Tournament History

The WGC Match Play was first staged in California in 1999 when Jeff Maggert beat Andrew Magee.

After a couple of years at the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsford, California, the event went Down Under but few of the game’s star names could be bothered to travel that far and it’s been held in the States ever since.

After six years at Dove Mountain, the tournament was staged at Harding Park in 2015 before it switched to the Austin Country Club in Texas where we return on Wednesday.


Format

This is a tournament that’s had several different venues, a number of format changes and more than a few sponsors. First we had the failed attempt to travel the globe and in recent years we’ve had constant murmurings that the majority of players didn’t like Dove Mountain, but the biggest problem has been sponsorship.

The old straight knockout format saw many a star name on their way home after just one day and that’s not ideal for the players or the sponsors so something had to change. I used to quite enjoy the first round, with 32 matches creating all sorts of shocks, but I did tend to lose interest as the event progressed and I can see why it changed in 2015.

We now have 16 groups of four so everyone gets to play at least three matches. Players and sponsors are both happier and it should safeguard the tournament for many years to come. Dell, who began sponsoring the event last year, has signed up for the next three years so the decision to change from a straight knockout to a group format has already been vindicated.

The tournament is supposed to be for the top-64 in the world rankings but with the tournament positioned so close to the US Masters, the likes of Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose are all swerving the tournament, presumably to prepare for Augusta, and the in-form Canadian, Adam Hadwin, is AWOL on account of him getting married.

The tournament is scheduled for this week again next year but I suspect we may see a change after that as having four of the world’s top-13 missing is far from ideal.

The top-16 ranked players are all seeded and have been kept apart in 16 groups. Over the first three days, starting tomorrow, each player in each group plays each other to determine who progresses. Group games can be drawn and they won’t go beyond 18 holes. In the event of a tie, both players will be awarded a half point.

The player with the best record in each of the four player groups advances to the Round of 16 for single-elimination match play and in the event of a tie a playoff will determine who progresses.

On Saturday morning the winners of each group meet in the round of 16, as per the draw, with the quarter-finals being staged on Saturday afternoon. The semi-finals and final, as well as the third place playoff, or consolation match, will be played on Sunday.


Venue

Austin Country Club, Austin, Texas

Par 71, 7,043 yards

The Pete Dye-designed Austin Country Club Course, created in 1980, isn’t long at just a shade over 7,000 yards. Situated by the shores of Lake Austin and carved through cedar and oak woodland, its looks very easy on the eye and with four reachable par fives and a drivable par four, there are plenty of risk-reward holes and we’re bound to witness plenty of drama throughout the week.


Last Five Winners

2016 – Jason Day
2015 – Rory McIlroy
2014 – Jason Day
2013 – Matt Kuchar
2012 – Hunter Mahan


What Will it Take to Win the WGC Match Play?

Plenty of match play experience is always a plus so check out the results of previous renewals of this event, the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup, the Eurasia Cup and on the European Tour, the Volvo World Match Play and the brand new Paul Lawrie Match Play but for a brilliant easy to assess look at all the form for all the players, check out Adam Sarson’s brilliant work which details the match play records of all 64 competitors.

Being fit and injury-free is key this week given whoever wins will have to play seven matches over five days with two matches on Saturday and two on Sunday. They’ll also have to be able to handle breezy conditions as there’s plenty of wind forecast.


Is There an Angle In?

As alluded to above, anyone reaching the final four is in for a long and gruelling week and I can see why Stenson et al have swerved the event with the Masters looming large.

It’s a long week and one that seems to suit the younger players. Zach Johnson, who’d just turned 40, was the oldest man to progress out of the group stage but he lost to Rory McIlroy in the round of 16 and the eventual runner-up, Louis Oosthuizen, who at 33-years of age last year, was the oldest player in the quarter-final line-up.

Don’t be afraid to back someone that can get in their own way in stroke play events. Match play is a very different format. The players only have their opponent to worry about and there are numerous examples of players that struggle in-the-mix in stroke play, thriving in this format.

The surprise package last year was Rafa Cabrera-Bello, who made it all the way to the semis, despite being the number 52 seed. The draw opened up nicely for the Spaniard and it’s worth highlighting that after he’d beaten the number 14 seed, Hideki Matsuyama, on day one, he didn’t play another top-16 seed until meeting Louis in the last four but even so, it was a great performance for someone that always struggles in-the-mix in stroke play tournaments.


Is There an Identikit Winner?

With numerous day one shocks caused by a straight off knockout draw, many would suggest this tournament has always been a bit of a lottery but it’s been far from it and now they’ve changed the format to help stop the better players from getting eliminated immediately, it’s even less of a lottery.

Bubba Watson, who was the number four seed, was the only one of the top-four seeds not to progress to the knockout stage last year and half of the top-16 seeds won their respective groups. The higher seed won five of the eight round of 16 matches and there were two shocks in the quarter-finals – Oosthuizen beating Dustin Johnson and the number 52 seed, Cabrera-Bello, beating the number 45 seed, Ryan Moore. Both semi-finals went the way of the favourites and Day was well-fancied to get the better of Oosty in the final.

Day went off second favourite last year and the 2015 winner, Rory McIlroy, was the pre-event favourite so in this new format the jollies have been worth siding with but even before the format change outsiders haven’t really figured…

Jason Day was just a 20/1 shot in 2014 and, Hunter Mahan, four years ago, who was matched at 60.00 before the off, is the biggest priced winner we’ve had since Geoff Ogilvy won the first of his two titles way back in 2006. The only genuinely surprising winner in the event’s entire history was Kevin Sutherland in 2002.

Steve Stricker caused a bit of a surprise when winning in 2001 but he went on to become an esteemed Ryder Cup player and even inaugural champion, Jeff Maggert, who was an 80/1 chance, played in three Ryder Cups, and that’s the best place to start.

Previous experience of the pressure cooker atmosphere of the Ryder Cup has so far proven invaluable. Four years ago, six of the last eight were all experienced Ryder Cuppers and Robert Garrigus, who succumbed to eventual winner, Matt Kuchar, 3 & 2 in the quarter-finals, was the only one that could be described as not having significant team match play experience. The other non Ryder-Cupper was last year’s winner, Day, but he had plenty of Presidents Cup experience anyway.

The last nine winners have not only been great match play specialists, they’ve also had previous event form in the bag. It’s oh so easy to be seduced by great players at huge odds but if they haven’t shown any event form yet you may need to worry and if they’ve got no event form and haven’t played in the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup, you may have to think again.

Although the new format means a player can lose and still progress, it’s noticeable the both last year’s finalists and the two finalists in 2015 all had 100% records in the group stage


Market Leaders

The number two seed and 2015 winner, Rory McIlroy, heads the market and I can see why. If he’s to progress to the knockout phase he needs to get past Soren Kjeldsen, in-form Argentine, Emiliano Grillo, and the man he beat in the final two years ago, Gary Woodland.

That isn’t the easiest group on paper but it certainly could have been worse and I can see him safely negotiating his way through to the round of 16 where he’s most likely to meet Branden Grace or Brandt Snedeker.

Rory’s match play record is very strong and since they changed the format, his record in the event is second to none. He reached the final in 2012 at Dove Mountain, in the old straight knockout format, where he lost to Hunter Mahan, but in the two years since the group stage was introduced, he’s won the tournament and reached the semis, where he lost narrowly last year to the eventual winner, Day. He’s not generously priced but after a decent enough performance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, he’s the man to beat.

World number one and number one seed, Dustin Johnson, hasn’t been assigned a simple task, drawn as he is alongside three other major champions. Webb Simpson, who recently lost a playoff in Phoenix and Ryder Cup star, Martin Kaymer, will prove tough enough nuts to crack but his nemesis might be Texan resident and reigning US PGA champ, Jimmy Walker, who is one of only a few players in the filed with plenty of course experience.

Should DJ navigate his way out of that tricky group and should the seeding’s work out perfectly, he’ll meet Jordan Spieth in the semis – another Texan with bags of course experience. That course knowledge is be a big plus for Spieth and it helped him win all his group matches 12 months ago before he lost to Oosthuizen in the round of 16, but he hasn’t got a brilliant match play record and I’m not entirely convinced he can get out of his group. He’ll be a warm favourite to beat Japanese duo, Yuta Ikeda and Hideto Tanihara, but so will Ryan Moore and the match-up on Friday between Moore and Spieth could be the tie of the day and a tough one to predict.

Defending champ, Jason Day, has yet again been dogged by injury and sickness this year and I’m happy to swerve him from the start. Last week’s winner, Marc Leishman, looks his hardest opponent in the group but Lee Westwood and Pat Perez could prove tricky adversaries too. If he gets past those three and into the last 16, he’s set to meet one of Phil Mickelson, JB Holmes, Daniel Berger or Si-woo Kim and that won’t be easy. I know he’s a two time winner of the tournament but when he defended the title at Harding Park he lost all three group matches and that has to be seen as a negative too.


Selections

The key to betting on this tournament is to avoid getting seduced by all the fancy prices about so many quality players. It’s very easy to go backing one or even two from each section of the draw only to get to Saturday without a single selection progressing from the group stage so I’m going to play just two before the off – and one from each side of the draw.

I don’t think he’s a great price but I can’t get away from Rory McIlroy. After missing two months with a rib injury, he’s finished seventh in Mexico and fourth at Bay Hill on Sunday and he looked in tip-top form over the weekend. After a slow start, and a brilliant third round, he somehow gave himself a chance to win on Sunday but knowing he needed a three to tie the lead, he gave his birdie putt on the 18th green at Bay Hill just slightly too much pace. He missed the return putt and eventually lost by two strokes but that bogey was his first three-put in 70 holes and the rest of his game looked right on point too.

As already mentioned above, he appears to have taken to the new format and it’s hard to see him failing to get out of the group. I can see him going all the way again and I don’t want to start the event without him onside.

My only other pick is two-time tournament runner-up and 2006 World Match Play winner, Paul Casey. The experienced Englishman’s only PGA Tour win came in Texas at next week’s event, the Shell Houston, back in 2009, so that’s a plus and he certainly won’t mind how breezy it gets. He withdrew because of injury 12 months ago but he reached the quarter-finals a year earlier, where he lost narrowly to Rory.


Betting Strategy 

BACK – Rory McIlroy at 8.60

BACK – Paul Casey at 40.00



*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter


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