The key stories ahead of this week in Austin, Texas.
When 64 of the world’s best players gather in one place, the stories write themselves. Rory McIlroy has his eyes on back-to-back wins after his first worldwide victory since 2016, but will face stiff competition for the Walter Hagen Cup in Austin, Texas.
The Northern Irishman’s bid for a second WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play title is just one of the subplots we think you’ll want to keep your eyes on this week in The Lone Star state.
All about match play
Nothing gets the pulse going quite like match play. It’s do or die at Austin Country Club this week, with 16 groups of four going head-to-head over 18 holes and only the group winners progressing to the knockout stages. This format was introduced in 2015, after previous incarnations of the event consisted of four different brackets, named after golf legends, involving straight knockout matches.
Some of this week’s European and Asian contingent have already had a chance to flex their match play muscles this season. Rafa Cabrera Bello, Tyrrell Hatton and Alex Noren were among those involved in Team Europe’s victorious EurAsia Cup side, with all three winning their Singles matches. Kiradech Aphibarnrat tasted match play success in February at the ISPS HANDA World Super 6 Perth, coming through five rounds of Sunday knockout action to reign Down Under. However, with experienced match play veterans, such as Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar, involved, we’re set for some fascinating match-ups.
Two in a row for Rory?
You get the feeling there will be plenty of duels between Dustin Johnson, the current World Number One, and Rory McIlroy over the coming years. This week, the latter will try to become the first man since Johnson to win a stroke play tournament followed by a match play tournament in consecutive events. By coincidence, Johnson pulled off the feat at last year’s WGC-Mexico Championship and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, with McIlroy hoping to follow up his Arnold Palmer Invitational win with victory at Austin CC.
McIlroy’s win in Florida, his first since 2016, sent him to seventh spot in the World Rankings after a spell outside the top ten. With the Masters and the career grand slam looming, all eyes will be trained on the four-time Major Champion. While this week’s format might not provide him with the perfect preparation for his Green Jacket search, a strong five days could put him in the right frame of mind heading down Magnolia Lane.
Another test for the Race to Dubai leader
Life is good for Shubhankar Sharma right now. Even in his most optimistic frame of mind, the 21 year old Indian couldn’t have foreseen what the last four months would bring. After missing the cut at European Tour Qualifying School in November, Sharma won the Joburg Open the following month, took his second tour title at the Maybank Championship in February, played in the final group at the WGC-Mexico Championship with Phil Mickelson and received a Masters invite. Not bad, right?
His two wins this season have sent him hurtling to the top of the Race to Dubai Rankings and this week presents another opportunity to extend his advantage. His first taste of this event pits him against Sergio Garcia, Xander Schauffele and Dylan Frittelli. It’ll be another new experience to tick off the list for Sharma, but this season has already been a year of firsts. He’s proven he can rise to the occasion, which makes him a dangerous opponent this week.
Group of death
There’s always one group that whets the appetite for events to come. This week? You’d be hard pushed to look past the group comprising Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Li Haotong and Charl Schwartzel. Match play specialist and self-confessed lover of the format, Reed will be a scalp for anyone in the field; the Texan has four wins in Ryder Cup match play, including two singles victories.
World Number Four Spieth can get seriously hot with the putter and has Ryder Cup experience to rely on. Although Li Haotong may be the most inexperienced of the group, he has shown on numerous occasions in his short career he has what it takes to perform under pressure; a closing 63 at last year’s Open Championship, plus two victories on tour, will prevent anybody underestimating the 22 year old. The 2011 Masters Champion and former World Number Six Schwartzel has been on four Presidents Cup teams and is the most experienced of the men in Group 4. Excited? You should be.
With 64 players battling it out this week, there were always going to be some encounters to relish between European Tour members. While there’ll be no lack of power on display when Jon Rahm and Kiradech Aphibarnrat face each other in Group 3, Ian Poulter’s match with Tommy Fleetwood in Group 9 promises plenty of flair. Paul Casey and Matt Fitzpatrick were team-mates during January’s EurAsia Cup, but will go up against each other in one of Group 10’s standout encounters.
Another mouth-watering group match will see Alex Noren, runner-up at the 2016 Paul Lawrie Match Play, take on Thomas Pieters, who holds the European Ryder Cup record for most points by a rookie, in Group 13. Sergio Garcia, who finished fourth in this event in 2010, will tackle both Shubhankar Sharma and Dylan Frittelli in Group 7, with Branden Grace’s match against Julian Suri also likely to be an intriguing watch.