Justin Thomas advances to Match Play semifinals with eye on No. 1 ranking, but Bubba Watson stands in his way
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Justin Thomas won two matches Saturday to reach the semifinals of the Dell Technologies Match Play.
One more and he gets to No. 1 in the world.
Thomas made quick work of Si Woo Kim in the morning, and then trailed for the first time all week against Kyle Stanley – just not for long. Thomas won three straight holes to start the back nine, made a 6-foot par putt to stay in control and closed out Stanley, 2-and-1.
Dustin Johnson didn’t win a match this week and will not get any world ranking points. That means Thomas only has to reach the championship match Sunday to become the seventh American to reach No. 1.
In his way was Bubba Watson, who is back to playing like a two-time Masters champion.
“It will and would be a great accomplishment,” Thomas said. “But I’m just worried about trying to beat Bubba Watson tomorrow.”
Watson made all the key putts in a battle of Georgia southpaws when he beat Brian Harman in the morning, and then he turned a tight match into a runaway against Kiradech Aphibarnrat by winning five of six holes on the back nine for a 5-and-3 victory.
That put Watson, who won last month at Riviera, in the semifinals for the first time since his Match Play debut in 2011.
Alex Noren extended his run at Austin Country Club by winning for the ninth time in his last 10 matches. His only loss was to Johnson a year ago in the quarterfinals, and he needed only 31 holes to beat Patrick Reed and Cameron Smith of Australia.
Noren and Thomas are the only semifinalists who have not lost a match this week.
Kevin Kisner reached the semifinals with a big putt and a big blowout. He made a birdie on the 18th hole to beat Matt Kuchar, and then matched the shortest match of the week with an 8-and-6 victory over Ian Poulter, who was disappointed for more than just losing.
“Probably didn’t see that one coming,” Kisner said. “I thought it was going to be a difficult match. Obviously, Ian’s match-play record speaks for itself. I got off to a good start making a few birdies. He made a few mistakes, and I was able to capitalize on those. And things just snowballed from there.”
Poulter was told after he beat Louis Oosthuizen in the morning that reaching the quarterfinals was enough for him to be in the top 50 at the end of the week, which would get him into the Masters. Moments later, he received a text that he needed to win his match against Kisner.
“I gave him no fight at all. It was rubbish,” said Poulter, who didn’t make a birdie.
The misinformation wasn’t to blame, though it clearly added to an all-around bad day at the office.
“Next time I won’t listen to other people. I’ll do my bit and focus better,” Poulter said. “I mean, I can’t put that down as an excuse. It would be an excuse if I said it. So it’s disappointing to be given the wrong information, but that wasn’t part of this afternoon.”
Kisner faces Noren, whom he knows from their college days – Kisner at Georgia, Noren at Oklahoma State.
Thomas (No. 2) and Noren (No. 13) are the only top seeds from the 16 groups who advanced to the semifinals. Noren has had a pair of close calls this year, losing in a playoff at Torrey Pines and finishing one shot out of a playoff that Thomas won at the Honda Classic.
Thomas is mildly surprised to have reached Sunday considering how his week began. He had his wisdom teeth pulled two weeks ago, went to the Bahamas and then came down with what his doctor suspected was strep throat. He wasn’t sure when he arrived Monday if he could play, though it got progressively better, and so did his game.
Watson has played the 18th hole just one time this week, a halve with Julian Suri that allowed him to avoid a playoff to advance. Reaching the semifinals was bittersweet in one respect – he was to leave the country Sunday morning for a family vacation.
That will have to wait.
Kiradech bogeyed the 10th and 11th to fall behind, and Watson birdied the next two holes to go 4 up, win the match and delay his vacation. He said he booked it Sunday because the flight was cheaper, though he was assured of making at least $559,000 and as much as $1.7 million. He’ll get by.
He couldn’t help but consider the similarities of his last trip to the semifinals, when the Match Play was in Arizona. He played Martin Kaymer, who only needed to beat Watson to assure going to No. 1 in the world. Kaymer beat him on the 18th hole.
Is Thomas next?
“If you want No. 1, just beat me and you’ll be No. 1,” Watson said.