Tournament: Dell Technologies Match Play, March 22-26, 2023. One of the few tournaments that start on Wednesday.
Course: Austin Country Club, par 71, 7,108 yards. On the northern outskirts of Austin, but not as far as Round Rock (if you know Round Rock, I commiserate).
Purse: $20 million as a designated event, with $3.5 million to the winner; $2.2 million to the other finalist; $1.4 and $1.1 million to the semi-finalists; $643k to the final 8; $367k for making it to the knock out round. Dead last is guaranteed $66,667 - like don’t have to win a single hole dead last.
Defending Champ: Scottie Scheffler. In what was becoming the Season of Scottie, the UT product marched his way through both pool and knock out rounds until facing Georgia Bulldog and former champion Kevin Kisner in the final. Scheffler went up 3 early and held on for a 3 and 2 win. It was his third win in six starts and made him the #1 player in the world. And that was before the Masters (foreshadowing!!).
Fun Fact: In the 2006 Match Play, Canada’s Stephen Ames was pitted against Tiger Woods when he was, well, Tiger. When asked about his chances before the match, Ames said “Anything can happen, especially where he’s hitting the ball.” And how did that turn out, you wonder? Tiger won the first 8 holes of the match (going 7 under par for that stretch) and won the 18 hole match on the 10th hole (score = 9 and 8). And that is the shame of it - it ended waaaaqy too early. That realistically could have been a 59 or 58. Yeah, I know it doesn’t count since it was match play and not stroke play, but still...
TV Times: Wednesday-Friday, 2 p.m.-8 p.m. ET (Golf Channel). Saturday, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. (Golf Channel). 12 p.m.-6 p.m. (NBC). Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Golf Channel), 3 p.m.-7 p.m. (NBC)
‘Dawgs in the Field: 8. Keith Mitchell, Brian Harman, Kevin Kisner, Harris English, Chris Kirk, Russell Henley, Sepp Straka, and Davis Thompson.
It’s a tournament time of year, with brackets, seeding, and a final four. Golf took notice and introduced the Match Play back in 1999. It has undergone some sponsor changes and a few tweaks to the format, but it still is essentially open to the top 64 in the world rankings, pitted against each other, with a huge payout for the winner.
The players are invited based on world ranking. If a ranked player declines to play, that spot is taken by the next highest ranked player available. With several top 64 players not entered this week (a few with a week off, several playing for LIV), Cam Davis is the lowest ranked player in the field at #79 (currently). But instead of scheduling #1 vs. #64, the top 16 are given “A” player status and split over 16 groups. Then seeds 17-32 (“B”) are randomly sprinkled in these groups, along with random selections of 33-48 (“C”), and then 49-64 as “D” players. So each of the 16 groups has a top player and a B, C, and D player.
The first 3 days are round-robin within each group. So by Friday, each player in the group will have played against the other three in match play format (winning a hole, not lowest score for the round). A win gets the player a point. A halve, or tie, after 18 holes gives each player half a point. A loss is obviously no points. He with the most points advances out of round robin play and into the knock-out round. If players are tied in points, they play each other in sudden-death stroke play.
Saturday morning will be the round of 16 (Sweet 16); the winners advance to Saturday afternoon for the quarterfinals (Elite 8). Sunday morning is the Final Four, with those two winners playing Sunday afternoon in the final - and a consolation match to determine 3rd and 4th place.
The reason for the “pool play” at the beginning is to satisfy two masters. One, the players themselves who don’t want to make the trip and do the prep to potentially go one-and-done. This way they are guaranteed 3 rounds, plus a chance to make up for an off day. And really, any player can be upset by anyone else. And two, the ever-present TV. Give the top stars 3 chances, and they likely win two of them. So by incorporating round robin at the beginning, you’re giving the stars a better chance to be around on the increasingly viewed weekend coverage. Which makes sponsors happy. You know the drill.
With eight Bulldogs entered, there’s a good chance they are assigned to the same group and thus have to defeat each other to move on. That has happened frequently in the past couple of years. Yet as a result of current rankings, we have 4 ‘Dawgs considered “B”, 3 considered “C” and 1 as a “D” player. And luck was on our side. Because only two are assigned to the same group. Here is who to root for:
Group 2 has Keith Mitchell as the #39 seed, alongside Jon Rahm (2), Rickie Fowler (49), and Billy Horschel (22).
Brian Harman (25) is in Group 4, as is Patrick Cantlay (4), KH Lee (35), and Nick Taylor (55).
Kevin Kisner (42) is the C player in Group 5. He will square off against Max Homa (5), Hideki Matsuyama (18), and Justin Suh (63). Kisner has won this event in the past, and been runner-up twice. He hasn’t had good form of late, so maybe this is where he turns it around.
Harris English (37) will face Will Zalatoris (7), Ryan Fox (29), and Andrew Putnam (56). I like Harris’ chances here.
Group 8 includes Chris Kirk (28) in the “B” spot, Viktor Hovland (8) as the “A”, Si Woo Kim (34) as the “C”, and Trade Schooler Matt Kuchar (59) as the “D”.
Russell Henley (31) is in Group 14, playing against a pretty hold Tyrell Hatton (14), Lucas Herbert (46), and Ben Griffin (62). Henley is actually the most accomplished of the group.
Group 15 has the issue for us UGA fans. Cameron Young (15) with a new caddie, Corey Conners (36) with all his Canadianisms, then fellow Bulldogs Sepp Straka (27) and Davis Thompson (57).
This particular iteration will have a bit of melancholy to it; the PGA Tour announced last month that this event is not on the 2024 PGA Tour schedule. It is last of a dying breed - both as a World Golf Championship event and as the sole individual match play format on the calendar.
WGC’s were novel and, in my opinion, kinda fun when they came out almost 25 years ago. cough We will ignore that the concept was remarkably similar to Greg Norman’s failed World Golf Tour proposal in the 1990’s cough cough. The PGA Tour has instead plunged into the “designated event” body of water and dragged their corporate sponsors with them. So the WGCs have been dying on the vine for a while now. Add in the match play, which some fans just don’t like and some sponsors aren’t willing to risk (they want big stars on Saturday and Sunday afternoons guaranteed), and the Tour has officially taken the pivot. Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has left open the possibility that match play could return in the future, but this is going to be it for a while.
This has turned into a much longer post than I intended but I’d like to mention the course. Austin Country Club is in Texas Hill Country. The property starts out on a high bluff, then makes a turn down the hill into a valley and the bordering Colorado River (it’s called Lake Austin but it is the river with a smidge of dam control), before turning back up the hill and finishing back where it started. The 12th hole is a par 5 tumbling a long way downhill, and there will be a few 400 yard drives. Then the 13th is a short, driveable par 4 but with a large carry over water. This is where the matches can turn, and the design gets the golf interesting.
Enjoy another chance at busting brackets, and enjoy the first stop in the “Texas Two Step”. And as always...