Just two weeks removed from THE PLAYERS Championship, and just two weeks away from The Masters, the PGA Tour holds one of its most inimitable events this week, with the 21st edition of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the only match play event of the PGA Tour season.
In attendance this week is 64 of the world’s best golfers, including 23 of the top 25 in the Official World , hoping to assert their dominance in what feels like a completely different game.
Three-time event champion Tiger Woods is not in attendance, as he recovers from a recent car injury that may or may not become essentially the end of arguably the best player in the history of the game. Also missing is Brooks Koepka, who is still dealing with a knee injury that he hopes does not keep him out of the upcoming Masters tournament, and Phil Mickelson, who’s plummet down the world rankings (now 102nd) prevented him from qualifying for the tournament for the first time.
Nearly everyone else who is a big-time name on Tour will be at Austin Country Club for the five-day experience. Among the most intriguing storylines in Austin are the following:
WGC-Dell Match Play Storylines
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1. Kisner Defends WGC-Dell Match Play Title
Kevin Kisner is a really good golfer, as far as PGA Tour players go. The 37-year-old is ranked 36th in the OWGR; has contended on the major stage several times; and can putt the lights out. He is a really good golfer in stroke play… but he’s an elite golfer in match play.
Kisner comes into Austin this year as the defending champion, taking the final match 3&2 over Matt Kuchar, an excellent match play golfer in his own right. He went 2-1-0 in group play, a group in which he was the C pool player (he was the 48th seed overall), in the group where Tony Finau was the A, Ian Poulter was the B, and Keith Mitchell was the D.
Kisner lost to Poulter in group play, but thanks to Poulter getting clipped by Mitchell, the group went into a playoff where Kisner got his revenge on Poulter. He obliterated Haotong Li 6&5 in the round of 16, and then took narrow victories over Louis Oosthuizen and Francesco Molinari before taking down Kuchar in the final.
And Kisner was no fluke.
In the previous edition, he made the championship match, although got housed by Bubba Watson 7&6 there. On his way to the championship match, notable wins included a 4&3 over Dustin Johnson in group play and a 8&6 annihilation of Ian Poulter in the quarterfinals.
Overall, he has an absurd 14-5-2 record in match play. With another strong outing this week, he would make himself very difficult for Steve Stricker to pass on as a captain’s pick for the upcoming Ryder Cup.
Kisner may have to overcome mediocre recent form if he wants to make another run. He is 55th in the FedExCup standings, mostly off the strength of a runner-up at the RSM Classic in November. Since the 2021 calendar year started, he has nothing better than a T24 in five starts, and missed the cut at THE PLAYERS two weeks ago after opening with a pair of 75s.
We do have another big concern about Kisner’s chances this week, which we address more in the next section.
2. Stacked Match Play Group
Unfortunately for Kisner, his chances of a third straight championship match run are truncated by extreme bad luck with the draw. He got stuck in Group 2 with Justin Thomas, the world No. 2 who just won THE PLAYERS Championship two weeks ago for his 14th career win at the age of 27, Louis Oosthuizen, who was the tournament runner-up in 2016 and has advanced past the group stage in four of the five events held since the change away from single elimination, and Matt Kuchar, the 2013 winner who was runner-up to Kisner in the most recent edition held. It does not get much more difficult than that.
Kuchar might actually be extra motivated to play Kisner, as he was the man to eliminate him in each of the past two Match Plays. Kuchar has a 29-17-5 all-time record in match play, but he is in as the D pool golfer this year, as he has been terrible in the past season.
The 42-year-old has made 11 2021 season starts with nothing better than a T34 back in October. His driving distance ranks 186th on Tour, and he is not really making that up anywhere else, as he ranks outside the top 100 in all six strokes gained categories.
In 2020, his $1.5 million in earnings (16 starts) was his lowest since 2008, his second full-time season on Tour. This season? $171,195. While Kuchar may be fading, he has enough cache in match play to not be overlooked by anyone.
As for Thomas, the Pool A golfer, he has been unbelievable in team match play, sporting a 9-1-2 career record. In singles play, he technically has a losing record, but that was almost entirely based on struggles at the beginning of his career. He has been much different since the 2018 Match Play, where he won his first five matches before getting ousted by tournament champion Bubba Watson in the semi-finals.
3. Maiden WGC Match Play For Stars?
Match play is especially difficult for beginners, but this year’s WGC-Match Play features an extremely impressive group of talented youngsters making their tournament debuts. Chances are, we will see at least a few of them make a run.
That group is highlighted by world No. 4 Collin Morikawa, who in just 40 starts, has four victories, including last August’s PGA Championship, and the most recent WGC event played, the WGC-Workday Championship At Concession, where he won by three strokes. The 24-year-old may have no significant match play experience, but lack of experience has not held him back any so far.
In addition, other first-timers include world No. 14 Viktor Hovland, who is almost a stone-cold lock to become a European Ryder Cup mainstay. The 23-year-old Norweigan has a win, two runner-ups, a T5, and three other top 15 finishes in 11 2021 season starts. He has struggled in his last two outings, however.
There is also 22-year-old Sungjae Im, who ranks 17th in the OWGR and was 3-1 for the International Squad at the 2019 Presidents Cup. Also, world 21 Matthew Wolff, who contended at the U.S. Open; world No. 28 Joaquin Niemann – a two-time runner-up in 2021; world No. 32 Scottie Scheffler, who finished T4 at both the PGA Championship and BMW Championship, and second at the Tour Championship; and on the older side, 35-year-old world No. 31 Jason Kokrak, who won the CJ Cup @ Shadow Creek in October and arrives in Austin off three consecutive top 10 finishes.
4. Dustin Johnson Fading?
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson was on the heater of his life recently. After a shocking 80-80 opening to miss the cut at last July’s Memorial Tournament, the 36-year-old had an 11-start stretch where he won three times, including The Masters and a FedExCup Playoff event, three runner-ups, a T3 at the Tour Championship that won him the ultra-lucrative FedExCup, and four other top 12 finishes. His 2020 tear made him an easy choice for PGA Tour Player of the Year, and he did not slow down any as the 2021 season began.
Now with 24 wins in his Tour career, it has basically been him and nobody else even close atop the world rankings. The Masters triumph was a very important legacy-building event too, as he finally got off one career major (2016 U.S. Open), which stood out like a sore thumb in the midst of his great successes.
However, DJ suddenly looks vulnerable over his last two starts. At last month’s WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession, the six-time WGC champion (second most all time), finished T54 in the 72-man field, opening with a 77 and closing with a 78. He followed up that surprise with a T48 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
Still, he remains a favorite going into the WGC-Match Play. DJ won the 2017 event, but went a combined 1-5-0 in 2018 and 2019, with losses to Bernd Wiesberger, Adam Hadwin, Kevin Kisner, Branden Grace, and Hideki Matsuyama.
The Pool A golfer in Group 1, Johnson may benefit from a good draw, with Kevin Na, Robert MacIntyre, and Adam Long as his other group members. If he were to advance past the group stage, he would play in the round of 32 against the winner of group 16, also considered weaker, which contains tournament rookie Sungjae Im, in addition to Victor Perez, Marc Leishman, and Russell Henley.
5. Jordan Spieth’s Chances?Finally showing signs of life in the midst of a painful four-year winless drought, 27-year-old three-time major champion Jordan Spieth has again become the talk of the Tour. As recently as early February, Spieth was not even qualified for the WGC Match Play, but a four-week stretch where he finished T4-T3-T15-T4, in which he held at least a share of the 54-hole lead in three of, jumped Spieth from 92nd in the OWGR to his current position of 52nd.
The 11-time Tour champion did struggle in his most recent start, finishing T48 at THE PLAYERS Championship, but that is an event he struggled with even when he was on top of his game. After a T4 in his TPC Sawgrass debut, he had four missed cuts and a T41 coming into this year’s edition.
He becomes an intriguing bet as the D Pool golfer in group 15, where he is considered to have a favorable draw among Matthew Fitzpatrick, Matthew Wolff, and Corey Conners. While he has yet to make a deep run in this tournament, he has gone 10-5-2 over the last five editions, and has been consistently fantastic in American team events. Another aspect in his favor is the location, as the native Texan starred in college at Texas University, which is located in Austin. He should be excited to be coming home in his best form in years.