Most of the country is obsessing over the bracket that ends in Minneapolis, but while college basketball has its share of inimitable drama, there is an even better bracket unfolding this week in Austin, Texas. Austin Country Club again plays host to the WGC: Dell Technologies Match Play, the last elite-field event before The Masters tees off at Augusta next month.
Since 2015, the straight bracket competition of the past has been transmuted into a round-robin followed by a 16-player bracket that pits each of the world’s best against each other for at least three matches.
The Dell Technologies Match Play has been largely unpredictable, but we like the chances of the following 15 golfers slightly more than we like the rest:
15. Louis Oosthuizen
The man who seems to have the market cornered on second place finishes picked up another one at last week’s Valspar Championship, which can be largely credited to a very dialed-in short game.
Oosthuizen has an excellent history in this event, with his best finish being a runner-up to Jason Day in 2016. Last year, he again made it out of pool play, before dropping a close one to Ian Poulter, and the year prior, while he failed to make it out of the group stage, he did go 2-1-0 with both wins being landslides.
The South African also showed off match play prowess at the last Presidents Cup, defeating match play wizard Patrick Reed in Sunday singles. He will have the difficult task of taking down Tommy Fleetwood, who struggles mightily to put four good days together, but is coming off back-to-back top 5s on Tour.
World Rank: 20th
Group 11: A.) Tommy Fleetwood, B.) Louis Oosthuizen, C.) Kyle Stanley, D.) Byeong Hun An
14. Tiger Woods
Mr. WGC himself, Tiger has not played this event since 2013, but has a sparking record, notching three victories and a runner-up. His remarkable comeback season in 2018 would lead one to think he would be among the favorites at this year’s Match Play, but his most recent match play experience – not counting his 22-hole loss in “The Match” against Phil Mickelson, has left a lot to be desired, as his 0-4-0 Ryder Cup was a categorical nightmare.
It could be argued, however, that Tiger was out of gas by Ryder Cup time, given that he played significantly more golf than he had in years. The ping pong balls did Tiger no favors, placing him in a difficult group with Patrick Cantlay, Brandt Snedeker, and Aaron Wise, but as usual with Tiger, if he gets going, watch the hell out.
World Rank: 20th
Group 13: A.) Tiger Woods, B.) Patrick Cantlay, C.) Brandt Snedeker, D.) Aaron Wise
13. Matt Kuchar
Kuchar has been abysmal in singles in recent Ryder and Presidents Cups, but for some reason, he always seems to show up for the Match Play, winning the 2013 edition and making deep runs on several other occasions. He has tailed off considerably since his two early season victories, but he seems to be playing with a more tenacious mentality, and has largely been getting the best out of his game.
Having to be in Jon Rahm’s group is tough, but if he can at least halve that match, it would be surprising if Kuchar did not go far in this year’s tournament. Showing tremendous accuracy this season, he currently leads the Tour in greens in regulation and ranks fifth in driving accuracy.
World Rank: 24th
Group 8: A.) Jon Rahm, B.) Matt Kuchar, C.) J.B. Holmes, D.) Si Woo Kim
12. Paul Casey
Casey is riding confidence after his successful defense of his 2018 title at last week’s Valspar Championship, where he finally was able to hold onto a lead, something that had plagued him in recent years.
Casey is a surprisingly good match-play golfer, particularly at this event where he reached the championship match in 2009 and 2010. A year ago, he looked destined to advance out of the group stage, but unexpectedly lost to Matthew Fitzpatrick in his third match before losing to Kyle Stanley on the second hole of a tiebreaker.
In addition to his recent victory, he also has two other top 3 finishes in the last two months: a solo-second to Phil Mickelson at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and a T3 at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Casey does have a difficult draw in group play this year though, with Cameron Smith, Charles Howell III, and Abraham Ancer in his path to the final 16 bracket.
World Rank: 11th
Group 10: A.) Paul Casey, B.) Cameron Smith, C.) Charles Howell III, D.) Abraham Ancer
11. Bubba Watson
The defending champion absolutely humiliated Kevin Kisner in the championship match, winning each of the first five holes and cruising to a 7&6 victory. Could Bubba be the first to go back-to-back since Tiger Woods in 2003-2004?
Maybe; the story on Bubba is that he often plays well at events where he has played well before. He won three times in 2018, and while he has yet to add a 13th career victory, he does have a pair of T4s on the season, including at last week’s Valspar Championship where he tied for the least bogeys of anyone in the field.
The strength of his group is hard to quantify, because his Group B golfer was Jordan Spieth, who has a phenomenal match-play history, but has seen his game completely implode over the past 6-8 months. Billy Horschel and Kevin Na provide tough tests as well.
World Rank: 16th
Group 15: A.) Bubba Watson, B.) Jordan Spieth, C.) Billy Horschel, D.) Kevin Na
10. Brooks Koepka
The world No. 3 had to miss this event a year ago with a wrist injury, but played very well in his two previous tries, making it out of group play in both 2016 and 2017.
The reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year has not been sharp in 2019. He appeared to break out of a slump with a T2 at T2 at the Honda Classic, but then missed the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and finished T56 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
He seems to be one of those players who can just turn it on at any time, so we would not be terribly surprised by any possible outcome this week.
World Rank: 3rd
Group 3: A.) Brooks Koepka, B.) Alex Noren, C.) Haotong Li, D.) Tom Lewis
9. Xander Schauffele
With two victories in the current season, the 25-year-old Schauffele finds himself ranked inside the world’s top 10 coming into the week. He has tailed off modestly since the second of those two wins, which occurred at January’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, but as one of the toughest players on Tour to intimidate, he has the potential to be an elite match-play golfer.
In his Match Play debut a year ago, Schauffele knocked off Dylan Frittelli and Shubhankar Sharma before a close loss to Sergio Garcia prevented him from reaching the final 16 bracket.
His draw this year could be considered either favorable or unfavorable. Rafa Cabrera Bello, Tyrrell Hatton, and Lee Westwood have all had periods of great success as professional golfers, but none of them are currently in great form.
World Rank: 9th
Group 9: A.) Xander Schauffele, B.) Rafa Cabrera Bello, C.) Tyrrell Hatton, D.) Lee Westwood
8. Ian Poulter
Nobody loves match play more than Poulter, who is one of the greatest Ryder Cup players ever, and has a sparkling history in this event, including a victory in 2010. He did well last year, advancing out of group play, and beating Louis Oosthuizen in the first round before uncharacteristically getting demolished by Kevin Kisner in the quarterfinals.
Aside from a nightmare weekend at THE PLAYERS, Poulter has been playing very well over the past three months, and he ranks 17th on Tour in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation, while maintaining above-average length.
He also got a favorable draw in group play, as his A group golfer, Tony Finau, has been off his game. He will, however, be subjected to a rematch against Kisner, who has been absurdly inconsistent this year, but was a finalist a year ago.
World Rank: 32nd
Group 14: A.) Tony Finau, B.) Ian Poulter, C.) Kevin Kisner, D.) Keith Mitchell
7. Justin Rose
Rose has been surprisingly hit-or-miss in 2019, but over the past year and a half, no golfer has been more consistently great. Among his hits in the new year are a dominating victory in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, and an impressive bounceback from an opening-round 74 to finish T8 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
Rose has not played this event the past two years, with his most recent attempt being a 1-1-1 effort in 2016. Over the past two Ryder Cups, he has paired to make a phenomenal team with Henrik Stenson, but lost both his Sunday singles matches, making it hard to decipher just how good of a match play golfer he really is.
It helps that he is currently third in birdie average on Tour.
World Rank: 2nd
Group 2: A.) Justin Rose, B.) Gary Woodland, C.) Eddie Pepperell, D.) Emiliano Grillo
6. Jon Rahm
Rahm’s two appearances at the Dell Technologies Match Play could not have been more diametrically opposed to each other. Two years ago, he advanced from group play and then obliterated his next three opponents on his way to finals match where he nearly pulled off an extraordinary comeback against a white-hot Dustin Johnson.
Last year was a completely different story however, as Rahm halved with Keegan Bradley, who has been terrible in this event, before losing to both Chez Reavie and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
Aside from squandering the 54-hole lead at THE PLAYERS, Rahm has looked closer to his 2017 self than his 2018 self as of late, notching an impressive six top-10 finishes in nine Tour starts. He will have his work cut out for him with 2013 champion Matt Kuchar in his group, but if he clears that hurdle, he stands an excellent chance of making another deep run.
World Rank: 8th
Group 8: A.) Jon Rahm, B.) Matt Kuchar, C.) J.B. Holmes, D.) Si Woo Kim
5. Jason Day
Day is a two-time winner of this event (2014, 2016), but among the A group golfers, he got easily the toughest draw, having to fight his way out of a brutal group that includes Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, and a hot Jim Furyk.
Still, this is an event where he has enormous confidence, and prior to his anomalous missed cut at last week’s Valspar Championship, he was on a string of three straight top-8 finishes.
At fifth on Tour in strokes gained: putting, Day is dialed in with the flatstick, which has been an equalizer in this event in the recent past (see Kevin Kisner and Alex Noren). If he is healthy, which he seems to be, we expect Day to bounce back from his surprising result a week ago.
World Rank: 13th
Group 12: A.) Jason Day, B.) Phil Mickelson, C.) Henrik Stenson, D.) Jim Furyk
4. Francesco Molinari
Molinari has mostly a poor history in this event, but he is undeniably a better golfer than he was prior to the 2018 season. Just look at what he did at the Ryder Cup last September, pulling off a record 5-0-0 tally for the winning European side.
He also recently busted out of a quasi-slump to start the 2019 calendar year, with an impressive victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he blitzed the Sunday field. There was also that Open Championship he won last July.
As the group A golfer of group 7, the Italian should have an excellent chance to advance from group play, having drawn Webb Simpson, a reeling Thorbjorn Olesen, and a badly struggling Satoshi Kodaira.
World Rank: 7th
Group 7: A.) Francesco Molinari, B.) Webb Simpson, C.) Thorbjorn Olesen, D.) Satoshi Kodaira
3. Justin Thomas
A 10-time Tour winner, Thomas got off to a hot start in the 2019 season with five top 10s in his first seven starts, but he has tailed off considerably in his last two outings, following a T30 at the Honda Classic with a T35 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
Despite those recent mediocre outings, however, Thomas leads the Tour in birdie average and scoring average, while ranking 4th in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
Thomas reached the third place match in last year’s edition, and stands a great chance of repeating, or even surpassing that feat this year, as he was fortunate getting a favorable draw for group play. His B group golfer is Keegan Bradley, who has been a disaster in this event, and neither Matt Wallace nor Lucas Bjerregaard have played this event before.
World Rank: 5th
Group 7: A.) Justin Thomas, B.) Keegan Bradley, C.) Matt Wallace, D.) Lucas Bjerregaard
2. Dustin Johnson
The World No. 1 looked anything but on Sunday at last week’s Valspar Championship, reaching the final pairing, but failing to card in a single birdie in the final round.
Still, he has five top-10 finishes in his last six starts worldwide, including two victories. DJ was surprisingly awful in this event last year, but he was absolutely dominant in his 2017 Match Play victory, where he lead after nearly every hole the entire week.
He has a penchant for these WGC events, as his six WGC victories ranks second to Tiger Woods all-time, and he was the champion of the most recent WGC, February’s Mexico Championship.
World Rank: 1st
Group 7: A.) Dustin Johnson, B.) Hideki Matsuyama, C.) Branden Grace, D.) Chez Reavie
1. Rory McIlroy
The 2015 Match Play Champion and 2012 runner-up, McIlroy is red-hot as of late, having finished in the top six of his past six starts, and while he had been having difficulties closing, he stayed out front in his last start for a big-time win at THE PLAYERS Championship.
While no group is easy, McIlroy has a favorable draw to get out of group play, as all three of his opponents have done little to nothing in this event.
Matthew Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. Amateur winner had done little in the states as a professional, until two starts ago, when he finished solo runner-up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Justin Harding is an up-and-coming South African star who has gone T2-WIN in his last two European Tour starts, but he is an event rookie and it is probably too much to expect him to give Rory a serious run. Luke List was terrible in this event last year, and has been largely inconsistent over the past two years on Tour.
World Rank: 4th
Group 4: A.) Rory McIlroy, B.) Matthew Fitzpatrick, C.) Justin Harding, D.) Luke List
Next Five: Bryson DeChambeau, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia, Cameron Smith, Tony Finau