When Bubba Watson was denied a roster spot in the 2016 Ryder Cup at the 11th hour, nobody could have guessed that his best match-play performance was yet to come.
That performance was today, as the 39-year-old lefty absolutely obliterated a hot Kevin Kisner 7&6 in the closing match to take the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Starting the championship match by winning the first five holes, despite just one birdie, suffocated Kisner, and created a panicked situation that ended on the 12th hole. The victory was Watson’s 11th career win on the PGA Tour, and his second in a WGC event.
Getting into the final 16 bracket off the strength of a 2-0-1 record in pool play, Watson thwarted Brian Harman on Saturday morning before smashing Kiradech Aphibarnrat in the quarterfinals to set up a final-four match with world No. 2 Justin Thomas, who would have overtaken the No. 1 spot in the world rankings with a victory in Austin this week.
Watson was clearly not intimidated by Thomas’ lofty ranking, winning the first hole and never trailing in a 3&2 victory.
In the other final-four battle, Kisner needed 19 holes to put away Alex Noren, and perhaps the extra fatigue was a factor in his abysmal start against the recently-reborn Watson that dug a hole too deep to emerge.
Coming off a mediocre season by his standards, this Match Play triumph is Watson’s second victory of the year, with his first coming three starts ago at the Genesis Open. Not scheduled to play next week’s Houston Open, Watson will be going into The Masters, a major tournament he has twice conquered, off a victory, and two wins in his previous four starts.
SEMI FINAL MATCHES
Bubba Thomas (35) defeated Justin Thomas (2), 3 & 2
Kevin Kisner (32) defeated Alex Noren (13), 1 Up (19 holes)
Alex Noren (13) defeated Justin Thomas (2), 3 & 2
Bubba Watson (35) defeated Kevin Kisner (32), 7 and 6
SEMI-FINAL: WATSON OVER THOMAS
Justin Thomas, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year came into this week with a poor match-play record as a professional, but at just 24 years old, the sample size was small, and he did not look overmatched at all, sweeping group play and making easy work of Si Woo Kim and Kyle Stanley during Saturday’s single eliminations.
Thomas also had some extra motivation this week, as he would overtake Dustin Johnson as the World No. 1 with a WGC victory this week.
With everything in Thomas’ favor, however, Watson looked like he should have been favored. Watson took the opening hole with a birdie, and then reached 3-up after just six holes, putting Thomas in a very unfamiliar place for the week.
Thomas won hole Nos. 7 and 9 to get just one back at the turn, but Watson recomposed himself on the inward nine, taking the 10th and not losing another hole the rest of the way, winning 3 & 2.
SEMI-FINAL: KISNER OVER NOREN
The 34-year-old Kevin Kisner did not have an exceptional record in this event coming into the week, but in the quarterfinal match prior to his final four matchup against Sweden’s Alex Noren, Kisner emphatically got the attention of the golf world when he absolutely dismantled Ian Poulter, statistically one of the best match-play players in golf history, by an 8&6 margin.
The amazingly lopsided score of Kisner’s match with Poulter likely raised the eyebrows of Noren. But the 35-year-old Swede had reason to be confident as well, as he had reached the quarterfinals last year, and was looking great again in this year’s edition, knocking off Ryder Cup savant Patrick Reed 5&3 in the round of 16, and beating young upstart Cameron Smith 4&2 in the quarterfinals.
and were all square after 12 holes with a combined 10 birdies and an eagle. Both Noren and Kisner made par on each of the remaining six holes,
A worthy semi-final matchup, Kisner and Noren each birdied holes 3-6 for halves, and were all square after 12 holes. After pars by both Noren and Kisner on Nos. 13-17, Noren had a chance to win the match on the 18th hole, but a missed a makeable birdie putt. On the first extra hole, Kisner made birdie to win the match.
CONSOLATION: NOREN OVER THOMAS
Noren was undoubtedly disappointed to have come so close to the championship match, only to fall on the 19th hole after his usually-stellar putting let him down late, but he was able to reign the bad feelings in, winning the first hole of his consolation match against Thomas, and never trailing the entire match.
Hitting the turn at 2-up, Noren did not birdie any of the six holes he played on the back nine, but he didn’t need to, as he won Nos. 11, 13, and 15 with pars to go 5-up and end the match with three holes to play. It ended a tough day for Thomas, who admitted that the world No. 1 ranking was much more on his mind than it should have been.
FINAL: WATSON OVER KISNER
With Kisner ranked 32nd in the field and Watson 35th, combined with how impressive both looked in the lead-up to the championship match, fans believed they were being treated to a tenacious, evenly-matched final.
That was not the match they got. In a massacre of the likes that had not been seen since Tiger Woods thrashed Stewart Cink 8&7 in the 36-hole 2008 finale, Watson needed no time putting away Kisner, winning holes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 to take the biggest possible lead into the sixth hole.
While Watson did play that 1-5 stretch reasonably well, with a birdie, three pars, and a concession, Kisner did not help himself any by playing those holes 4-over (one par followed by four bogeys).
Deflated, Kisner never got any closer, losing holes 7 and 10 to fall 7-down with just eight holes to play. A birdie on the par-3 11th gave Kisner his only won-hole in the championship match, but Watson responded with a birdie on the par-5 12th to end the match shockingly early, with a final score of 7&6.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR WATSON
After a disappointing 2017 season where he had to scramble just to reach the second round of the FedExCup Playoffs, Watson further hurt his profile with an awful start to 2018, going T51, 67, CUT, T40, and T35 in his first five starts of the season.
He then won the Genesis Open by two strokes, off the strength of a phenomenal weekend, but many doubted whether Bubba was really “back” to elite form, as he had previously won the Genesis Open on two occasions, and seemed exceptionally comfortable at the host venue, Riviera Country Club.
Watson put those doubts to rest with his thrashing of an amazingly-strong field at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. He will now be considered among the favorites when he tees up next, at Augusta next month for The Masters.
With a victory, Watson would join legends Jimmy DeMaret, Gary Player, Sam Snead, Nick Faldo, and Phil Mickelson as the only players with three green jackets. Only Jack Nicklaus (6), Arnold Palmer (4), and Tiger Woods (4) would have more.
As for the next time we will see Bubba in match play? Thanks to this victory, that is very likely to be at the Ryder Cup in late September, which has to feel tremendous for the man who just narrowly missed a spot at Hazeltine in 2016. He ended up accepting a co-captaincy, but to a competitor like Bubba, that is nowhere near the same.
“I got off to a hot start, and I’m just focused on golf. Obviously, hugging my mom just then, she said I was good, but I said ‘without you, I’m nothing”, so without my mom’s upbringing, who knows what I would be doing, so it’s all credit to her, but I got off to a good start, so focused on golf, so focused on committing to the shots, and like I said just a second ago, about 4-5 shots for the week where I wasn’t committed, where I kind of blanked out, so that’s pretty good over a 100-something holes, whatever, however many holes we play.”
– Bubba Watson, WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Champion