PGA Tour Preview: Unpredictability in Austin

Last Week

While everyone was paying attention to Tiger Woods moving up the leaderboard, Rory McIlroy was playing his best golf on the PGA Tour since winning the FedEx Cup in 2016. My "Who's Not" feature player went on to shoot an 8-under par 64 to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, finishing 3 shots ahead of Bryson DeChambeau, who crafted a pretty nice 68 himself.

Meanwhile, Justin Rose and Tiger Woods, two players mentioned as "Who's Hot" last week, didn't disappoint, chalking up 3rd- and 5th-place finishes, respectively.

The Bay Hill course was in outstanding condition and the mix of tough and easy holes made for exciting viewing. Woods was in the process of making a late run Sunday until he hit his tee shot out of bounds on the reachable par-5 16th hole. At the time, he was at 13 under par, 2 shots behind Henrik Stenson, but ended up making bogey and eventually finished the tournament at 10 under. Stenson looked as if he was in complete control midway through the final round, but stumbled on the back nine and finished by bogeying his final hole to finish in 4th place.

This Week

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Austin, Texas
Austin Country Club - Par 71

History

Dustin Johnson is the defending champion, defeating Jon Rahm 1-up in the final, marking the third year in a row where one of the top two seeds won the event. The tournament began in 1999 with the advent of the World Golf Championship series. It's not a surprise that the leader in wins at the tournament is Tiger Woods, with three victories. He also holds the record margin of victory in a match, dusting Stephen Ames 9 and 8 in the first round in 2006 after Ames had questioned Woods' match play superiority.

Through 2014, it was a classic single-elimination format, but in 2015, the field was separated into 4-player pools for round robin play, with the 16 pool winners advancing to single elimination. The pools are determined through a draw, much like the NBA a lottery drawing. From a television and spectator perspective, it is a vast improvement, with the assurance that the top players will be in the tournament for at least three days.

Match play can be quite unpredictable, evidenced by No. 62 seed Kevin Sutherland's win in 2002, so picking the bracket can be challenging. The event moved to the Austin Country Club in 2016 and they are committed to hosting the tournament through 2019.

2018 Field

* The top 64 players in the Official World Golf Rankings as of March 11, 2018 qualified for the event. Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott, and Ricky Fowler are not participating, which opened spots for the players ranked 65-69 in the rankings.

* Sixteen countries represented

* Four colleges have three or more former players represented: Arizona State (5), Oklahoma State (3), Georgia (4), Tohoku Fukishi (3)

Oldest player

Phil Mickelson (47)

Youngest Player

Shunhankar Sharma (21)

Major Champions (14)

Phil Mickelson (5), Rory McIlroy (4), Ernie Els (4), Jordan Spieth (3), Bubba Watson (2), Zach Johnson (2), Jason Day, Keegan Bradley, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Jason Dufner

Total Tour Victorie

220 (Phil Mickelson, 43)

Total Major Victories

25 (Phil Mickelson, 5)

Who's Hot

It's hard to go from worst to first in any sport, so Rory McIlroy's win after being named my "Who's Not" recipient was impressive. McIlroy's performance on Sunday was reminiscent of his play from 2012-2016 when he won 11 times, including 3 majors and the FedEx Cup. His resurgence after taking some time off in 2017 to nurse injuries and get himself back in form is a real positive for the Tour, especially with Tiger coming back and the young guns coming on strong.

Who's Not

Despite not missing a cut this season, the consistent Matt Kuchar has just one top-10 finish and is barely inside the top 100 in FedEx Cup points heading into the Match Play. His Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) of 20 is based on performances from the last two years when he racked up an impressive 18 top-10 finishes, including a 9th-place at the 2016 Match Play. The OWGR is based on a rolling two-year timeframe, so those top-10 finishes will begin to be replaced by current performances, almost ensuring a drop in ranking unless Kuchar can show some improvement in his game.

Kuchar sits outside the top 100 in driving accuracy, not a good stat considering his 124th ranking in driving distance. His driving is clearly the reason for his 50th spot in greens in regulation. He's also 134th in shots gained around the green, an important source of improvement if he wants to remain in WGC events.

What to Look For

Much like the pool play in soccer's World Cup, there are generally a couple of tough groupings where despite multiple strong golfers, only one can advance to the round of 16. Jordan Spieth is grouped with Patrick Reed and Charl Schwartzel. Reed can be a handful in match play, as exhibited in his President's Cup results. Another grouping consists of Alex Noren, Tony Finau, Thomas Pieters, and Kevin Na.

Justin Thomas, one of the favorites, will need to contend with Ryder Cup veteran Francesco Molinari, two-time current season winner Patton Kizzire and long-hitting Luke List. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, and Phil Mickelson appear to have a bit easier paths to the weekend.

Of course, as mentioned previously, match play can be very tough to predict, as the difference between the top and 69th players in the world is marginal on a round-to-round basis. The pool play eliminated a little of the random luck factor, allowing a player to lose a match and still advance. It's probably the reason the top seed has won two of the last three years with the second seed winning the other one. I would expect to see players who make a lot of birdies give more steady players fits in trying to get to the weekend. That puts Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm at the top of my list to contend.

Kevin Krest is the author of the entertaining PK Frazier series of sports suspense novels and the co-host of the weekly "The Cold Hard Truth: On Sports" broadcast. His books can be found on Amazon.com.

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