When people talk about Austin, my thoughts turn to Willie, Waylon, Townes and the scene inside the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1973.
But we’re here to discuss another kind of craziness – professional golfers playing 18-hole matches.
The home of the WGC-Match Play, a 64-man match play event, is the Austin Country Club, a 7,108-yard, par-71 designed by Pete Dye. There are 110 sand bunkers and water is in play on seven holes. In general, the course suits accurate players – with a hot putter. Bombers – bearing a hot putter – aren’t ruled out. The scramblers are also viable … if they have a hot putter.
The match play format presents strategic options off the tee and into the greens throughout the rolling terrain.
The top-seeded player in each 4-player group has survived 30 percent of the time since the tournament came to Austin (courtesy Justin Ray). The lowest-seeded player in each group has advanced 24 percent of the time.
Building a model seems a touch silly, yet we did it anyway, focusing on accuracy off the tee, accurate irons, bermuda putting. Still, the most important factor this week is an intangible: toughness. Some players thrive in match play, others detest it. That will never change. Don’t read too much into a player’s record. Sometimes 6-under is a loser.
There are 16 groups so a smart roster building plan is critical. Pay attention to the bracket (we’ve paired the groups accordingly, top left quadrant, top right quadrant, bottom left, bottom right). Ideally, you’re left with as many live golfers as possible when the quarterfinals (round of 8) roll around. There is much to digest, so let’s get to it.
As always, good luck.
Golfer power rankings
Group 1 (Rahm, Munoz, Reed, Young)
The obvious play is the world No. 1 Rahm, however, a roster full of high-priced stars will only lead to an empty weekend. And you didn’t come here for the obvious. Ordinarily, I’d want to back Patrick Reed here but despite his match play prowess, recent form is terrible and the putter can only save a man so many times.
The pick: Cameron Young. The young bomber should be able to gear down off the tee and attack the par-5s. He’s third in the field in birdies gained over the last 50 rounds.
Group 16 (Koepka, van Rooyen, Lowry, Varner III)
Again, a strong case can be made for the four-time major champion Koepka and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going that direction although waiting for Augusta may be the sharper play. Erik van Rooyen has a 2-2-0 career record in the WGC-Match Play in Austin while Lowry has struggled (2-7-3) and Varner III is making his debut in the event.
The pick: Shane Lowry. We’re overlooking past performance and focusing on his stellar current form, which includes a runner-up at the Honda and a T-12 on another placement course last week at Copperhead.
Group 8 (D. Johnson, Hughes, Homa, Wolff)
Wolff is in the wilderness and Hughes advanced out of his group a year ago and could start making putts from everywhere at any point. The former world No. 1 Johnson is slowly building momentum after a rough 12 months by his standard.
The pick: Max Homa. He’s clearly one of the top 30 players in the world and his all-around game and on-course attitude should be assets in this format. Top-10 in par-5 scoring.
Group 9 (DeChambeau, Bland, Gooch, Westwood)
The feel-good pick is Richard Bland, the 49-year-old Englishman enjoying a late career surge. We haven’t seen DeChambeau in two months, but the format should be a good fit and he did win the U.S. Amateur at match play. Westwood hasn’t shown the requisite form.
The pick: Talor Gooch. He’s top 10 in par-3 and par-5 scoring over the last 50 rounds. Controlling distance on his approach shots is a strength and he’s more confident than he was a year ago.
Group 4 (Cantlay, Mitchell, Im, Power)
Don’t waste your time on Cantlay this week. He’s going to win the Masters. Doesn’t feel like a good course fit for Mitchell, who is 59th in scoring on Pete Dye courses. Im is 37th in birdies gained and 56th in opportunities gained over the last 50 rounds.
The pick: Seamus Power. Makes enough birdies and is top 15 in par-4 and par-5 scoring. Have to take some chances this week.
Group 13 (Hatton, Bezuidenhout, Berger, S.W. Kim)
What a group. Can easily make a case for each golfer. Hatton finished 2nd, 13th and T-21 the last three weeks. Bezuidenhout is a favorite of the Rankings, but other than ranking third in putting (which is important!) he’s average or worse in this elite field in the key areas. Berger likes Dye courses and has shown flashes of form, although his late water balls at Honda and TPC Sawgrass are troubling. Si Woo Kim is the Dye master in some circles and unlikely to withdraw but always a threat to check out.
The pick: Daniel Berger. He’s top 5 in the field in Good Drives Gained and SG: Approach and back when he was just a young range picker, he used to get deep in the pockets of Tour players at Dye Preserve. (He also has the worst match play record in the field 3-9-0, FYI).
Group 5 (Scheffler, Poulter, Fitzpatrick, Fleetwood)
The strongest foursome in the bracket. You have Scheffler, last year’s runner-up and a two-time winner in 2022. The match play wizard Poulter is 9-3-0 in this event in Austin. Fitzpatrick has four top 10s in his last five starts and Fleetwood isn’t far behind with a trio of consecutive top 25s.
The pick: Matt Fitzpatrick. He’s the best putter of the four and his form cannot be ignored. But honestly, the value Poulter presents is intriguing for roster construction.
Group 12 (Horschel, M.W. Lee, Pieters, Hoge)
The defending champion Horschel has a sixth, 16th and 2nd in three starts prior to his WD at the Players. So he should be sharp and well-rested for a grueling week. Pieters is 2-4-3 in Austin but there’s no denying his talent and maybe match play and his temper are a good marriage.
The pick: Tom Hoge. His sometimes shaky putting is a concern but he’s eighth in the field in opportunities gained over the last 50 rounds and top 11 in Good Drives Gained and SG: Approach. Steady players are difficult opponents.
Group 3 (Hovland, Straka, Zalatoris, Tringale)
We will call this the ballstriking group. Hovland is another U.S. Amateur champion in the field although the short game questions are real. Doubt the others concede many of Zalatoris’ short putts. Maybe match play allows Tringale to finally break through.
The pick: Sepp Straka. Dude is playing with house money after winning the Honda and finishing T-9 at the Players. Hot golfer keeps rolling.
Group 14 (Niemann, McNealy, Na, Henley)
An interesting mix here of two blossoming stars in Niemann and McNealy (albeit a ways behind), the crafty veteran short game wizard Na and iron master Henley, who putts his best on Bermuda greens.
The pick: Russell Henley. He’s better than the field average in every key metric, ranking top-10 in birdies gained, opportunities gained and SG: Approach over the last 50 rounds.
Group 6 (Thomas, List, Kisner, Leishman)
Nobody has performed better than Kisner, a past champion with a 16-6-1 record. Elite putting and short game fueled his fourth place finish at TPC Sawgrass. Leishman has won more points than he’s lost in 16 matches on this layout while Thomas plays well every time he puts a peg in the ground. List is making his debut.
The pick: Justin Thomas. He has a score to settle with Kisner here and nobody is more competitive than Thomas.
Group 11 (Spieth, Bradley, Scott, Rose)
Spieth, a native Texan and former Longhorn, is 9-5-2 in Austin although his results have been pedestrian, he has gained shots on approach in each of his last four starts. Other than a sixth at the Farmers, it’s been another quiet year for Rose and Scott and match play just feel like strange bedfellows. Seems like the classy Aussie prefers the order of medal play. Bradley struggled (0-1-2) in his only appearance.
The pick: I’m not saying this is the weakest of the groups but you can see it from here. My advice? Don’t pay for Spieth. Find a dartboard and take aim, ask the nearest 3-year-old, follow the point of your dog’s paw – or just avoid picking any of these golfers.
Group 2 (Morikawa, MacIntyre, Kokrak, Garcia)
Morikawa scuffled in his Austin debut a year ago (0-2-1) as did Kokrak (1-2-0) while MacIntyre won his group and lost in the Round of 16. No need to waste much thought on them anyway.
The pick: Sergio Garcia. A part-time Austinite and AGC member. Has reached the Sweet 16 on three occasions (12-7-1). Putts like his sometimes partner Ben Crenshaw in match play. Pencil this one in.
Group 15 (Ancer, Watson, Simpson, Harman)
This is a juicy group. Ancer is steady and solid in this part of the world, 4-2-0 in the event. Bubba loves to curve shots around this place, although he’ll miss his old caddie Ted Scott, who is now leading Scheffler to trophies. Harman would rather gnaw on a 6-iron than lose a match and tied for 5th at the Valspar. Simpson, who has the short game to be a good match player, struggles here (2-7-3) and is searching for his game at the moment.
The pick: Abraham Ancer. He’s fifth in Good Drives Gained and third in scoring on Dye courses and a fierce competitor in his own right.
Group 7 (Schauffele, Kanaya, Finau, Herbert)
No offense to those other cats, but the pick here is easy, Xander Schauffele
Group 10 (Oosthuizen, Noren, Casey, Conners)
Another super strong quartet. Easy to sell Oosthuizen, Noren and Casey, each of whom has a winning mark in the event. Oosthuizen has advanced out of his group on three occasions. Casey made the wise move to withdraw from the valspar after a draining five days and lucrative finish at the Players while Noren accumulates paychecks and points on the strength of outstanding iron play.
The pick: Louis Oosthuizen. Was there ever any doubt? He’s top-15 in birdies gained and opportunities gained, sixth in putting and fourth in par-4 scoring. Another less known fact: His syrupy swing hypnotizes opponents, leaving them incapable of victory if not curled up in a greenside bunker dreaming of the rhythm folks found all those years ago at the Armadillo.