A Match Well Played
The biggest match of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play happened in the Round of 16 when Rory McIlroy faced Tiger Woods.
Matchplay is a strange beast and a tournament like the WGC Matchplay requires more from a player than a 72 stroke play event. The winner has to win at least 5 matches (they play 6) and most times needs a little luck. An 18-hole match is a talent equalizer of sorts because the best players in the world can be bested by an unheralded opponent in this shortened game. Additionally, a player can be 9-under but lose to another player who is 10-under or conversely a player can shoot 75 and prevail over another.
McIlroy who is the 4th ranked player in the world but is the planet’s best golfer, has been almost at his peak for the last two months https://www.birdgolf.com/we-saw-this-coming/ . World ranking points are calculated over a period of time and while they reward a player’s most recent form, they don’t always articulate who is currently the best player. The Northern Irishman has not finished worse than 6th in any event in 2019 and dispatched his first three opponents at the Matchplay with ease.
Woods is a three-time Champion at the Matchplay (2003, 2004 and 2008) who needs one more PGA Tour victory to tie Sam Snead’s all-time record of 81 victories. The 42-year has been playing well in 2019 (at this stage he has completed his “comeback” so we can do away with similes like that) but hasn’t quite been as good as he was when winning the 2018 Tour Championship at the end of last year https://www.birdgolf.com/the-80th/ . Nonetheless the 14-time Major Champion is currently raked #13 in the OWGR and would be a dangerous opponent even if he was standing on one leg (ask Rocco Mediate).
Under stormy skies and windy conditions at Austin Country Club (home to legendary Harvey Penick) neither player was at his best in a see-saw match in which Woods eventually would win 2 & 1.
Woods would then face relatively unknown Dane, Lucas Bjerregaard, who had easily disposed of heavily favored fellow Scandinavian, Henrick Stenson in his round of 16 match, in the quarter-finals. The 27-year old Bjerregaard has won twice on the European Tour, but this was an entirely different stage.
Sunday’s morning semi-finals would feature four players very much in form. Open champion Francesco Molinari remained undefeated winning his fifth consecutive match (he is also the only player in Ryder Cup history to have a perfect 5-0-0 record) with a resounding 6 & 5 defeat of a hopelessly over-matched Kevin Na. The 7th ranked player continued his torrid form after winning at Bay Hill Last week.
He would play 35-year old American Kevin Kisner who clearly likes both the venue and the format after being the runner-up to Bubba Watson last year. Kisner outlasted South African, Louis Oosthuizen 2 & 1 to claim his place in the final four.
Bjerregaard was unfazed playing against Woods and after making an eagle-3 on the par 16th, tied the match with two holes to play. Both players made matching birdie-2’s on the par-3 17th. When Woods was unable to get up and down from the greenside bunker on the 18th hole, Bjerregaard had authored one the biggest upsets in WGC Matchplay history, with a 1 up stunner.
The last player to make into the semi-finals was American Matt Kuchar who bested Spain’s Sergio Garcia 2 up. The lanky 40-year old has already won twice on Tour in 2019 to increase his tally of career wins to 9 (including a win in this event in 2013) and is 3rd in the year-long FedEx Cup race.
The weather on Sunday was even more severe with temperatures in the 40’s and winds that gusted over 20 mph.
In the first semi-final Kisner prevailed over Molinari 1 up in a match that saw momentum change several times. A clutch par on the 18th hole gave the South Carolinian the narrow win over Molinari and his second consecutive trip to the WGC Matchplay finals. Kisner has been a consistent money winner in his 9 years on Tour and has won two tournaments but until now is probably best remembered for losing three playoffs in the 2015 season.
The second semi-final was also a closely contested affair and featured great golf by Kuchar and Bjerregaard. Both players shot 3-under par 33’s on the back 9 before Kuchar prevailed 1-up, with a par-4 on the final hole.
Kuchar and Kisner would be the final two standing in an All-American final.
As is the case though with Matchplay (which is why it isn’t a great TV format), the final lacked much of the drama, excitement and superb play that the earlier rounds had provided. Kisner was much the steadier of the two and would claim a 3 & 2 win over Kuchar.
Kisner is a player that has more than paid his dues having graduated from the mini tours to the Web.com Tour (known then as the Nationwide Tour) before earning his PGA Tour card in 2011. With this, the biggest win of his career, he goes over the $18 million mark in career earnings and perhaps gains the impetus to become one of the world’s best players.