Events & Reviews
Sixty-four of the world’s best players land in Texas this week for a showdown at the WGC-Dell Match Play at Austin Country Club, and if match play history has taught us only one thing, it’s that virtually anything can happen. Every hole has a definitive outcome, win, lose, or draw. The excitement is as compelling as it is unpredictable. Two players standing toe to toe in a test of wills, needing only to defeat the man who stands before him.
Defending champion Jason Day, World No.1 Dustin Johnson, former Texas Longhorn Jordan Spieth, and World No. 2 Rory McIlroy highlight a field that includes six of the top seven players in the world, and 16 of the top 20. Players will be paired in 32 opening round robin matches each of the first three days, with single elimination matches over the weekend determining who is crowned champion.
Austin Country Club is a Pete Dye designed course, which means players who find themselves out of position will find themselves in a world of hurt. Pete Dye courses are adventures that players can never be adequately prepared for, and match play just ratchets up that intensity.
Water is in play almost everywhere at Austin Country Club
The 7,073 yards, par 71 track is the oldest course in Texas and might be a little too short for a stroke play event, but it’s absolutely perfect for match play. It’s not a bombers course, but a fair share of drivable par-4s will produce immensely watchable and dramatic theatre. Strategy and accuracy can make up for a lack of distance off the tee, which means any kind of player can win here.
Resting on the shores of Lake Austin and the Colorado River, the views are spectacular, and in typical Dye trademark, also visually intimidating. Desired targets are crowded by huge pot bunkers, railroad ties, and forced carries over water and canyons. And it’s Texas, so you should expect there to be a vortex of wind at some point during the tournament.
Firm, undulating greens protected by contours around the perimeters, narrow fairways squeezed by swales, and a marked difference between the two nines make this course a course a complex and guileful challenge. The front-lakeside and back-hillside nines are reversed for the event, primarily to spotlight the exacting second-shot nature of holes 10 through 18. These back-nine holes feature canyons, creeks, and ravines, winding their way through the extreme elevation changes of Texas hill country. Many approach shots will be 120 yards or less, favoring players who excel with their wedges.
GPS view of the 535-yard par 5 No.3
No. 11 is a deceptive par-4, 446-yard hole that doglegs left alongside Deer Creek Canyon, and requires a very accurate approach over a deep ravine. No. 12 is a reachable downhill par-5, but a green tucked next to water will give players with rickety swings a reason to pause. While the 13th hole is a potentially drivable par-4, requiring a long carry over another canyon, players who get too aggressive may end up in the water lurking on the left.
No. 18 is maybe the most dramatic, risk-reward hole on the back-nine with a jaw-dropping elevation drop from the middle of the fairway into the green. Players who hit driver on this 476-yard par-4 hole and can avoid the trees and bunkers along the left side will catch a downslope that puts them in sand-wedge range for their second shot. Those who opt more conservatively to position themselves at the top of the hill still face an intimidating approach from about 200-yards out.
Finishing match holes on the dramatic front-nine play adjacent to Lake Austin and are more of a links-style design with deep pot bunkers and waste areas. Routed on basically flat terrain, it’s still important players find the right places in fairways for the best angles to attack certain pins.
This principle of playing to restricted targets is especially evident on the par-5, 7th hole (No. 16 during match play). Aggressive players will be tempted to use a long-iron or fairway wood trying to reach the green in two. Unless players are certain they can reach, a better play might be to lay up with their second shot. Bunkers in front of the green will demand a high-lofted approach with lots of spin to stop the ball quickly on an undulating green, and players too close with their second shot will have a harder time holding the green, especially with front pin placements.
The par-4, 9th hole (No. 18 during match play) is another great illustration of finding the right part of the fairway off the tee. Players might be enticed with driver here to avoid bunkers pinching the left side, and have a shorter approach into the green. But shorter here doesn’t mean easier. Again, from the top of the hill in the middle of the fairway players will have access to just about any hole location, and will find it easier to stick one close.
Players to Watch
Brackets haven’t been determined yet, but you can expect plenty of upsets. Last year nearly one-third of lower seeds in the first three rounds defeated the higher seeds, and three players in the “Elite Eight” were seeded 45th or higher. When you have to play your opponent and not just the course, and more importantly, play well when it matters, the favorite tag can go right out the window. There are a few players in the field however who’ve played well on Pete Dye tracks, and these are the ones I’ve have going farthest.
Rory McIlroy has won more times on Pete Dye courses than anyone in the field aside from Bubba Watson, and he’s inside the top-10 in par-4 and par-5 scoring, as well as Greens-In-Regulation. The four-time major champion is coming off a thrilling T-4 finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and his ball striking is clinical. The key for McIlroy will be his putting, which let him down a bit at Bay Hill. If Rory has control of the flat-stick he’ll be tough to beat.
Jordan Spieth is another Dye-dominator having made cuts more than 70% of the time he’s teed it up on a Dye track, including two second-place finishes. Along with McIlroy, Spieth went undefeated in the first three rounds, but was knocked out by eventual runner-up Louis Oosthuizen in his first elimination match. Historically he doesn’t hit enough Greens-In-Regulation on Dye courses to be considered a great pick into single-elimination however. I have him making it to the “Sweet Sixteen.”
Six top-10 finishes in his last seven starts, including a one-stroke victory two weeks ago at WGC-Mexico makes Dustin Johnson my favorite to win the fifth WGC championship of his career. Johnson is first on Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green and Strokes Gained: Total, and second in Greens-In-Regulation. Johnson’s also been a birdie-machine this season, ranked sixth on Tour in birdie average. When DJ’s on a roll like he is now, he’s literally almost unbeatable.