Jhonattan Vegas started his first match of the World Golf Championships Dell Technologies Match Play just the way he wanted to — with an opening birdie and a 1-up lead over Brian Harman.
But Vegas, a former Longhorn, bogeyed the second to send the match to all square. Up and down defined Vegas’ round all afternoon on Wednesday at Austin Country Club. He drained a 30-foot birdie putt on the fifth to regain a 1-up advantage, only to lose the following hole when Harman birdied the par-5 sixth.
Vegas had a five-foot putt for par on the seventh hole to keep the match at all square. He burned it by on the edge, giving Harman the lead for the first time all day. The lefty kept a 1-up advantage over Vegas for much of the remaining round.
After his 30-footer dropped on the fifth, Vegas made just one putt over 10 feet over his next 12 holes. Sandwiched between Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson, who were playing in front of and behind him, respectively, Vegas didn’t draw much of a gallery early on.
But even though he missed a plethora of putts for birdie, Vegas managed to keep Harman within reach on the back nine. Each missed opportunity heightened the tension surrounding the match as more and more fans flocked to the scene.
“Hey Jhonny, Hook ‘em, Horns!” one fan shouted from a hospitality tent behind the 14th green. Vegas, still 1 down at the time, stuffed his approach shot from 186 yards and left himself 9.5 feet for birdie. Unsurprisingly, he missed, and his frustration mounted.
“It was a little bit of a strain because I couldn’t make one,” Vegas said.
He had chances for birdies on the 16th and 17th holes, but he missed both of those, too. He walked to the 18th tee still only 1 down. Harman laid up, but Vegas brought out his driver. He bombed his drive down the hill, just 49 yards short of the pin.
Harman’s approach settled just over 20 feet from the hole. Vegas threw a low pitch shot inside of that to just under 10 feet. Harman missed, giving Vegas a chance tie it up and halve the match. By now, a decent gallery had gathered around the 18th green, many of whom sported various types of burnt orange attire. Some shouted “C’mon, Jhonny!” Others watched in nervous silence as he lined up his putt.
Vegas missed plenty of putts on the day, but he buried the most important one. His birdie at 18 earned him a crucial half point in the group standings. Without increasing fan support, though, the match might have ended differently.
“I would say that the fans definitely kind of pulled me through at the end there,” Vegas said. “Just playing here, a place that I’m really familiar with where I have a lot of friends, just getting the support is obviously important. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Given his struggles throughout the round, Vegas said he was pleased to walk off the course on day one without a loss.
“The way we played, I think we’re both OK with a half,” Vegas said.
“Every point here just counts,” he added. “You’ve got to give yourself the best chance.”
With the match play format, the Texas product has just that — another chance. He tees off at 12:04 p.m. on Thursday to battle McIlroy, who lost 2 and 1 to Peter Uihlein on Wednesday. Uihlein leads the group with a full point, half a point ahead of Vegas and Harman.
A win for Vegas would bring him one step closer to advancing to the weekend and would eliminate McIlroy, who surged into the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings with his win last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.