Welcome to the World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play, y’all!
The annual tournament boasting 64 of the world’s best golfers has a new home at Austin Country Club in Texas. So, if things get weird, it’ll make sense in the backyard of progressive culture and vibrant nightlife. Austin is also the hometown and serves as the headquarters for the new title sponsor. The tournament will be at ACC and sponsored by Dell for at least four years, so what is new to most in this week’s field will soon be as familiar to its association with Harvey Penick and his students, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, all World Golf Hall of Famers.
The club has existed since 1899, but ACC is its third site. It was designed in 1984 by another member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Pete Dye. At just 7,073 yards, routed as a par 35-36=71 and because shot shape is so critical from the tee to smallish greens, it draws comparisons to another Dye fave, Harbour Town Golf Links, host of the annual RBC Heritage. ACC’s nines are reversed for the Match Play, so the side commonly referred to as the lowlands nine will serve as holes 10-18 this week. The front half better resembles the Hill Country for which this region is known. But all vistas are striking, many replete with Dye’s ubiquitous railroad ties drawing distinct lines between the safety of dry land and a watery grave. It’s the kind of risk-reward element that fans should love in this format.
Golf course designer and land mover Rod Whitman collaborated with Dye to build ACC. Whitman was already renovating the course when the PGA TOUR came a-callin’. Fairways are now equipped with new 419 Bermudagrass while, for the third consecutive week, the touring pros will be putting on freshly planted TifEagle Bermuda greens. The course reopened on Nov. 1. This week’s surfaces were over-seeded to maintain control. Whitman also upgraded and added numerous bunkers throughout, but most of the field will be seeing the track for the first time, so those changes will be the only reality they know. Only Jordan Spieth (University of Texas product), Jason Dufner (earlier this year) and Jimmy Walker (as a junior) are known to have stepped foot on the property before this week. Fifteen of the participants are making their first appearance in the tournament.
ACC isn’t the first Dye work to host a WGC event, but you need to go back to the 2003 to find the other. Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course hosted the World Cup that year. While the layouts couldn’t be more dissimilar, wind on both is a major concern. It’s going to be a factor at least through Thursday until a system passes all the way through. A cooling will accompany it before a quick return to seasonal highs in the 70s and 80s. The combination of the elements and the requirements to score well here suggest that ball-striking is the ticket to the weekend. A low ball flight won’t hurt, but distance control is the premium. Tee-to-green specialists who are arriving in good form and with the experience to thrive in the wind are the paper favorites. But, of course, this is match play where anything can happen. It’s cliché, but expect the unexpected.
The round-robin format introduced last year is back, but with an additional twist. If during any of the first three matches golfers are all square after 18 holes, each will be credited with one-half of one point. Wins still count as a full point and losses are still worth zero. Playoffs will only be used to determine any of the 16 to advance from round robin and for any of the matches thereafter. Last year, 12 of the 16 survivors of round robin went 3-0. The other four lost a match in pool play, including semifinalist Jim Furyk, who is one of two to decline a spot in this week’s tournament. He’s still on the mend from having surgery on his left wrist. Henrik Stenson is the other to take a pass. Of the 16 top seeds a year ago, only five advanced, but champion Rory McIlroy was one of them.
Zach Johnson - Tom Kite's pick to win. That might surprise ZJ in that he escapted the first round only twice in last nine tries. But ACC suits his strength. Fresh off solo fifth at Bay Hill, too.
Louis Oosthuizen - Quarterfinalizst in the last two editions (with different formats, remember). Pouring it on worldwide of late: T12 in Malaysia, win in Perth, T14 at Doral, T7 at Copperhead.
Danny Willet - Gradual ascension up the world ranking (currently 10th) includes win in Dubai last month. T3 in last two WGCs. Solo third in Match Play debut last year.
Rickie Fowler - Purring along at a high level of execution. Undefeated in pool play last year, solo third in 2014. Seventh in both strokes-gained stats. Leads Tour in bogey avoidance.
Marc Leishman - Among the best on the planet in the wind. Went 3-0 in round robin last year. Recent form has yielded a T5 (Riviera) and a T17 (Bay Hill). 11th in the all-around.
Jason Day - Got shut out as the defending chap last year because that's match play, but now beaming off wire-to-wire title at Bay Hill. Six Tour wins in last 13 1/2 months.
Patrick Reed - Lost only to a steamrolling Danny Willet last year. The American has elevated his game with seven top 10's since September. Already has one win in the GGC.
Adam Scott - It's been 11 years since he was a threat, but he's been striping his irons of late. You know that the short putter is cooperating, too. T2-Win-Win-T12 coming in.
Russell Knox - Debut. Still without a top 25 in 2016, but ranks second in GIT and T9 in ball striking. That takes pressure off substandard putting. Bona fide sleeper.
Jimmy Walker - Hasn't pegged it at ACC with any regularity since junior days, but Hill Country is still home at 37 years of age. Five top 15s to start 2015; solo sixth at Doral in last start.
Charl Schwartzel - Winner in three of his last six starts worldwide, including the Valspar Championship in a playoff. Went undefeated in round robin last year. In his prim at 31.
J.B. Holmes - Site swith could neutralize his length, but he's been consistently strong for over 13 months now that the shorter course makes him even more dangerous to dismiss.
Hideki Matsuyama - T6 at Bay Hill alleviated concern over sore right hip flexor (WD, Honda). So strong on approach that he should be applying presssure all week. Went 3-0 to open last year.
Matt Kuchar - Former champion of the Match Play (2013) and RBC Heritage (2014). Low ball flight, tee-to-green precision and proper temperament for the conditions are all assets.
Jordan Spieth - Transplanted home game as a Longhorn. Most familiar with the course, which seems unfair as world No.1, but he still needs to execute. Bounced in round robin last year.
Rory McIlroy - The defending champ is putting better with the new grip than advertised. Never slumps. Primary weapon this week will be strength to escape when wayward.
Paul Casey - Two-time runner-up (2009, 2010) was a quarterfinalist last year. Solo seventh and T9 in two starts on the Florida Swing. Second on Tour in ball-striking.
Justin Rose - Fared exponentially better at the Ryder Cup than in this tournament, but ACC caters much more to his ball-striking than previous sites. Top 20s in last four starts of 2016.
Brooks Koepka - Physical skill set doesn't fit ACC, but he's adapted like a season pro everywhere. Went 2-1 in debut last year with concern over a residual rib injury. Potential buzz saw.
Smylie Kaufman - Debut. The virtual unknown who no one wants to draw. The rookie has six top 15s already this season. Ranks 15th in the all-around. Full of swagger.
Billy Horschel - Pushed eventual champ Rory McIlroy to 20 holes in epic close to round robin. It was, as expected, exactly the kind of format that meshes with Horschel's competitive edge.
Branden Grace - Emerged from the same pool that included Jason Day and Zach Johnson last year. Still a bit of a demarcation line between worldwide and U.S. results, unofortunately.
Kevin Kisner - Dubut. Splashed on the scene with playoff losses on a pair of Dye designs (Harbour Town, TPC Sawgrass) in 2015. Form is sketchy, but he tops on Tour in the all-around.
Phil Mickelson - First appearance since 2011. Undefeated in first round in last eight starts but under previous format. Rested since solo fith at Doral; three top fives in 2016.
Charley Hoffman - Off to a slow start to 2015-16 and still inconsistent, but has found a gear at the right time. Took down Jason Day and Zach Johnson in round robin last year.
Andy Sullivan - Potentially dangerous talent from England. Three wins and two seconds in last 14 months. Went 1-2 in debut last year, so expect a stronger level of comfort.