Europe has a strong record in the last 10 years of the WGC-Dell Match Play with four winners and five beaten finalists.
All four champs – Henrik Stenson (9th), Ian Poulter (9th), Luke Donald (9th) and Rory McIlroy (1st) – were seeded in the top 10 while three of the runners-up – Paul Casey (6th), Martin Kaymer (2nd) and Rory (2nd) - were top six seeds so, despite the volatile format, it’s the elite Europeans who have shone.
Perhaps no surprise given that most of the above have been standouts in Europe’s numerous Ryder Cup wins over that period (this annual playful dig at my American friends falls a bit flat now after the hammering at Hazeltine!).
In 2015, the format changed to Pool play with 16 Groups of four players contesting Round-Robin matches Wednesday through Friday. The 16 Group winners then contest straight knockout over the weekend.
The risk of big names being eliminated before the dawn of Thursday was a big reason for the switch but the trade-off is a dramatic loss of excitement on day one. No-one’s going home; everyone knows they’ve got another chance.
Last year the tournament moved to Austin Country Club in Texas for the first time and will stay there until 2019.
In theory, the world’s top 64 play off against each other; in reality the field generally misses a few big names due to scheduling reasons and this week it’s the turn of Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson to give it a swerve.
Austin CC is a short par 71 measuring just 7,073 yards. The PGA Tour website says: “Its current site overlooking Lake Austin has been home since 1984, when Pete Dye completed a design featuring two markedly different nines. 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.” Phil Mickelson said last year: “It's in great shape, terrific shape. I thought it seemed like a very fair test, challenging. The wind is tough, but it's a great site.”
2016 results at Austin CC
Louis Oosthuizen bt Dustin Johnson 2&1
Rafa Cabrera-Bello bt Ryan Moore 2&1
Rory McIlroy bt Chris Kirk 4&3
Jason Day bt Brooks Koepka 3&2
Louis Oosthuizen bt Rafa Cabera-Bello 4&3
Jason Day bt Rory McIlroy 1up
Jason Day bt Louis Oosthuizen 5&4
Rafa Cabrera-Bello bt Rory McIlroy 3&2
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
How damaging is it to lose a Pool stage match?
Looking at the breakdown of last year’s Pool results, only three of the 16 Group winners went through to the knockout phase after suffering a loss and two of those had to do it via a sudden-death play-off. Six of those to advance had perfect 3-0 records, five won two and halved one, while two had a win and two halves. Losing isn’t fatal but it puts a player’s back right up against the wall.
There’s a theory that over 18 holes anyone can beat anyone. However, the stats from last year suggested that class told at Austin CC. Of the 96 Group games, 55 were won by the higher seed, 24 by the lower seed and 17 were ties. In the knockout phase, the higher seed was victorious in 10 of the 16 matches. For the tournament as a whole, the higher seed won 58% of matches, the lower seed 27% and 15% were tied.
This preview will look at all the Europeans and any other eligible players for the official European Tour Fantasy game.
Here’s the lowdown (in world ranking order)....
Rory’s made the semi-finals three times in the last five years, winning at Harding Park in San Francisco in 2015, losing the final to Hunter Mahan in Arizona in 2012 and being edged out by eventual winner Jason Day in the last four here at Austin last year. He’ll be desperate to get more rounds under his belt ahead of the Masters but is certainly trending in the right direction after T7 (Mexico) and T4 (Bay Hill) since coming back from injury.
He’s twice been top scorer for Europe in Ryder Cups but match play outside of the team format clearly doesn’t suit Sergio anywhere near as much. In 14 attempts at this event, he’s got past the last 16 just once, a fourth place at Dove Mountain in 2010. The good news? He won in Dubai earlier this season and is a three-time winner in Texas including last year’s Byron Nelson.
The Swede gets just his third start in this event (R1 exit 2010, R2 exit 2013) and first under the Pool stage format. Europe’s hottest player at the end of 2016 with four wins in 11 starts but those who predicted a reversion to the mean this year are right so far as he’s managed just one top 20 in five starts.
An absolute stud in the last two Ryder Cups, winning an epic Sunday singles against McIlroy last year. Won his group (v Mickelson, Berger and Fitzpatrick) with a 3-0 record last year but ran into Dustin Johnson in the last 16 and crashed 3&2. Runner-up in last year’s Texas Open highlights strong record in home State.
Finishes of T5 and T10 in the final two majors of 2016 went relatively unnoticed but since then he’s won the prestigious Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and announced himself to American audiences with a pair of T4s on the Florida Swing and T10 at the WGC-Mexico Championship. That’s taken him to World No. 14 and means he’ll be the top seed in his group. In this format, the only evidence we have is three wins out of four in the 2015 Paul Lawrie Match Play.
Willett first shone on the other side of the Pond with his third place in the 2015 WGC-Dell Match Play in San Francisco, his tournament debut. A 1-1-1 record led to a group exit in Austin last year and, who knows, perhaps the extra freshness helped him win the Masters on his very next start. It’s hard not to think defending (choosing menu etc) at Augusta soon won’t distract him a little here.
Not a European Tour member at present so not available for the official ET Fantasy game. However, he could prove popular in other formats after some strong play this season and an excellent record in this event which shows back-to-back finals appearances in 2009 and 2010. Also a quarter-finalist in the first year of the Pool format in 2015 but didn’t win any of his three games here last year.
Won two out of three last year here after an opening loss but crashed out in sudden death. Likes the format though and won all five matches at the 2015 Presidents Cup in South Korea. Has the gutsy attitude to make a big impact but recent form is a concern with a WD at the Honda, T32 in Mexico and MC at Bay Hill.
Already has a WGC win under his belt after landing the 2015 HSBC Champions in China. This event last year was his first crack at match play since his amateur days and it wasn’t a great success as a 1-1-1 record left him third in the group. Current form is very flat – three MCs and T70.
Euro Tour gamers who took the first opportunity to get Rahm on board were rewarded heavily with the Spaniard grabbing third at the WGC-Mexico. His nationality suggests strong match play skills will be in his DNA (think Seve, Ollie and Sergio in Ryder Cups) and he was a quarter-finalist at the 2015 U.S. Amateur. Won at Torrey Pines earlier this season and also top five at Pebble Beach.
The breakout star – in American eyes at least – of last year’s event here when he went all the way to the semis. He started the week by beating Hideki Matsuyama and ended it with victory over Rory McIlroy in the Consolation match. The Spaniard added fourth in Houston a week later to suggest the heat/wind combo of Texas suits him. Last seen finishing T5 in the Indian Open.
Won four and halved his singles with Patrick Reed (a notable achievement!) at the 2015 Presidents Cup to show his match play credentials and went all the way to the final here last year after wins over Matt Jones, Bernd Wiesberger, Andy Sullivan, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rafa-Cabrera Bello before Jason Day was too strong in the final. He returns on back of T28 at Bay Hill and T21 in Honda.
This is Schwatzel’s ninth start in the event and his record makes pretty miserable reading with the round of 16 his best efforts (2010 and 2015). He does, though, boast an overall winning career record in singles (15-12-1) when taking into account Presidents Cups and he won his first two Pool matches here last year before losing the battle for top spot with Brandt Snedeker. T6 at the Valspar two starts ago.
The Italian is one of the in-form European raiders this week after moving to 29th in the world with T14 at the Honda, T20 in Mexico and T7 at Bay Hill. On the downside, this has been a poor event for him (never even made the last 16 in seven attempts) and it didn’t get any better at Austin last year when he lost two matches out of three.
A superb putter which, in theory, makes him a dangerous and frustrating opponent for anyone at match play. That’s yet to materialise at the top level and he suffered big defeats to Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed at this venue last year and lost 4&3 to Zach Johnson in his Ryder Cup singles. His latest form – T16 Mexico, T13 Arnold Palmer – suggests the young Englishman will make a better fist of it this time.
After taking a long time to justify the opinion of so many top judges, Fleetwood is thriving. Victory in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship was a massive step forward and he’s followed it up with solo second in the WGC-Mexico and T10 at Bay Hill last week despite an opening 78. Won all three of his Pool matches at the 2015 WGC-Match Play at Harding Park to reach the last 16 so he could be dangerous on his Austin CC debut.
His first crack at match play since wowing us by finishing as leading scorer (both sides) at the 2016 Ryder Cup. That superb debut included a 3&2 win over J.B. Holmes in the singles. Pieters will be seeing Austin CC for the second straight year after a 1-1-1 record and subsequent group exit last year when seeded 55th. Expect better this time from the Belgian who was T5 at the WGC-Mexico and runner-up at Riviera.