A top-shelf field has descended on Austin for another edition of the WGC-Match Play. Thinking of placing a wager? This event is both excellent for prop bets (anything can happen!) and treacherous for prognosticators (seriously, anything can happen!) In 2015 the Match Play changed its format to three rounds of pool play followed by 16 players advancing to single-round knockout. The move sapped the event of early-round drama and I really wish it would return to its cutthroat roots, but today it remains unpredictable and fun for bettors – especially during the weekend knockout rounds.
Austin Country Club is a 7,100-yard, par 71, and it’s hosting for the fourth straight year, so we can spot a few trends. Your past three winners: Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day. Big hitters. Elite players. Your past three runners-up: Kevin Kisner, Jon Rahm and Louis Oosthuizen. With the exception of the light-swinging Kis, all big hitters.
Clearly, the evidence points toward long hitters in top form, and that will be our compass. How should you fill out your own bracket? Here is one man’s breakdown.
No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 24 Hideki Matsuyama, No. 40 Branden Grace, No. 55 Chez Reavie
DJ is a past winner and has a pretty good draw here to get through. Matsuyama is streaky and Grace is gritty, but DJ looks like one of the safest bets on the board for the next round.
No. 2 Justin Rose, No. 22 Gary Woodland, No. 34 Eddie Pepperell, No. 53 Emiliano Grillo
Unlike top-ranked DJ, Rose’s bracket is brutal. Woodland is a previous semifinalist and riding the best 12-month stretch of his career. Pepperell is rising and Grillo is a Presidents Cup veteran who’s also ascending. Any of the four could make it, but we’ll take Pepperell to be the lone first-timer to advance.
No. 3 Brooks Koepka, 27 Alex Noren, 36 Haotong Li, No. 60 Tom Lewis
This looks like a two-man battle for the next round between Koepka and Noren. Brooks missed this event last year while recovering from a wrist injury, but he advanced from the group stage in 2017 and ’16. Noren placed third last year and boasts an 11-4 all-time record in this event. They’ll play Friday for a spot in the round of 16, and I’ll take Koepka to pull it out – jumpstarting a championship run.
No. 4 Rory McIlroy, No. 32 Matthew Fitzpatrick, No. 47 Justin Harding, No. 64 Luke List
List went 0-3 last year and Harding is making his debut. Fitzpatrick hasn’t made a dent in this event, but he did finish second a few weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But how can you pick against McIlroy, who’s riding the wave after his Players win? If he gets complacent, he’ll get bounced, but Rory is the pick, and I think he’s going deep again this year.
No. 5 Justin Thomas, No. 31 Keegan Bradley, No. 33 Matt Wallace, No. 50 Lucas Bjerregaard
JT rolled to the semifinal last year before falling to Bubba, and with two newbies in his bracket in Wallace and Bjerregaard, things are set up well for Thomas to safely advance from here.
No. 6 Bryson DeChambeau, No. 17 Marc Leishman, No. 39 Kiradech Aphibarnrat, No. 59 Russell Knox
DeChambeau makes his debut in this event, but he’s in a tough group. Leishman has cracked the round of 16 a couple of times and Aphibarnrat advanced to the quarters last year, where he was trucked by Bubba. Bryson, as a former U.S. Am winner, is probably the betting favorite, but I’m taking Leishman in a mild upset.
No. 7 Francesco Molinari, No. 21 Webb Simpson, No. 45 Thorbjorn Olesen, No. 63 Satoshi Kodaira
Molinari has never advanced from the group stage, but this isn’t your 1-year-old son’s Francesco Molinari. Simpson and Olesen have never distinguished themselves here, and Kodaira was swept last year in his debut. Molinari moves on.
No. 8 Jon Rahm, No. 23 Matt Kuchar, No. 43 J.B. Holmes, No. 54 Si Woo Kim
After falling to DJ in the 2017 championship match, Rahm didn’t make it out of the group stage last year. Kuchar has two wins this season and a 24-9-3 record in this event. Holmes and Kim are both streaky and could easily spring an upset, but we’ll take the wily veteran Kuchar to come through.
No. 9 Xander Schauffele, No. 29 Rafa Cabrera-Bello, No. 35 Tyrrell Hatton, No. 62 Lee Westwood
Schauffele was picked off in the group stage last year, but he enters this one with two Tour wins under his belt and the slight favorite. But Cabrera-Bello is playing well, capped by a T3 at Bay Hill and I have a hunch he’s going to win his first PGA Tour event soon. Hatton can run hot or cold, and right now he looks cold – he’s missed his last two cuts. Like Kuchar, Westwood is a vet who has seen it all and could come through this one with a strong week on the greens. I’m going to take Rafa to advance and make an extended run.
No. 10 Paul Casey, No. 25 Cameron Smith, No. 42 Charles Howell III, No. Abraham Ancer
Hard to pick against Casey unless you buy into a letdown the week after a tournament victory. And you know what? I actually do buy into a letdown – mostly because this is such a strong group. Smith made the quarters last year in his debut, Howell is also a tough out here, and Ancer is making his debut. Everyone will be on Casey, but I’ll zig when they zag and take Smith to advance.
No. 11 Tommy Fleetwood, No. 19 Louis Oosthuizen, No. 41 Kyle Stanley, No. 49 Byeong Hun An
Fleetwood’s star continues to rise, but Oosty has a runner-up and two quarterfinal appearances on his resume. Stanley and An enter on cold spells, so this looks like a two-man race. I’ll take Louis to beat Tommy head-to-head on Friday and advance.
No. 12 Jason Day, No. 20 Phil Mickelson, No. 37 Henrik Stenson, No. 52 Jim Furyk
Major champions only in this one! Day is a past winner in this event, and surprisingly enough, in 15 appearances Phil has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals. Stenson won this event twice in the old format (2007 and 2008) but will play Austin for the first time this week. And don’t sleep on Furyk, who made an unforgettable run at the Players last week. This is a fun group, and I’ll take Phil to come through it.
No. 13 Tiger Woods, No. 18 Patrick Cantlay, No. 44 Brandt Snedeker, No. 61 Aaron Wise
All eyes will be on Tiger, who is the only player to win this event three times and relishes match play golf, but I wonder how sharp he might be, as this is essentially the start of his tune-up for Augusta. This will also be his first time playing in Austin. Cantlay looks shaky, but Snedeker finished T5 at the Players and Wise is a former NCAA champion. It’s tempting to go with the young gun, but give me Sneds to advance.
No. 14 Tony Finau, No. 30 Ian Poulter, No. 48 Kevin Kisner, No. 56 Keith Mitchell
Man, what a group. Finau advanced last year in his debut and has been playing well. But match play is Poulter’s domain: He’s 27-15 in this event, he won it in 2010, and he’s cracked two other final fours. Kisner, by the way, was runner-up last year, and Mitchell just won the Honda Classic. I flipped a coin, and it came up Poulter.
No. 15 Bubba Watson, No. 28 Jordan Spieth, No. 38 Billy Horschel, No. 57 Kevin Na
Watson enters on form and as the defending champ. Spieth is stumbling through a lost spring, and while things could click on any given week, this is a ruthless format for a player who’s not on his game. Horschel has yet to make it out of the group stage in two tries, and Na hasn’t done much since missing time earlier this year with a broken pinky. It’s tempting to tap Spieth in his home state, but Bubba feels like the smart pick.
No. 16 Patrick Reed, No. 26 Sergio Garcia, No. 46 Shane Lowry, No. 51 Andrew Putnam
After drifting for a few months, Reed has added David Leadbetter to his camp. That move could pay off soon, but I’m not sure this is the week. Sergio has had a solid year, but struggled last week in Tampa. Lowry once vanquished Rory in this event. Putnam is a nice play, but Lowry is a tantalizing underdog choice. If you aren’t picking a few Cinderellas, you aren’t trying. Lowry is the choice.
Round of 16
DJ over Lowry
Cabrera Bello over Kuchar
Thomas over Mickelson
McIlroy over Snedeker
Watson over Pepperell
Molinari over Smith
Oosthuizen over Leishman
Koepka over Poulter
Cabrera Bello over DJ
McIlroy over Thomas
Molinari over Watson
Koepka over Oosthuizen
McIlroy over Cabrera Bello
Koepka over Molinari
Cabrera Bello over Molinari
Koepka over McIlroy