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WGC-Dell Match Play Preview

Dave Tindall
Rory McIlroy is now 2-for-2 in the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club after beating Justin Harding on day two.

It's been a great few weeks for European golf with Francesco Molinari, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey winning the last three events on the Florida Swing.

That trio helped Europe thrash the United States in the last Ryder Cup although the Americans have had the upper hand in recent editions of this event.

Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson have won the last two at this week's venue, Austin Country Club, and that makes it four U.S. winners in the last seven.

But this trophy contains the names of Rory, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Darren Clarke since Jeff Maggert won the inaugural event in 1999 while Europe has also provided seven runners-up.

This preview focuses on the European challenge but mentions other Internationals/Americans with availability for the official European Tour fantasy game.

 

Format and schedule

16 Groups of four players contest round-robin matches Wednesday to Friday

16 Group winners contest straight knockout over the weekend

Wednesday: Pool Play Rnd 1
Thursday: Pool Play Rnd 2
Friday: Pool Play Rnd 3
Saturday: Round of 16 followed by Quarter-finals
Sunday: Semi-finals, Championship match, Consolation match

 

Course

At just 7,108 yards, Pete Dye’s 1984 design is a short par 71. PGA TOUR.com: “The front nine is on higher ground and typical of the surrounding Texas renovation from Rod Whitman. The front nine is on higher ground and typical of the surrounding Texas hill country, while the “lowlands” nine runs alongside Lake Austin and provides a spectacular backdrop for finishing matches." With Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson winning the three editions here, it seems that big hitters can overpower it. But strategy is key at Austin CC too, as is an ability to play in the wind. Bubba likes the creativity.

 

Quotes

Alex Noren: "Length? No, I don’t think it’s as much advantage as a lot of courses. It bounces a lot on the fairways, it bounces a lot on the greens. It’s nice to play on these courses. It’s like a links course."

Kevin Kisner: "You can hit low bullets here that roll forever. At Pebble Beach the ball rolls a foot." 

Bubba Watson: "Some of the hills, lumps and bumps, some of these pin locations, you can hit different shots. You can play from different angles and create your own shots and have a better chance for birdies."

Jordan Spieth: "You have two completely different golf courses within the two nines: nine holes in the hills and nine holes down in the lake. So you get different winds. The front nine plays a lot of crosswinds, and the back plays a lot of into and down. It adjusts distances the way you play. It has a big effect there."

 

The importance of seeding

2016: Matches won by higher seed 58%, by lower seed 27%, tied 15%
2017: Matches won by higher seed 52%, by lower seed 39%, tied 9%
2018: Matches won by higher seed 46%, by lower seed 43%, tied 11%

Seeding rank of quarter-finalists

2016: 2, 3, 8, 16, 18, 45, 52, 54
2017: 1, 8, 14, 21, 42, 47, 54, 62
2018: 2, 13, 28, 32, 35, 45, 46, 58 

Notes: It's limited evidence but higher seeds are finding it tougher each year. Only two of the top 27 seeds made the last 16 in 2018.

How damaging is it to lose a Pool stage match?

In the three editions at Austin CC, just 13 (27%) of the 48 players who advanced to the knockout phase lost a pool game. There’s a little wriggle room for a defeat in the current format but not much. Seven of the 16 group winners advanced with perfect 3-0 records 12 months ago.

 

Leading Europeans

Rory McIlroy

A winner of this event at Harding Park in California in 2015 and runner-up at Dove Mountain in Arizona in 2012, McIlroy was also a semi-finalist the first time Austin CC played host in 2016. He’s gone out in the group stage twice since but victory at TPC Sawgrass two weeks ago makes him a massive threat here. Rory thrives on confidence and he has bags of it right now. NB: Not available for the official European Tour game after giving up his card this season.

Justin Rose

Rose has been an integral part of so many European Ryder Cup teams and loves to stick his jaw out and shake off the nice-guy image when the heat is on. But this event just hasn’t worked for him. He made the quarter-finals in 2007 but that’s his only noteworthy effort in 11 starts and he didn’t even turn up for the last two years at Austin CC. A winner at Torrey Pines and T8 at THE PLAYERS, he also took home the trophy (Colonial) on his last visit to Texas. Rose has a chance anytime he pegs it up but there are question marks.

Francesco Molinari

A first chance for the Open champ to demonstrate his match play skills since going 5-for-5 in the Ryder Cup. Won his first two group matches last year before being smashed 7&5 by Justin Thomas but so much has changed since for the Italian. He’s now a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, the latest coming at Bay Hill earlier this month.

Jon Rahm

Flexed his match play muscles at this venue two years ago when going all the way to the final and giving Dustin Johnson a scare before losing at the 17th. His run to the Championship game included 6&4 thumpings of Sergio Garcia and Charles Howell III. Disappointing last year but has strong Texas strokeplay form (5-2-10) and followed T12 at THE PLAYERS (54-hole leader) with T6 at the Valspar.

Tommy Fleetwood

The other half of Moliwood will also relish a return to match play after his Ryder Cup high in France. We’d previously seen Fleetwood’s match play skills in the EurAsia Cup (3-for-3 in 2018) while he was a quarter-finalist at Harding Park in 2015. Has won three and lost three at Austin although he ended last year with a 7&6 win over Kevin Chappell before taking out Daniel Berger 2&1. Very prominent on the Florida Swing with T3 at Bay Hill and T5 at TPC Sawgrass.

Paul Casey

Fresh off a successful defense – his first as a pro – at the Valspar Championship, Casey was a back-to-back runner-up in this event at Dove Mountain in 2009 and 2010. He’s not gone deep at Austin CC but has won five of his last six group matches so clearly gets on with the course. Does he have it in him to play all seven rounds though after the gruelling test of Innisbrook?

Sergio Garcia

A stud in Ryder Cups but that may be more due more to the team dynamic in which he thrives. His record in this event is surprisingly poor and he’s got past the last 16 just once (2010 semi-finalist) in 16 years. At least this is a ‘home’ game (wife is from Austin and they live locally) and Sergio did win all three group games in 2018. A great record in Texas suggests this course is a good fit too. Is he due or does T22 at THE PLAYERS and T54 at Valspar - two events that are great for him - hint at a lack of sharpness?

Alex Noren

The Swede was 8th seed here in 2017 and 13th last year but will only be in Pot 2 for the draw this time after his world ranking fall to 28th. His very obvious selling point is a superb record at the course which shows Noren winning all six group games before reaching the last eight in 2017 and the semis last year (also beat Justin Thomas 5&3 in the third place match). Part of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team but his form on the PGA TOUR this year is a big concern: MC-43-62-MC-MC. A classic course form v current form dilemma.

Rafa Cabrera Bello

Rafa loves a bit of match play and finished third in the first edition at Austin CC in 2016. He also won 2 out of 3 in the group stage in 2017 before losing a sudden-death playoff. Fourth in the 2016 Houston Open, RCB had a mixed Florida Swing with MC at Sawgrass and T30 at the Valspar but flashed his talents by taking third at Bay Hill.

Ian Poulter

Poulter has forged a fearsome match play reputation with a series of amazing performances in the Ryder Cup but his record in this event has contributed to it as well. The Englishman won this event at Dove Mountain in 2010 and also made the semis in 2005 and 2013. He had his first start at Austin last year and liked what he saw, going 3-for-3 in the group stage before a quarter-final exit to Kevin Kisner. With four worldwide top tens, including T3 at the WGC-Mexico, his form this year is impressive and you just know that absolutely no-one will want to play him in this format.

More Euros

Matthew Fitzpatrick

An excellent runner-up at Bay Hill but he’s never emerged from the group stage at Austin CC in three attempts.

Matt Wallace

Has a touch of the Poulters about him in attitude so should be made for match play. First start in the event but T6 at Bay Hill and T20 at the Honda shows he’s ready.

Eddie Pepperell

Closed 68-68-66 to finish third on a memorable first start at THE PLAYERS so is a dangerman for anyone. Tournament debut so we’re guessing a little at his match play prowess although he did visit Austin CC in February to check the place out.

Tyrrell Hatton

Not to be underestimated at this course where he’s won two out of three group games twice, advancing to the knockout stages last year via a playoff. Can he guard against those off-days though? Shot 81 in R2 at Valspar, a pair of 74s at Sawgrass and a 74 and a 75 at Bay Hill despite some other good rounds.

Henrik Stenson

A first look at Austin CC for Stenson, who hasn’t played this event since 2015. Won this trophy at The Gallery GC in Arizona in 2007 and made the semis there the following year but he’s done nothing since. Pluses? Good record in Texas and, after a slump, top 25s at Bay Hill and Innisbrook.

Shane Lowry

Started the season on fire with a win in Abu Dhabi backed up by T12 in Dubai but disappointing Stateside so far (MC-62-MC-MC). Yet to win a group game here (four losses, two halves).

Thorbjorn Olesen

Won one and lost two on his only Austin CC appearance in 2016. Excellent 2018 season in Europe capped by Ryder Cup debut but hasn’t hit the heights in three recent events this side of the Atlantic although shot two 69s and a 70 when T41 at TPC Sawgrass.

Lucas Bjerregaard

Has outperformed his more celebrated Danish compatriot Olesen on the PGA TOUR this season, posting T12 at the Honda and T30 at THE PLAYERS. Format? Limited evidence but just 1-3 record at the Paul Lawrie Match Play.

Tom Lewis

Debut. Reward for his rapid rise up the world rankings following some great play at the back end of 2018 and a couple of early top tens in the desert. Singles record of W3, L4 on Euro Tour.

Russell Knox

“I love this place,” said Knox of Austin CC in 2017 although he’s won just two of six group matches and yet to reach the knockout matches. Hinting at some good form – T35 Sawgrass, T24 Innisbrook.

Lee Westwood

The veteran just squeezes into the field this week and has a vast array of match play experience to draw upon. Didn’t play last year and lost a group playoff in 2017 after two wins and a loss. T7 Dubai and this is first start since T33 in WGC-Mexico.

 

Internationals available for official European Tour fantasy game

Louis Oosthuizen

Big display at the Valspar, finishing joint runner-up, and a man to look out for at Austin CC. He reached the final in the first year here in 2016 and won his group 12 months ago before a last 16 exit to Poulter.

HaoTong Li

0-for-3 in a tough group last year (included Texas residents Reed and Spieth) but will expect more this time. Runner-up in Saudi, T19 at WGC-Mexico but MCs at Bay Hill and TPC Sawgrass.

Kiradech Aphibarnrat

One who could bust open many a bracket. Aphibarnat’s latest two European Tour wins have both had a match play format (Paul Lawrie and World Super 6 Perth) and he showed his head-to-head skills at Austin CC last year, reaching the last eight. Third place at WGC-Mexico and top 25 at Bay Hill.

Branden Grace

Won all five matches at the 2015 Presidents Cup (four alongside Oosthuizen) and top ten in his last three strokeplay starts in Texas. Also a runner-up in Phoenix earlier this year. In the negative ledger – three group stage failures at Austin and poor recent form in Florida.

Justin Harding

Was ranked outside the top 700 in the world at the start of 2018 so amazing that he’s now a top 50 player. A win and a tied second in his last two European Tour starts and could be a dangerous opponent for anyone despite having played just once in America (MC 2018 PGA).

Byeong Hun An

Can certainly put some pieces of the puzzle together and make a case for the Korean. Made the last 16 here in 2016, has Texas form (T5 2017 Byron Nelson) and current form (T10 Bay Hill and T26 PLAYERS).

 

United States players available for official European Tour fantasy game

Bryson DeChambeau

He’s served Euro Tour gamers well with victory in Dubai and T6 in Saudi. Cooled a little since but solid stats when T20 at Sawgrass. First start at Austin and first chance to test match play skills since miserable 0-3 Ryder Cup debut.

Tony Finau

Very consistent this season but still without a top ten. Perhaps a change in format might help. Hammered Tommy Fleetwood in their Ryder Cup singles clash and, despite group exit, won two of three group games at Austin in 2018.

Patrick Reed

Always going to be a popular pick here as it’s match play and in his home State. Has twice topped his group with a perfect 3-0 record but crashed out in last 16 both times. Current form a definite concern. Augusta on his mind?

Xander Schauffele

Won first two games last year before losing group decider to Sergio. Strangely poor record in Texas (1-for-5 in strokeplay) and MC at PLAYERS but a win, three top 15s and a T25 in other five 2019 starts.

Billy Horschel

Yes, he’s available in the European Tour fantasy game. Won 2017 Byron Nelson in Texas and has cashed in every start this season (T26 at Sawgrass last time). First start here since 2016 (W1, L2) and not gone to the last 16 in three appearances at this event.

Aaron Wise

Debut. Winner in Texas last year and top 20 at WGC-Mexico but four missed cuts in last six starts.

Ranking the Europeans

1. Rory McIlroy
2. Jon Rahm
3. Francesco Molinari
4. Ian Poulter
5. Tommy Fleetwood
6. Justin Rose
7. Paul Casey
8. Sergio Garcia
9. Rafa Cabrera Bello
10. Alex Noren
11. Henrik Stenson
12. Tyrrell Hatton
13. Eddie Pepperell
14. Matt Wallace
15. Matthew Fitzpatrick
16. Russell Knox
17. Thorbjorn Olesen
18. Lucas Bjerregaard
19. Lee Westwood
20. Shane Lowry
21. Tom Lewis