Picking the winners of each of the 16 round-robin “pods” at this week’s WGC-Dell Match Play is a tall order, let alone picking the overall champion. The tournament is in its first year at new venue Austin Country Club, a course that Tour veteran and Austin C.C. member Bob Estes says “probably only a handful” of players have seen before this week.
What’s more, the forecast calls for strong wind Wednesday and Thursday. And now that pod matches can end in a tie, giving players half a point, there are sure to be several sudden-death playoffs Friday to determine who advances.
Which players are most likely to do so? Behold, our bold predictions.
Pod 1: Spieth (1), Thomas (31), Dubuisson (39), Donaldson (51)
Much has been written, already, about top-seeded Jordan Spieth and friend Justin Thomas winding up in the same pod. (They play Friday.) The real wildcard in this group, though, is Frenchman Victor Dubuisson.
Austin C.C. is not a bomber’s course, and Estes says it will favor a player with a penetrating right-to-left ball flight off the tee, an accurate wedge game, and some short game magic. Dubuisson ticks all those boxes, and it was only two years ago that he finished runner-up to Jason Day in the WGC-Accenture Match Play, when it was still held north of Tucson, Ariz.
Most likely to advance: This will be a squeaker, with Spieth barely beating the pesky V-Dub.
Pod 2: Day (2), Casey (23), Jaidee (36), McDowell (62)
This one’s up for grabs. Day is coming off a victory at Arnie’s event, but he’s a match-play enigma. He won the whole thing in 2014, went 0-3 at Harding Park last year, and hasn’t played his best in the Presidents Cup. Also, if he’s off his game, tee to green, as he was at Bay Hill, he’ll have a harder time recovering at tight Austin C.C.
Casey, who made the 2009 and ’10 championship matches, losing to Geoff Ogilvy and Ian Poulter, respectively, is coming off top-10 finishes at Doral and Bay Hill.
Most likely to advance: McDowell is also a tough out in match play and is the best fit here thanks to his low, penetrating draw off the tee. G-Mac advances.
Pod 3: McIlroy (3), Na (26), Kaufman (46), Olesen (64)
The defending champion in this event, McIlroy has also looked a bit wobbly this year, succumbing to more bad days and bad rounds than usual. What’s more, Estes says, the course is a nice fit for Na.
Most likely to advance: Is there an upset in the making? Nah. McIlroy is coming off a final-round 65 at Bay Hill, and he simply has too much pedigree relative to the other three. He wins this pod.
Pod 4: Watson (4), Holmes (21), Grillo (33), Kizzire (63)
Look for Holmes and Watson to have a go at driving the green at the par-4 13th hole, and to have an advantage on the eighth hole, which has been converted from a par 5 to a par 4 for the tournament. But Austin C.C. is a cozy place; as Estes says, “Every hole is either tight or relatively tight.”
Most likely to advance: Tight lines could handcuff Holmes and Watson. Look for Grillo and Kizzire to surprise here, with the popular Argentinian Grillo advancing.
Pod 5: Fowler (5), An (27), Piercy (47), Dufner (58)
Unlike most of the competition, Dufner has already seen the course. He joined Tom Kite for a round at Austin C.C. when he was in town to see instructor Chuck Cook earlier this season. The Duf is also back to playing his type of golf, having won in Palm Desert this season.
Most likely to advance: To make it to the weekend, Duf would have to get past Fowler, who loves this event and is just now finding out how good he can be. Such an upset seems unlikely; Fowler gets through.
Pod 6: Scott (6), Haas (30), Wood (41), Pieters (55)
As he proved at the Presidents Cup, Haas is comfortable in match play and can come up with the goods under pressure—his sudden-death loss at the recent Valspar Championship notwithstanding. As he proved at the Honda and the WGC-Cadillac at Doral, Scott can win anywhere.
Most likely to advance: Scott nips Haas to get through to the round of 16.
Pod 7: Rose (7), Kuchar (28), Lahiri (48), Gomez (57)
Lahiri looked best at big, broad-shouldered Whistling Straits last summer, but he’ll be presented with no such thing at Austin C.C. Kuchar hasn’t really been on form, and Gomez might feel out of his depth.
Most likely to advance: Much like McIlroy, Justin Rose is simply too accomplished relative to the others in his group not to prevail. He also just finished T9 at Bay Hill.
Pod 8: D. Johnson (8), Walker (22), Aphibarnrat (37), Streb (49)
Jimmy Walker played the course in college, so the experience edge goes to him. But form trumps experience, and guess who shot a final-round 65 to finish T6 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational? Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
Pod 9: Reed (9), Mickelson (17), Fitzpatrick (42), Berger (53)
Phil Mickelson hasn’t played this tournament since Fowler crushed him 6 and 5 in the second round in 2011, back when this was still a single-elimination affair. This time around Lefty is guaranteed at least three matches, which should put him in a sunny frame of mind as he preps for Augusta. And he already has three top-five finishes this season.
Most likely to advance: Phil’s needs to get past the match-tough Reed to advance. Can he? Yes, he can, and, yes, he will.
Pod 10: Willett (10), Koepka (18), Horschel (40), Van Zyl (50)
Match play is a strange animal, so it’s a good idea to be leery of a guy like Jaco Van Zyl, whose name would net three figures in Scrabble. But let’s face it: Willett, who beat Jim Furyk in the third-place match at Harding Park last year, is a star.
Most likely to advance: The Englishman with the cool swing gets through here.
Pod 11: Grace (11), Knox (32), Lingmerth (38), Kirk (54)
Brandon Grace crushes the ball and has a ton of game. Kirk is the best putter, and as he showed at the Presidents Cup that makes him hard to beat.
Most likely to advance: With his low-trajectory drives cutting through the wind, Grace owns the long game but finally succumbs to Kirk’s putting prowess.
Pod 12: Matsuyama (12), Kisner (20), Kjeldsen (43), Cabrera Bello (52)
So many crazy things can happen in match play that the best defense is to maintain a great attitude. Kisner does just that, but Matsuyama is fresh off a final-round 67 and a T6 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
Most likely to advance: Kisner and Matsuyama go into sudden death Friday; Kisner takes it.
Pod 13: Garcia (13), Leishman (25), Moore (45), Westwood (59)
If the wind is up for the first two rounds, as predicted, it could play right into the hands of the underrated Marc Leishman. The big Australian’s final-round 66 at last summer’s British Open at St. Andrews, where it was raining sideways, was one of the finest rounds of 2015.
Most likely to advance: You gotta like Leishman.
Pod 14: Z. Johnson (14), Lowry (24), Kaymer (44), Fraser (60)
Many pundits are already picking Johnson, who was fifth at Bay Hill, and who shot the other 66 in sideways rain at the British Open last summer, as your winner at this Match Play. Why? Because Z.J. has an awesome wedge game and an iron stomach, rolling in the big putts under pressure.
Most likely to advance: Lowry thrives in match play, but Zach will just edge him.
Pod 15: Snedeker (15), Schwartzel (19), Lee (34), Hoffman (56)
Most likely to advance: Go with the hot golfer: Charl Schwartzel, who is just now remembering how great a player he really is, and who smiled his way to a sudden-death victory over Bill Haas at the recent Valspar Championship.
Pod 16: Oosthuizen (16), Sullivan (29), Wiesberger (35), Jones (61)
Most likely to advance: Europeans know how good Andy Sullivan is, but he’s still relatively unknown in America. Oosty is tough, but the guess here is Sullivan uses the element of surprise to his advantage to win his pod—just as he did last year.