It is time for the second WGC of 2018 as the Tour rolls into Austin, Texas for the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play. This promises to be a great event for viewers, with so many players finding form at the right time, ahead of the first major of 2018.
After struggling the past couple of weeks, Rory McIlroy shot a final-round 64 this past Sunday, to seal a three-stroke victory over Bryson DeChambeau at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Tweaks to his putting, where he tried to focus less on mechanics, as well as taking some advice from putting guru, Brad Faxon helped him take advantage of a great ball-striking week.
Rory became the first player since Strokes Gained: Putting stats were first recorded in 2004, to rank 1st in Strokes Gained: Putting, Driving Distance, Proximity to the Hole and Scrambling, en-route to a victory. This is the true meaning of a complete performance and as a result McIlroy is now understandably the new favourite at Augusta, as well as here this week.
Of course Match Play is a whole different prospect altogether and with a Wednesday start this week, it is going to be about stamina as well as ability over the five days in Austin. Seven matches in five days for whoever proves victorious will take some doing, especially as you have to play two matches on both Saturday and Sunday.
Six players have withdrawn from this event so far as Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott and Joost Luiten opt against playing.
Koepka is obviously still nursing his injured wrist back to fitness ahead of Augusta whilst the others, barring Luiten who to has his own wrist injury, are choosing to prepare for the Masters in other ways.
Fowler, Rose, Scott and Stenson all skipped this event twelve months ago and it is no surprise to see them do so again. Rose’s decision in particular was vindicated by his performance as he pushed Sergio Garcia all the way at Augusta, finishing 2nd behind the Spaniard.
The Course and what it will take to win
Austin Country Club, 7043 Yards, Par 71
This event has now been held at this venue for the last two renewals, following a six-year stint in Arizona, so those outside of the debutants should know what to expect of the course.
The course here is a fairly unique one in the respect that the two 9’s are completely different tests altogether. The front-9 is on higher grounds, typical of golf in Texas, whilst they back-9 is in a lowlands style, running alongside Lake Austin.
High winds appears to be the courses main defence, so being able to cope with those conditions should the situation arise could well be key.
There are four par-5’s on the course, all of which are reachable in two and there is also a driveable par-4, so there is plenty to tempt the longer hitters in and will offer plenty of risk/reward opportunities.
Looking at the two winners here at Austin CC, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day were both strongly fancied before the off. Johnson sealed his third win in consecutive starts when taking the title 12 months ago and already ranked World No.1 at the time, whilst Day was also coming off the back of a win at the Arnold Palmer and was ranked 2nd in the world before his win here in 2016 took him to the top of the Official World Golf Rankings.
With the way the seedings work, it is no surprise that the higher ranked players have won here since the format change in 2015, with McIlroy, Day and Johnson all either 1st or 2nd seed the year they won. Johnson and McIlroy were both the No.1 Seed coming into the week and Day was No.2 so there have been no shocks in the last three years.
Since the introduction of the new format, the last three winners have won all three of their group stage matches, confirming the elite level of play needed to get the job done here.
In the old format, plenty of shocks were caused and top-seeded players were sent home after day one, but now each player has to play three matches, ability and match play experience will normally win out in the end.
If an outsider is to win this week, they are going to have to both progress from a tough group and send some exceptional players packing, once they reach the knockout stage.
Taking this all into account it would be unwise to avoid picking any of the 16 seeded players at all this week, as they are clearly the ones in the driving seat, thanks to what should be a favourable draw.
Of course not all of the top-16 seeds are strong match-play players or even the best players ability-wise in the field, but they get to avoid those that are in the group stages and that is highly advantageous.
In summary, positive match-play experience is key, as is getting a favourable draw, so that whittles down the list somewhat when looking at potential players to back.
For an insight into the 64 players match-play records, take a look at this wonderful section on Adam Sarson’s website which takes gives you a singles record for each player, for all the match-play tournaments they have played in combined. Whether it be in the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, EurAsia Cup or this event itself, match-play form is match-play form and needs to be taken into account.
Rory McIlroy (8/1)
Dustin Johnson (9/1)
Justin Thomas (12/1)
Jason Day (14/1)
Jon Rahm (14/1)
No prizes for working out the favourites this week, as they wrote themselves before the prices came out. Rory edges Johnson for favouritism thanks to his heroics at Bay Hill this past Sunday, whilst fellow former winner, Jason Day also features in the top-5.
Thomas makes his way in at 12/1, purely based on how well he is playing, despite first-round exits here over the last two years. Jon Rahm went 6-1 here last year, his only loss coming in the final to Johnson and he will be looking for more of the same as he prepares not only for this week but his Ryder Cup debut in September.
Jason Day 14/1 (General) 3pts win
Jason Day is simply a machine when it comes to match play. The Australian is 21-7 in this event, with one of those losses coming against Pat Perez last year, when he withdrew after 6 holes to be with his mother in the hospital.
Three of the other six losses came at Harding Park in San Francisco in 2015 and maybe that just wasn’t the best course for him.
In 2016, Day tore through the field here, making light work of most and he will look to do the same this time around. He was coming off a win at Bay Hill when he came here and dominated a week later, however he finished just T22 last week. He already has a win at Torrey Pines followed by a T2 at Pebble Beach to his name this year though, so I have no concerns about his form in general.
A two-time winner of this event, who has already won this year it is incredibly easy to make a case for Day and that’s why I will not go on for too long.
Form figures of 1-T2-T22 in 2018 suggest he is in fine form, despite some average iron play, so he can easily win an event he loves, in a format he dominates.
There is no one better than Day in this format, who boasts a 23-9 record overall in singles match play ties. He is 2-2 in the Presidents Cup, losing to Hunter Mahan in 2011 and Zach Johnson more recently in 2015, but comfortably dispatched Brandt Snedeker 6&4 in 2013 and also beat Charley Hoffman 1up in 2017.
A 72% win rate over 32 starts in singles match play is impossible to ignore and were he in bad form there would be a question as to whether he was value, with so many others around him playing well but that is not the case. He is not in bad form at all, so 14/1 is plenty fair enough and I am happy to make him pick of the week here.
Day has drawn Louis Oosthuizen, Jason Dufner and James Hahn in his group, and whilst this certainly could have been an easier draw, it doesn’t change my mind about his winning chances. He’s already proven he can beat Oosthuizen whilst Dufner and Hahn are unpredictable players, who of course can get hot, but in this format, I’ll take Day every time.
Rafael Cabrera Bello 66/1 (SkyBet & UniBet) 1pt e/w
So Cabrera Bello was one of the players I had in mind from the outset, but wanted to see who he would be pit against in the Group Stages first. Phil Mickelson, Charles Howell III and Satoshi Kodaira will be his first three opponents.
Again, like Day he could well have been handed an easier group if luck really wanted to work in our favour, but by the same token he has avoided Day, McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, the three players I wanted him to be drawn away from until the later stages.
Should he advance from his group, his Round of 16 match could well be against countryman, Jon Rahm who we know had a strong showing in this event last year.
To win this sort of event or even finish in the final four though, you have to beat some extremely good players and his first two match ups in the knockout stages could well be Rahm and then McIlroy, a tough route.
Bello has a strong record in singles match play though, winning 70% of the time, with an overall record of 14-5-1. In this event specifically he is 8-4-1, highlighted by coming 3rd in this event two years ago.
He came out best in a group which included; Hideki Matsuyama, Kevin Kisner and Søren Kjeldsen in 2016, before defeating Byeong-Hun An and Ryan Moore in his first two knockout matches. Bello finally come unstuck against Louis Oosthuizen before beating McIlroy in the 3rd/4th place play-off.
Bello didn’t advance from his group last year, despite beating Jeunghun Wang and Tyrrell Hatton so was naturally disappointed. Charles Howell III beat him in his other group match and in a play-off as the pair finished with the same record.
He will seek vengeance this week, and look to advance further, in the format he has shown a liking for already in his career.
Bello won his only singles match in Ryder Cup play, against Jimmy Walker in 2016 and then beat Gavin Green in the EurAsia cup last year, so he likes singles matches outside of this competition also and that can only be a positive.
Given he has avoided the players I wanted him to in the early stages and already has a victory over McIlroy (who he could face in the quarters) in this competition, I thought 66/1 was a fair price.
Bello is a player that should win more, but can be his own worst enemy, something that is often negated when playing match play as opposed to stroke play.
Talking of stroke play, he has been his usual consistent self in 2018, but to top it off finished T3 on his last start, at the WGC in Mexico. His performance that week suggests he’s in great form and should be able to carry that over to this week.