed his game travels with a seventh-place finish at Bay Hill two weeks back. And though Watson has scuffled in 2021 (just one top-25 in five starts), he won this event in 2018. No easy outs here.
Group 8: Tyrrell Hatton, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Matt Wallace
Had a friend ask if this pairing was rigged in order for the European contingent to cannibalize itself. While that’s preposterous, this will 100 percent be brought up on social media by the Old World cognoscenti at some point this week and that delights us to no end.
Group 9: Webb Simpson, Paul Casey, Mackenzie Hughes, Talor Gooch
Simpson is the top seed but Casey is the man to beat in this pod, boasting a 27-15-2 record and two runners-up in the event. Hughes has had a rough go as of late, a sentiment reflected in his strokes-gained rank (115th). He’s also lights-out with the flatstick (12th on tour) making him no pushover. Gooch was one of the last guys in the field, but it’s a spot he’s earned with three top-fives (including at the Players Championship) this season.
Group 10: Patrick Cantlay, Hideki Matsuyama, Carlos Ortiz, Brian Harman
We’re slightly worried that the ball-striking powers of Cantlay and Matsuyama, when combined, will unlock a portal to an alternate reality. Hopefully in that dimension Matsuyama can figure out how to putt.
Ortiz’s win in Houston prior to the Masters gets the love, but he’s had four finishes of top 15 or better in eight starts since. His iron game can get in the way, which makes him a hard pick to advance, but he will absolutely be a menace in at least two matches. Harman, who by law must be called a “bulldog” in every reference, is coming off a T-3 at Players. He doesn’t post a ton of red figures yet does keep the big number at bay (37th in bogey avoidance), so anything less than a player’s A game will be penalized against this Bulldog.
Group 11: Rory McIlroy, Cam Smith, Lanto Griffin, Ian Poulter
Don’t read too much into McIlroy’s post-Players comments on his ill-fated chase of distance; he might not be firing on all cylinders, but he’s far from lost. This is a tournament that suits him well for it doesn’t penalize mistakes as severely, as evidenced by a win at the 2015 Match Play and runner-up in 2013.
Unfortunately for McIlroy he’s going up against Poulter, who turns from very good professional into Greek god in match-play competitions. Cam Smith and Lanto Griffin have never been accused of being short on temerity, either. Whoever makes it out of here might not make it far in the weekend because each match is going to be a grind-it-out bloodbath.
Group 12: Tony Finau, Jason Kokrak, Will Zalatoris, Dylan Frittelli
Kokrak is in the midst of a career year at 35. Finau has five top-10s and ranks seventh in strokes gained. Zalatoris began the season on the Korn Ferry Tour. So you’ve got to feel for Frittelli. The man’s playing in his backyard (he helped lead Texas to a national championship, in match play, in 2012) and gets no love from the ping-pong machine.
Group 13: Victor Hovland, Abraham Ancer, Bernd Wiesberger, Kevin Streelman
Only DeChambeau is hotter than Hovland, who flaunts six top-sixes and a win this year. This is his debut at Match Play, although his 2018 U.S. Amateur win shows it’s a format he has a taste for. Ancer, who doesn’t miss a fairway (second in driving accuracy) and can put up numbers quickly (20th in bridie average), won’t make it easy. Streelman is the antithesis of flashy but is so damn steady that he could sneak up on the group. The big question mark is Wiesberger. He has the looks of a top-20 player but has not advanced to the Sweet 16 in five tries at this event. In 24 majors starts, he also has only a lone top-15 finish. At 35, it’s time for him to start proving his mettle at marquee events.
Group 14: Daniel Berger, Harris English, Brendon Todd, Erik van Rooyen
Not only is Berger coming off a rib injury, he’s 1-8 for his career in Match Play. Clearly he’s been a different cat over the past 16 months, but if you’re looking at a top seed that’s vulnerable, Berger fits the profile. English is also a bit of a head-scratcher; after being en fuego at the end of 2020 he won the Tournament of Champions in January. He’s failed to break the top 25 in five starts since Kapalua. Even van Rooyen hasn’t done much of note since finishing third over a year ago at the WGC-Mexico Championship. So don’t be surprised if Todd (fourth in SG/putting) finds himself dancing come Saturday.
Group 15: Matt Fitzpatrick, Matthew Wolff, Corey Conners, Jordan Spieth
Sometimes you have to go with your gut. And our gut is telling us, by changing his name from “Matthew” to “Matt,” Fitzpatrick is in line to break through for his first tour victory.
But oof, what a brutal draw. Conners finished third at Bay Hill and seventh at the Players. Jordan Spieth is looking like Jordan Spieth. And though another Matthew has battled injuries, Wolff is just six months removed from finishing T-4 at the PGA and second at the U.S. Open.
Group 16: Sungjae Im, Victor Perez, Marc Leishman, Russell Henley
This pod might not have a lot of sizzle, but it should be filled with plenty of dog fights. Im is a machine, although his shaky iron work (93rd in approach) this season doesn’t make him the slam-dunk pick this line conveys. That Perez (T-9 at the Players) and Henley (T-3 at the Honda) are coming in strong doesn’t help. Leishman is the only player who’s fighting with his game at the moment (123rd tee-to-green, 113th in strokes gained), yet he’s also advanced to the Sweet 16 of this event three times.