Professional golf returns to Austin as WGC-Dell Match Play begins Wednesday

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Top seed Jordan Spieth hits from a sand trap on the 7th hole during practice for the Dell Match Play Championship golf tournament at Austin County Club, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in Austin, Texas.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/ Eric Gay

Professional golf is back in Austin for the first time since 2009. 

The Dell Match Play, a World Golf Championships event, will play host to the top 64 players in the world Wednesday through Sunday at Austin Country Club. The Match Play relocated to Austin this year and signed a new sponsorship deal with Austin-based Dell Inc. In years past, Austin has hosted the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf from 1978-95 and a Champions Tour event from 2003-09. But never have the best players in the world that call the PGA Tour home come to the Waterloo city to tee it up.

“This is a great city,” said Rickie Fowler, a golfer ranked No. 5 in the world who spoke Monday night at the live Dell Match Play Bracket Special held downtown at the Paramount Theater. Fowler, an alumnus of Oklahoma State who routinely dons the Cowboys’ bright orange on Sundays, teased the Longhorn-centric crowd. 

“I may not wear the right color of orange for it out here, but I do love the city,” Fowler said.

Many different guests along with Fowler appeared at the live Golf Channel event. Defending champion and world No. 3-ranked Rory McIlroy, long-time PGA Tour players and former Longhorns Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell, Texas football head coach Charlie Strong, former Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy, and retired tennis champion and Austin resident Andy Roddick all helped kick off the tournament’s blind draw for the group stage. 

The Match Play has long been one of the more compelling stops on the PGA Tour due to its match play format as opposed to the normal stroke play format. This year’s tournament format begins with 16 groups, four players each, with the top 16 players in the world golf rankings placed atop each group. The blind draw on Monday night determined which groups the rest of the 48 players were to play in. 

“I think a big key to match play is you can’t underestimate anyone,” McIlroy said at the event. “Match play is more of a sprint. You’ve got 18 holes to beat the guy that you’re up against. You have to be aggressive from the get-go.”

Each group competes in round robin matches Wednesday through Friday, with the winner of each group advancing to the weekend bracket. The Round of 16 and quarterfinal matches will take place on Saturday. The semifinal, consolation and championship matches conclude on Sunday. 

The players will get a different kind of test this week at the Dell Match Play. Austin Country Club is short in length (7,073 yards) compared to most courses on the PGA Tour schedule. But the course’s immense undulation, tight fairways and fast, small greens combined with expected high winds should challenge the game’s best. 

“I’m anxious to watch them out there,” Kite said at the event. Kite, a U.S. Open champion, and long-time friend Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion, helped lead Texas to back-to-back national championships from 1972-73. 

“I think the golf course is going to be a fantastic test for match play — a lot of opportunities to take advantage of and get out there and get aggressive,” Kite added.

Crenshaw expressed not only his gratitude to Dell for sponsoring the event and helping it come to fruition, but also his excitement for what will transpire this week.

“God bless Michael Dell,” Crenshaw said on Monday night. “It was his willingness to sponsor this tournament, but also I think all the people out here love professional golf. To watch the best players in the world at this juncture is going to be so exciting. You will not believe what you’re going to see this week.” 

Players to watch: 

Jordan Spieth (World ranking: 1)

This one’s pretty obvious, right? The former Longhorn, who guided Texas to a national championship in 2012, will no doubt have the crowd behind him this week. Spieth won back in January at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions but has not been as sharp lately, with T18-T17-Cut-T21 finishes in his last four starts. But the course is vastly new to a majority of the 64-man field, while Spieth has played it many times. Smart course management and a tremendous short game are the backbone of the two-time major champion’s game, and expect it to be on display this week.

Jason Day (World ranking: 2)

Day comes into the Match Play revitalized after a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week. He won this event two years ago and has won five of his last 12 starts on Tour. He’s one of the best ball-strikers in the game and hits the tee ball particularly well. Day has one of the highest ball flights on Tour, which could benefit him this week with landing the ball softly on firm greens but could also hurt him if the winds pick up. He could really do some damage this week if he’s clicking on all cylinders.

Rory McIlroy (World ranking: 3)

McIlroy is one of the biggest stars in golf, but the four-time major champion has not been on his game for most of 2016 thus far. He needs a good week to give him some confidence with The Masters only two weeks away. There is good news for Rory: He won this event last year and has a career match play record of 24-9-1. His mini-slump can only go on for so long.

Rickie Fowler (World ranking: 5)

Fowler loves the pressure, and the pressure intensifies with every shot in match play. He has five top-10 finishes in six starts in 2016, including a win at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in January. He’s red hot and well-rested coming into this week. Fowler should make some noise.

Zach Johnson (World ranking: 15)

Johnson is a dark horse this week. The 2015 British Open champion has never been known as a long hitter, but his game sets up really well on a course like Austin Country Club’s. Johnson prides his game on precision and a solid short game. He hits it pretty straight off the tee. He’s one of the best at controlling his wedges, and he’s a very good putter. Don’t be surprised if Johnson makes a run this week.

TV schedule:

  • Wednesday-Friday, 1-7 p.m. (Golf Channel)
  • Saturday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. (Golf Channel), 1-5 p.m. (NBC)
  • Sunday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. (Golf Channel), 2-6 p.m. (NBC)