2pts e.w. Jordan Spieth at 25/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
2.5pts win Rory McIlroy at 20/1 (General)
1pt win Jason Day at 50/1 (bet365, Unibet)
1pt e.w. Si Woo Kim at 80/1 (General 1/4 1,2,3,4)
1pt e.w. Russell Henley at 80/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes 1/4 1,2,3,4)
We're now into the part of the PGA Tour season that was wiped out in 2020, which means the final pre-Masters stop for many of the world's best players will be in an event that last took place two years ago.
Though not for everyone, the move to a round-robin format in the WGC Match Play has helped encourage the best players to turn up for what's meant to be one of the sport's biggest prizes. Even those who depart early will get three more rounds of competitive action under their belts and it all counts with Augusta around the corner.
The market follows the mood of the sport, which means that men of the hour Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau have usurped Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy by virtue of their performances at Sawgrass. Thomas was brilliant there over the weekend, having looked in danger of missing the cut, and already his season appears transformed at just the right time.
As for DeChambeau, his frolicking win at Bay Hill preceded an opportunity missed on a bigger stage, and there's something inherently volatile about everything he does at the moment. Perhaps that will lend itself to some heavy victories in what appears a decent group, but I've a feeling he's more vulnerable than the other four in a difficult event to win.
With a handful of firms paying eight places — i.e. a return if your man reaches the quarter-finals — at first it's tempting to really speculate in an event won by Kevin Kisner and Bubba Watson since Johnson beat Rahm in 2017. That said, the winners in 2015 and 2017 were both world number one, and Jason Day graduated to that position when he took the title in 2016. If the aim of this new format was to improve the chances of the best players, it has worked.
Certainly, some kind of pedigree appears important and those at the very bottom of the betting might be underpriced. Kisner had played Presidents Cup golf and contended for a major, and the four winners before him now have nine major championships between them. You might expect some kind of surprise, but it's best not to pray for an absolute miracle.
My approach is to take one (well, ish...) from each quarter, knowing we can reassess if things go somewhat to plan, and I'll start with my strongest fancy: JORDAN SPIETH.
It's been a really important couple of months for the three-time major champion, and as the weeks have gone on, his renaissance has been made stronger. Cast your mind back to that third round in Phoenix, and it felt ethereal rather than meaningful, the sort of thing to enjoy for what it was without looking for substance. Now, he really does look like the player who threatened to win a grand slam in 2015.
Crucially, his iron play has been superb, ranking 10th or better in four of his last five starts. The driver has come around, too, and it's notable that he's been hitting brave shots like low-tee, squeeze cuts that start off over water and end up in the fairway. At Sawgrass in particular, he looked to have that golf ball back under his spell, though as if to remind him and us that golf is complicated, it coincided with a cold putter.
When everything clicks for four days, he will win a stroke play tournament, but in this one his bursts of scoring can get him through what looks a fantastic group, and from there we might see the full effects of this confidence he's spent the early months of the year building.
If Spieth does get out of a group whose top seed is Matt Fitzpatrick, beaten in eight of his 12 matches at Austin Country Club, he could face his close friend Thomas in the last 16. But Thomas has three of the biggest Austin course specialists in his section, and I wouldn't be at all shocked to see Spieth up against Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Kuchar, or defending champion Kisner.
All three would be tricky to varying degrees, but clearly it would be to Spieth's benefit to have Thomas taken care of, as it would potential quarter-final foe Patrick Reed. Reed's group looks one of the trickiest to call and so too does that of Patrick Cantlay, so while it could be Thomas then Reed for Spieth, Kuchar then Carlos Ortiz isn't out of the question.
While his record here might not leap off the page, Spieth has been second in his group in each of the last three years, and his form now is stronger than it's been in some time. Back in 2016, he played really nicely only to bump into an on-song Oosthuizen in the first knockout match, and five years on this looks a really good chance to end a victory drought which stretches back to the 2017 Open Championship.
The second quarter is trickier still, but I'm willing to give RORY MCILROY the benefit of what must be considerable doubt at 20/1.
McIlroy was really poor at Sawgrass last time, shooting 79-75, and candidly admitted he'd lost something in pursuit of DeChambeau-esque speed. Forgive me for not getting into the minutiae of the great McIlroy debate in a week with three events to preview, but it would be fair to say I tend to think it's all a little overplayed.
What we know is that McIlroy almost always responds well to a missed cut. He's done it once already this season, having been sixth in the WGC Workday following a terrible performance at Riviera, just as he went close in another WGC after that episode at Portrush, and when signing off at Sawgrass he made clear his determination to put things right.
If he's looking for a spark, then Wednesday's match with Ian Poulter should provide it. McIlroy can boss it, win the group, and very quickly find the sort of flow that makes him irresistible at times. Besides, the one or two (OK, three or four) ragged shots per round which are ruining his scorecards may be less difficult to overcome in this format.
His record here is perfectly sound, losing a semi-final to the eventual winner and world number one in 2016, and coming off second best in a fascinating duel with Tiger Woods in 2019. And this group really is there for the taking, before a potential rematch with JASON DAY if the Aussie can get out of his section.
I do rate Day's prospects of overcoming Xander Schauffele and Scottie Scheffler, so I'm effectively going to group him and McIlroy together in the hope they meet in the last 16, hence win-only bets on both. Coupled, they come out at around 14/1 and look a nice way to take two for the price of Rahm in the second quarter, for all that the Spaniard does look particularly well drawn.
Day has won this title twice including here in Austin, and he played so much better than his finishing position at Sawgrass last time. Also a past champion there and at Whistling Straits, his Dye form matches anyone's and his work with coach Chris Como appears to be paying off.
Now fit again, I think he'll climb the rankings over the coming months and there's arguably no better tournament for him than this one, for all there is — wait for it — no such thing as an easy draw.
Plotting the potential last-16 clashes and none whets the appetite quite like Viktor Hovland v Collin Morikawa, which is precisely what we'll get if the top seeds win groups 13 and four.
These two have done plenty of sparring as amateurs and were fighting it out for the last WGC to be played, albeit not in the same group. It would obviously be exciting to see them go at it on Saturday and there's a strong chance they will, with narrow preference for Hovland at 28/1 in the outright market.
Indeed the Norwegian is the last name off the shortlist this week, because this course and this format will suit him down to the ground. He hits so few bad shots that he'll be an extremely hard man to beat and if you want what you might call a realistic option from the bottom half, he would get the vote.
However, I have nagging doubts over the fact his last four rounds have been very poor, and the likelihood that Abraham Ancer will make him work hard for it before that potential meeting with Morikawa.
Instead, I'll take on board the risks attached to SI WOO KIM and hope that he can upset the odds to eliminate Bryson DeChambeau.
Kim starts off against Tommy Fleetwood and though I wouldn't be one to underestimate the Englishman, who has some good form in the event, his driver still isn't singing and as shown at Bay Hill, he has a bad round in him at the moment.
If it comes on Wednesday, Kim can take advantage. He flushed it at Sawgrass last time, finishing ninth to put behind him a poor run of form, and is a winner this year courtesy of the AmEx. Notably, both these standout performances came on Dye courses (36 of the 72 holes in the tournament he won, at least) and as a former PLAYERS champion who lost a play-off at Harbour Town, he absolutely adores them.
Austin might appear the exception so far, but he was second in his group on debut and then topped it in 2018, only to meet a bang in-form Thomas in the last 16. A year later he lost all three matches by wide margins, but he was suffering with a back injury and it was apparent a week later when he winced his way through the Texas Open despite being in the mix.
Seemingly healthy this time, he won't be overawed by taking on DeChambeau and if his iron play is as good as it was at Sawgrass, he'll be piling pressure onto the broad shoulders of his opponent. At 80/1 to go all the way, this Dye-loving recent winner with Presidents Cup experience reminds me somewhat of Kisner and looks interesting.
Finally we have the bottom section where Paul Casey has understandably been popular. I think he'll win Group 9, before a clash with a fellow European he'd absolutely relish — it could well be against his Paris partner Tyrrell Hatton, who looks the better value but does face a proper test in the shape of Sergio Garcia.
I'll let that play out as it will, and focus on the other mini-section where RUSSELL HENLEY appeals enough to make an exception to the rule which says winners will likely have team match play experience at the highest level.
Henley is another whose form in this event looks better the closer you look. So far, across two formats and three courses, he's played in eight matches and all eight have gone down the final hole if not beyond.
In 2013, as the sole WGC debutant in the field, he beat Masters champion Charl Schwartzel (11th in the world at the time) and then lost in extra holes to Day, who went on to reach the semi-finals and came back to win the event the following year. Henley then made his return in 2015, in California, where he'd seldom played well, and lost 1up to Brooks Koepka, on the 19th hole to J.B. Holmes, and then beat Marc Warren 1up himself.
Finally he has had one go here in Austin, losing on the last to Casey, beating Matt Fitzpatrick and losing on the last to Kyle Stanley, producing some of the best golf in the entire field over those second two matches only to meet opponents who played just that bit better.
Nobody has so far managed to thump this gritty character and after his putter came alive last week at the sort of tough course he enjoys, Henley might be capable of stepping up and qualifying for the Masters.
Currently ranked 55th, he's in fact not in any of the majors, and the next two are the Masters in his home state of Georgia, followed by the US PGA in South Carolina, where he now lives. If he can get out of a tricky group whose favourite is Sungjae Im, Henley could achieve two massive goals and he's the sort to thrive under the pressure, just as he did when winning the Houston Open to quality for Augusta in 2017.
Matters are complicated by the fact he's draw to face Dustin Johnson in the second round, but I'd give him more than a puncher's chance, particularly if he can keep up this progress we've seen with the putter. Yes, it was a red-hot first round which did most of the heavy lifting last week, but he putted to a good standard thereafter and may have at last found the missing piece of the jigsaw.
Posted at 1900 GMT on 22/03/21
Format: Round-robin with winner of each group advancing to knockout
In event of ties, players take part in play-off which is stroke play if three-plus, match play if two
On the face of it a very good draw for Dustin Johnson. The world number one, a dominant winner here in 2017, is in with two debutants whose recent form amounts to very little, with Robert MacIntyre and Adam Long both having plenty to prove. MacIntyre has the right attitude for this and Long's sole PGA Tour win came in seriously brave fashion, but both will need to be at their best.
Kevin Na then looks the main danger, with a winning record at the course and the likes of Justin Thomas, Justin Rose and Jordan Spieth among his victims. Na reached the quarter-finals in 2019 and there's strong evidence that accuracy at this Pete Dye design can carry you a long way. He's desperate to make the Ryder Cup team and victory over DJ would be a big step towards that goal.
Johnson has been quiet lately, his long-game troublingly poor by his standards, and Na should make him work for it at the very least, that's assuming he's over whatever saw him withdraw from The PLAYERS after making an eight at the 17th hole.
This is a seriously trappy group. Justin Thomas was back to his imperious best to win at Sawgrass, a victory which further underlines how good a guide that course is to this one. He was a semi-finalist back in 2018, losing focus with world number one within his grasp, and if he hits it as he did in The PLAYERS rates the man to beat.
That said, Kevin Kisner and Louis Oosthuizen boast incredible records at the course. Kisner took the this title in 2019 and has won 11 of his last 14 matches here, having been beaten by Bubba Watson in the 2018 final. Though his form isn't great he will be lit up by the format and demands respect.
So too does Oosthuizen, who has won his group in three of the four years here at Austin, and lost a sudden-death play-off on the other occasion. A beaten finalist in 2016, he fell in love with the place very quickly and is an unflappable, experienced match play specialist who was sixth in a WGC two starts ago prior to withdrawing from Bay Hill.
Either of those could scupper Thomas's hopes for a quickfire double and having lost just three of his 17 matches here, Matt Kuchar shouldn't be totally discounted despite appearing to be in rapid decline.
Beaten in the 2017 final on his debut in the event, Jon Rahm will expect to win this title at some stage and he's been handed a fairly good introduction. Taking on former Zurich Classic teammate Ryan Palmer might look awkward in some respects but Rahm dished out a beating to the American at Muirfield Village last summer and I don't know as they're especially close despite their Louisiana win.
Palmer has played some of the best golf of his life over the last 18 months but his sole appearance in this event under its current format saw him lose all three group games. He could do better back in his home state (that was in 2015 at Harding Park, in California) and probably rates the main danger.
That's not to dismiss Shane Lowry, who needs to start delivering if he's to make the Ryder Cup team. The Irishman did so with a top-10 finish at Sawgrass but arrives here off a very disappointing weekend in the Honda. Sebastian Munoz is very streaky, making him dangerous over 18 holes, but winning this group looks a stretch.
Arguably the standout debutant, Collin Morikawa might benefit from the fact that two of his rivals here are also new to Austin, where a look around is surely a big help. The American ace had one of his shockers on and around the greens at Sawgrass and much will depend on how he holes out from five or six feet, or indeed closer — my advice would be to concede him nothing.
Billy Horschel played with Morikawa over the weekend of the WGC Workday Championship but has taken backward steps since then and a bigger threat could emerge from Max Homa, a winner at Riviera with a good match play pedigree from his amateur days, and one who can match Morikawa over 18 holes.
J.T. Poston missed the cut after a bright start in an event he likes last week. He's dangerous owing to a red-hot putter and is the sort to win a match here. He could have a big say in the outcome without winning the group.
Bryson DeChambeau lost two of his three matches here in 2019, but just how much that's worth is hard to say. He is clearly a different beast now, capable of putting the ball in places nobody else can, and we might see him break the 500-yard barrier on the 12th hole should conditions allow for it.
How he tackles Austin might determine how serious a challenge he launches. This course is typical of its designer, tempting players into high-risk shots which can be harshly punished, and there's disaster lurking throughout. Then again, he can drive it onto the first green and if he does fire, could win matches by the time he's holed an eagle putt on the aforementioned 12th.
His group looks a decent one, with Tommy Fleetwood perhaps struggling just a little and Antoine Rozner new to this. Perhaps Si Woo Kim will be the danger man. He's fearless, a winner this year, and adores Dye designs. That explains flashes of brilliance here and he's a better player than the one who was thumped in all three matches in 2019.
So rare have missed cuts been for Xander Schauffele that alarm bells ring loudly when he does exit early, as was the case at Sawgrass last time. He's certainly cooled since an excellent start to the year and perhaps that missed opportunity in Phoenix is somewhat to blame as his frustrations mount up.
An excellent Presidents Cup debut and some decent performances in this show what he can do but he could be vulnerable to either Scottie Scheffler, an aggressive Texan who will be ready to go here, or Jason Day. The latter is a former winner who has offered some big hints this year and if the putts drop could do serious damage.
Andy Sullivan completes the group but he's been a little out of sorts, although there were some good signs in the Middle East. He's played in a Ryder Cup and does get hot with his approaches and putter often enough to resist temptation to assume he'll finish bottom.
Quite a lively group this one with Patrick Reed of course the man to beat. He's been deadly in Ryder Cup singles, led from the front in the Presidents Cup a year and a half ago, and has twice won all three group games here in Austin.
The only really blot on his copybook is a 3&2 defeat to Andrew Putnam to open the 2019 edition and it could yet be that his biggest hurdle is his first match again, as Bubba Watson is a former winner here and we know he comes alive at courses he loves. He will have to, but with Augusta approaching don't rule out a return to form.
Then we have in-form Joaquin Niemann, who has played superbly for a long time now, and a neat-and-tidy Christiaan Bezuidenhout. The latter is prolific on and around the greens and it'll be interesting to see whether he or Reed advances, or whether one of the two superior ball-strikers does so. Hard to call.
Four European Ryder Cup hopefuls in another interesting group. Tyrrell Hatton deserves favouritism as his form has been outstanding lately — dating back to the BMW PGA, which he won, he's been inside the top 30 in 11 of his 13 appearances. The worry would be the two exceptions were Augusta and Sawgrass and he does have just a little to prove on the very biggest stage.
He's shown a liking for this course, however, and played well in round two of The PLAYERS. It would be no surprise were he popular here, especially as Lee Westwood has been very busy and struggled at the Honda, where Matt Wallace missed his third cut in four.
The one to potentially cause a minor upset therefore looks to be Sergio Garcia, who clearly is vastly experienced in this format and likes it here in Austin, not far from his adopted home. He topped a group which featured Patrick Reed in reaching the quarter-finals two years ago and is in excellent form.
What a draw for Paul Casey who looks a strong favourite despite not being the top seed. A two-time runner-up in this event who has won the Volvo World Match Play at Wentworth, Casey loves the format and has arguably never been better. Having contended at Sawgrass last time, the only worry would be the wrist injury he appeared to be struggling with early on, but by the end of the week all seemed well.
Part of the confidence behind Casey comes from Webb Simpson's abysmal record at Austin. He's lost eight of his nine matches, the sole victory coming against Pat Perez, and was disappointing at Sawgrass last time. We'll find out more as to whether this course really does just fox him as the group is lacking in depth and his clash with Casey may yet determine the outcome.
That's not to underestimate Talor Gooch, a solid ball-striker edging towards his PGA Tour breakthrough, nor the deadly Mackenzie Hughes, but all signs point towards Casey.
Not a group that will draw much attention outside of Japan, where Hideki Matsuyama remains a superstar. His form in this is unspectacular and he's been very much up and down over the last six months. It'll be interesting to see how he goes against Patrick Cantlay, who also needs to bounce back from The PLAYERS.
Cantlay should relish this challenge — he loves Pete Dye's courses — and bar Sawgrass his form has been very strong. But all three matches will be hard won, as Brian Harman arrives buoyed by his display two weeks ago and is a tenacious sort who lights up the greens from time to time, and Carlos Ortiz won on his last start in Texas, where he studied and now lives. He's still improving and is seriously tough, marking this down as a group in which all four have a realistic chance.
Rory McIlroy knows he needs a spark and a Wednesday showdown with Ian Poulter should provide it. Alongside each other these two — well, Poulter really — sparked the Miracle of/at/in Medinah back in 2012 and their meeting might be the tie of the round.
Poulter has disappointed me a couple of times lately, but he's only lost twice here, both times to course stick Kevin Kisner. Would any of us really be surprised if the bad shots become less bad and the putts start to drop?
Cameron Smith showed Poulter-like tenacity at the Presidents Cup in 2019, and when winning the Sony Open, and again when contending at Augusta. He's played some really good golf this year, in fact for a good six months, and should in time prove to be a bad player to be drawn against.
Lanto Griffin is improving, and his combination of good driving and putting makes for a difficult opponent, too. This is a really fun group and on balance I think the winner will come from the feature match on day one, which is in fact the very first match of the tournament.
Three of the biggest hitters around, and you can almost make it four with the strides Dylan Frittelli has made off the tee. Having played college golf in Texas and picked up plenty of experience at Austin, he'd be a threat at his best but has produced it only once this season.
Focus should be on the other three. Tony Finau looked good in the Ryder Cup three years ago and has plainly been among the best in the world in 2021. A shocking first round at Sawgrass, where he shot 78, can likely be ignored as it's the only misstep he's taken in quite a while.
Will Zalatoris meanwhile was without a PGA Tour card six months ago and has performed wonders to climb so high, so fast. Now a Texas resident, this is a great chance for him to do something special, although I'll be hoping he delays that by precisely one week.
As for Jason Kokrak, he's learned how to putt and it's made all the difference to him. Top-10 finishes in his last three events mark him down as one of the form players in the field and he's starting to look like an outsider with realistic Ryder Cup potential.
I genuinely have no idea who wins this but will side with Zalatoris. Just.
Plenty will be eyeing up Viktor Hovland for this title having impressed throughout the first few months of the season. His poor weekend at Bay Hill followed by a missed cut at Sawgrass does raise some doubts but he did try to warn us all, stating that he doesn't much like courses in Florida. He also said he can't wait to play in this event and his relentless quality from tee-to-green means he won't lose many holes on the cheap.
Kevin Streelman sneaks in here and is hard to fancy while Bernd Wiesberger has been quiet for too long now, and this is one of those groups which looks between the top two seeds. Abraham Ancer played some excellent golf on his Presidents Cup debut, was in fact born in Texas, and he will relish this opportunity.
Hovland has to get the vote but he can't afford an off day.
To my eye the group which is least likely to produce the winner, after Daniel Berger withdrew from his hometown event last week owing to a rib issue. He's already withdrawn from this event once before and his record when completing is extremely poor, so there are big concerns wherever you look.
That might present Harris English with an opportunity but he withdrew from The PLAYERS last time, so don't be surprised if we get an upset. The trouble is I find it hard to split Brendon Todd, who hits it arrow straight and is playing some good stuff again, and the capable Erik van Rooyen. On balance Todd might be the one as he's a former winner in Texas who holes a lot of putts and won't be too far from the middle of the fairway.
Matt Fitzpatrick can hardly be called a good draw, as his form reads MC-17-5-11-10-9 since he won the DP World Tour Championship. However, he has lost eight of his 12 matches here at Austin and for that reason looked among the better top seeds to be thrown in with.
There's surely no better second seed to draw than Matthew Wolff, who has been struggling for form and fitness and was last seen shooting 83 in the WGC Workday. Skipping Sawgrass confirms he does have a problem and it's hard to see him getting out of this group.
Corey Conners is in form and a winner in Texas, but all things considered this looks a fantastic make-up for Jordan Spieth, who is hitting a heck of a lot of good shots again and has contended three times in his last five starts.
Spieth's record in this might not leap off the page but he's been second in his group in each of the last three years. Before that, he reached the knockout stage only to lose to Louis Oosthuizen, who went all the way to the final and has built a brilliant record at the course.
There should be no concerns over playing seven matches in five days for Sungjae Im, who played well in his Honda Classic defence last week. With the putter singing again and on his preferred greens, he is a fascinating contender having been brilliant at the Presidents Cup.
Victor Perez could do with making a statement as he looks to seal a Ryder Cup debut, but confidence must be high after he holed a 25-foot putt to make the cut at Sawgrass and then spent the weekend climbing the leaderboard. He lacks experience in the format but that's true of three of these four and is not an excuse.
Russell Henley was good in the Honda, as he almost always is, and if he continues to putt well is a dangerous opponent. So too is Marc Leishman, whose record here is typically patchy. Im and Henley look the two to concentrate on and it may come down to their meeting on Wednesday.
Sorted by most wins in Won-Lost-Halved
'Level' assumes halved match = 0.5pt; Won-Lost-Halved
Sorted by fewest wins in Won-Lost-Halved
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