Dell Match Play

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

Bubba Watson wasn’t supposed to be playing golf on Sunday — and he certainly wasn’t supposed to be winning the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.

By the time he teed off Sunday morning for his semifinal match with Justin Thomas, Watson was supposed to be on a flight out of the country. He’s going on vacation with his family this week before heading to the Masters.

Watson had to change his plans, though, once he beat Kiradech Aphibarnrat in Saturday afternoon’s quarterfinals.

“I don’t mind calling the resort and telling them, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a little late,’” Watson joked Sunday evening. “Maybe they’ll give me a free cake when I get there or something.”

But there was Watson standing on Austin Country Club’s 12th green just before 5 p.m. Sunday, putting the finishing touches on his 7 and 6 rout of Kevin Kisner to win on an overcast day.

For Watson, it was his second victory on the PGA Tour this season and the 11th of his career.

His mother, Molly, came out to the green in between TV interviews to give Watson a hug, leaving him in tears.

“You’re really good at this game,” she told Watson.

“Without you, I’m not,” Watson said.

Watson has long been a player known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve. At times in his career, they’ve gotten the best of him. Other times, he’s rode them to big wins.

Last year was one of the lowest points in his life, Watson admitted Sunday evening. He was ready to walk away from the game and contemplated retiring.

“But sitting at home, I was like, ‘Man, this sucks. I want to play golf,’” Watson said. “So I got off my couch and started playing golf. Quit eating chips and here we are.”

Watson isn’t afraid to speak candidly on personal matters like those. It’s what makes him one of the more compelling players in professional golf. Whether it’s his emotions, his unconventional swing mechanics, his ability to crush his pink driver or his knack for saying what’s on his mind, Watson captivates — and at times turns off — the audience.

“There’s two Bubbas,” NBC golf analyst and two-time U.S. Open winner Johnny Miller said. “There’s one that sometimes can get a little cocky out there and a little bit negative — complain about this or that...a course that doesn’t fit his eye. And then you’ve got good Bubba. And when good Bubba is around, watch out.”

Golf is a game in which you can’t afford to let your mind wander, but Watson said his mind constantly does so. He seemed amazed that he’d faced “four or five shots” all week where he felt uncommitted and unfocused.

For a moment, he seemed to let his mind wander as he walked off the fifth green Sunday morning during his semifinal match with Thomas.

As Watson approached the sixth tee box, he turned to a reporter and said, “Hey, no matter what — I was beating No. 1 at one point.”

Watson had just birdied to go 2 up on Thomas, who had an opportunity to claim the world’s No. 1 ranking had he defeated Watson. Even in that moment, whether he ended up winning or losing, Watson wasn’t afraid to let his mind realize what was going on.

During his championship match with Kisner on Sunday afternoon, Watson was in total control.

He won six of the first seven holes to take a 6-up advantage. He birdied the par-4 10th to go 7 up. He closed out Kisner shortly after at the par-5 12th.

As he concluded his championship press conference Sunday evening, Watson let out a little more honesty.

“Match play is not my favorite,” Watson said. “I love it today, though.”

Watson will head to Augusta National next weekend in preparation for what he called “the greatest sporting event I’ve ever been associated with” — the Masters. He’s won the tournament twice before in 2012 and 2014.

With two wins under his belt this season and renewed confidence in his game, Watson is on form at the right time and could have a chance to slip on a third green jacket.

Asked if he was a favorite to win, Watson pleaded with the media.

“No, I’m not a favorite. I’m going to definitely say that,” Watson said. “I don’t want anybody to talk to me that week. Let me just focus on what I’ve got to do.”

But with the way he’s played lately, Watson may have no choice.

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

Justin Thomas had a lot at stake on Sunday at Austin Country Club.

A World Golf Championship, the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings and a bevy of momentum heading into the Masters.

He left ACC without any of it after losing both of his matches on the final day of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.

Thomas looked like the undoubted favorite through group play, winning all three of his matches. He carried over his tidy play into the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, where he soundly beat Si Woo Kim and Kyle Stanley, respectively.

But on Sunday, he hit a buzzsaw. Or rather, a Bubba-saw. Bubba Watson, the tournament’s eventual champion, took the first hole of their semifinal match and never looked back in a dominant 3 & 2 victory.

At times, Watson made Thomas look flat out uncomfortable on the golf course. Thomas missed a short putt for birdie on the fifth hole. Watson calmly drained his birdie try to go 2 up. Watson proceeded to bomb his drive 358 yards on the par-5 sixth. Thomas hooked his 270-yard tee shot into the left rough with tree trouble in sight.

Though Thomas recovered to make birdie, his first of the day, Watson rolled in a 25-foot eagle putt to give himself a 3-up advantage. From then on, it was clear who the better player was — not Thomas, who came into the day as hot as anybody and with so much to gain.

“I had a really hard time getting focused and being worried about my match as opposed to things that can happen and thinking about potentially this afternoon,” Thomas said on the 16th green after both he and Watson made birdies to halve the hole and finish the match. “But I just didn’t play well and Bubba played really well.”

Watson refuted that and said Thomas actually played pretty well. He praised Thomas’ iron shots but was surprised at how poorly he putted. Thomas had plenty of opportunities to keep the match within reach, but he couldn’t get any to drop — much to the surprise of Watson. What did the 11-time TOUR winner expect?

“Justin Thomas making every putt and me losing, him looking at me and going, ‘I’m No. 1,’” Watson said. “Truly, he’s playing so good.”

Thomas’ play of late has him slated as a favorite in nearly every tournament he enters — good news for the 24-year-old with the Masters around the corner. He won the Honda Classic last month and finished as the runner up at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, where he lost to Phil Mickelson in a playoff.

But as he prepares for the Masters, Thomas will be caught thinking about what could have been. He let a WGC title slip away in Mexico and did the same this week in Austin. With it went the coveted world No. 1 ranking, which he has admitted to wanting desperately — too desperately, maybe.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest,” Thomas said moments after his loss to Watson.

Going from being the tournament favorite and potentially securing a No. 1 ranking to having to play in a consolation match can’t be easy, and Thomas let it show. He conceded the very first hole of the third-place bout with Alex Noren.

When he fell 3 down with a bogey at the par-3 11th, it was clear that Thomas had lost all of his positive energy from the first few days of the event. He lost another hole at No. 13 to fall 4 down, effectively ending his chances of winning the match.

Shoulders slouched, Thomas blocked his tee shot into the bunker at No. 15. He slowly trotted up the fairway, even asking his caddie, “What time is it?” as if he’d rather be anywhere else than 4 down in a consolation match when Watson had just routed Kevin Kisner 7 and 6 moments earlier to claim the Walter Hagen Cup.

Thomas knocked his approach into more sand and quickly walked up to hack it onto the green, where he took off his hat to concede the hole and end the match without even attempting to line up his putt.

Noren still gave Thomas credit even though it was clear that he was not at full strength.

“It’s great to play against the best, especially to beat them,” Noren said.  

When he has time to recover from a painful Sunday at ACC, Thomas will realize that Noren is probably right: he’s still playing like the world’s best player. His final day at the event stands more as an anomaly than a predictor of his future form.

And to backtrack on prior statements, Thomas doesn’t necessarily need — or want — that revered ranking anyway. It’s just a number.

“In the end it might be a good thing going to Augusta without that,” Thomas said. “I get to go do what I was going to and let (Dustin Johnson) have all that pressure.”

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

For a while on Monday, Justin Thomas didn’t even know he was going to play in this week’s World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.

Thomas battled some sort of sickness early in the week — a doctor told him he had strep throat, but Thomas didn’t think that was the case. Regardless, he played nine holes in a practice round on Monday in front of a very small gallery — and it wasn’t pretty.

“I was 50/50 on Monday,” Thomas said. “There were probably 15 or so people that watched me play nine holes, and you find those 15 people and see if they thought I was ready to play in a golf tournament. Some of the shots I hit were pretty funny.”

But despite not feeling 100 percent early on, Thomas has been nothing short of stellar this week at Austin Country Club.

He won all three of his matches in group play. He dismantled South Korea’s Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, during Saturday morning’s Round of 16. He then took care of fellow American Kyle Stanley in Saturday afternoon’s quarterfinals, winning 2 and 1 to advance to Sunday’s final four.

“(Thomas) always has his foot on the pedal,” NBC golf analyst Peter Jacobsen said. “He’s always going forward, and he’s the hottest player on the planet.”

Thomas already sits atop the FedEx Cup standings. If he advances to the championship match on Sunday afternoon, he’ll grab hold of the world No. 1 ranking.

“I don’t know what’s going to come with it,” Thomas said. “But I just hope it happens (Sunday).”

For much of his young professional career, Thomas was always considered one of those players lurking in the shadows — full of potential but just lacking the wins. He now has eight PGA Tour wins to his name, including two this season. But his big breakthrough came last August at Quail Hollow when he won the PGA Championship — his first-career major.

If the 24-year-old ascends to No. 1 in the world on Sunday, he’ll join Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth as the only American players in history to have claimed the top ranking before the age of 25.

“My confidence level is just higher,” Thomas said. “I know that I have the game to play at the top.”

And if you’re looking for a Texas connection in what’s left of this year’s Dell Match Play, the closest one you’ll find is in Thomas. He just so happens to be good buddies with former Longhorn and three-time major winner Jordan Spieth. The two played junior golf together.

Thomas was also a member of the Alabama team that lost to Spieth and Texas in the finals of the 2012 NCAA Championship.

It’s always funny how spectators' allegiances change so quickly in golf, especially in a match play format. All three Longhorns in this year’s field — Spieth, Jhonattan Vegas and Dylan Frittelli — failed to make it out of group play.

So on Saturday, the gallery seemed to mostly back Thomas, or “JT” as the fans like to call him. The crowd could be a little more split come Sunday morning, though, when Thomas faces Bubba Watson in the semifinals.

Watson certainly needs no introduction in the golf world and has always been a fan favorite. The 39-year-old won the Masters twice (2012 and 2014) and just picked up his 10th-career PGA Tour victory at the Genesis Open in February.

“I’ve always thought he’s one of the most impressive players I’ve played with and watched go around a golf course,” Thomas said of Watson. “So I’m sure he’s sending it around here. Hopefully I won’t get too intimidated by it.”

And Watson has flare. He swings a pink driver, wears different-colored gloves, hits the ball a country mile and can make the ball move more than almost any Tour pro out there.

“You have to give (Thomas) the edge (Sunday), but this course is made for Bubba,” NBC golf analyst and two-time U.S. Open winner Johnny Miller said.

Austin Country Club has not been kind to those returning to the familiar Austin grounds for the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. Not a single former Longhorn made it out of group play on Thursday, leaving Texas fans and Austinites alike questioning who they should root for in the Round of 16.

An answer to this question for many was last year’s Masters champion: Sergio Garcia.

Garcia married former Texas golfer Angela Akins last year. Akins was originally from Marble Falls, Texas, before continuing her golf career at TCU and Texas. She used to work as a reporter for Golf Channel.  

Akins recently gave birth to the couple’s first child on March 14, and the couple even gave the baby girl an Augusta National themed name: Azalea.

Since his marriage, Garcia seems to have become one of the fan favorites here in Austin. He saw a sizeable following all week long, ultimately seeing his gallery grow to one of the largest on the course during the Round of 16.

“It's good fun,” Garcia said. “Obviously my wife Angela is from here. Our daughter was born here. Her family is a big Longhorns family, so we have good connections, strong connections with Austin and UT, and I’ve always enjoyed it.”

Echoes of “Hook em’ Horns” could be heard from those wearing burnt orange in the crowd, with the Spaniard always giving a nod or wave to the common Longhorn cheer. Garcia even seemed to flash the “horns up” sign on one hole to please a cheering Texas fan and display his newfound affection for Texas sports.

“I’ve enjoyed watching their football games and maybe a couple of basketball games and stuff,” Garcia said. “And I got to practice soccer with the women’s team a couple of times. It’s good fun”

Garcia flashed some of his best golf during group play of the tournament, which took place from Wednesday through Friday. The Spaniard won all three on his group play matches in taking down the likes of Shubhankar Sharma, Dylan Frittelli and Xander Schauffele.

In each of his group play rounds, Garcia battled back after being down the majority of the match, consistently meeting the challenge and closing the gap to end group play undefeated.

“No, don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy that, I’d rather be 2- or 3-up on the front and play the back like I’ve been playing it, and win 5-4, but unfortunately I didn't’ manage to do it all week,” said Garcia. “And you keep doing that, eventually things don’t go exactly like you planned.”

Alas, the makeshift Austinite did not fare well on the fourth day of play at Austin Country Club.

Garcia found himself paired up against Kyle Stanley in the Round of 16 on Saturday. This would be the matchup for Garcia that finally did not go as he had planned.

Garcia took an early 1-up lead on the first hole that he later relinquished on the third after a birdie by Stanley. Two holes later, a bogey on the fifth hole by Garcia would give a 1-up lead to Stanley.

Garcia would not muster up a comeback to recover from the deficit this time.

Stanley led the rest of the match until finally taking a 3-1 victory over Garcia with a deciding birdie on the 17th hole.

Garcia only managed three birdies for the round, compared to Stanley’s six. He also suffered three bogeys, two of which lost him the respective holes.

After being eliminated from play here in Austin, Garcia will have his mind set on defending his Masters title in two weeks at Augusta National. Garcia’s 2017 Masters title was his first major of his career.

“It’s exciting,” Garcia said. “Obviously when we get there, it’s going to be interesting to see how we feel and everything, but it is definitely exciting.”

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

A stacked field of 64 players has dwindled down to four at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. Most of the top players in the world were ousted early on, but one particular semifinal match presents plenty of intrigue: Justin Thomas vs. Bubba Watson.

Both Thomas and Watson cruised their way into the final four. Each player was pushed to play the 18th hole at Austin Country Club just once. Thomas won his Round of 16 match over Si Woo Kim, 6 & 5. Watson dismantled Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 & 3, in the quarterfinals. Each golfer’s game has been well-rounded this week, setting up for an electric semifinal match Sunday morning.

It’s no secret what both Thomas and Watson do best: drive the ball. Both players are nestled inside the top 10 in driving distance this season. Watson is fourth at 316.2 yards per drive, and Thomas is third at 312.5 yards per tee shot. The gallery at ACC might stop to wonder if they’re watching a match play event or a long-drive competition.

Jason Day, who’s 11th in driving distance at 312 yards per blast, and Dustin Johnson, who’s widely considered as one of the best drivers on TOUR, are the past two champions of this event. Going deep yields a distinct edge at ACC, and it’s a big reason why Thomas and Watson haven’t lost any matches this week.

“(Day and Johnson) are known for hitting the driver well, just like Thomas is doing right now — he’s been hammering it,” Watson said. “Anytime you’re hitting the driver somewhat straight, it’s an advantage.”

Watson compared being able to outdrive his opponents to NBA superstar LeBron James being able to jump higher than his adversaries. Watson’s edge won’t be as evident Sunday with Thomas vying to outdo him every time the two take their headcovers off.

Whoever lights it up and bombs enough fairways to advance will take on either Kevin Kisner or Alex Noren. Neither player cracks the top 40 in driving distance, but both are as steady as they come.

Kisner advanced out of group play by coming out of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s group. He made eight birdies in 1-up victory over Matt Kuchar in the Round of 16 before easily destroying Ian Poulter — who is notoriously known for being stellar in match play — 8 & 6. Kisner won six holes on the front nine in that match.  

“It’s starting to click now,” Kisner said. “I started seeing some stuff on Tuesday. I played a practice round with Daniel Berger and started seeing stuff that I hadn’t seen in a few weeks. That was starting to build the confidence there. And throughout the week I’ve gained a lot more confidence.”

Noren, meanwhile, knocked out the long-hitting, pure ball-striking Tony Finau to make the Round of 16. Then he beat Patrick Reed, who was fresh off a victory of former Longhorn Jordan Spieth on Friday. Noren clearly and cleanly outplayed Australia’s Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals in a 4 & 2 victory.

Johnson beat Noren in the quarterfinals at this event last year. He said he’ll keep the experience he gained from that loss in mind when trying to advance to the final match time around.

“It obviously helps,” Noren said. “The more times you’re up here, the better.

“It’s going to be a great day. It’s a fun course to play, especially match play.”

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

The winds were up at Austin Country Club on Friday, but the horns were down. All three former Texas players in the field failed to make the weekend matches at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.

Jhonattan Vegas and Dylan Frittelli had already been eliminated before Friday’s matches began. Jordan Spieth, the most successful professional player of the three, played in a win-and-advance match with Patrick Reed.

Spieth’s head-to-head bout with Reed drew the largest gallery of any match through the first three days of competition. Most of them supported Spieth, but they went home unhappy when Reed beat the fan favorite 2 & 1 with a clutch birdie putt from behind the green on the par-3 17th.

Spieth’s gone, but he’s not alone. Here are four other storylines from pool play at the Dell Match Play:

Defending champion Dustin Johnson strikes out

The No. 1 player in the world cruised to a victory in this event last year, never losing a match all week. This year, Johnson failed to win at all. He went 0-3-0 in a group with Kevin Kisner, Adam Hadwin and Bernd Wiesberger.

It’ll be interesting to see how Johnson fares at the Masters in two weeks. Last year, Johnson withdrew from the Shell Houston Open to rest the week before playing Augusta National only to withdraw from the Masters as well after he fell down a flight of stairs and injured his back.

Big names fail to make the weekend

Many of the games biggest stars will be leaving Austin earlier than they anticipated. In addition to Johnson and Spieth, Tommy Fleetwood, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm were all seeded in the top 10 but failed to make it to Saturday.

Phil Mickelson, who generated crowds that rivaled those of Spieth this week, is also without a Saturday tee time despite winning his match on Friday. For those not playing next weekend in Houston, this was a final tune-up for the Masters. Mickelson, however, will ride into H-Town having played better on days two and three in Austin than he did on Day 1.

“It feels good to come back and win these last two matches, even though I’m not advancing,” Mickelson said. “But it goes back to the first day. You need to be ready to play from Day 1, because the opportunity to be eliminated is there.”

Matt Kuchar fires an ace at No. 7

Last year, Hideto Tanihara hit a hole in one on No. 7 in the consolation round on Sunday. Plenty of players have had much worse fortunes attacking that pin this year. Many have left their tee shots short during all three days of play, making for a tough pitch out of the sand.

Not Matt Kuchar.

He took advice from his own Skechers commercial, in which he says, “I find the best place to position your drive is at the bottom of the cup.”

It took awhile for the ball to roll in from the center of the green, but Kuchar’s tee shot eventually dropped in the hole, causing a roar to shake the grounds at ACC.

“When I hit the ball, I knew it was a good line and had potential to be close for a good-looking birdie,” Kuchar said. “As it kept rolling, it kept getting closer and closer and finally it disappeared. And it was fun to be up at elevation and see the ball the entire way and see it disappear. That's always a special thing in the game of golf.”

Sweet 16 matchups and tee times

Both the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals will be played on Saturday. Here are the eight matches slated to get the day started on Day 4 of the Dell Match Play.

(16) Matt Kuchar vs. (32) Kevin Kisner

(58) Ian Poulter vs. (25) Louis Oosthuizen

(46) Cameron Smith vs. (12) Tyrrell Hatton

(13) Alex Noren vs. (19) Patrick Reed

(2) Justin Thomas vs. (50) Si Woo Kim

(45) Kyle Stanley vs. (7) Sergio Garcia

(18) Brian Harman vs. (35) Bubba Watson

(59) Charles Howell III vs. (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

It was the match that everyone wanted to see.

On Friday at Austin Country Club, former Longhorn Jordan Spieth faced off with his good friend and bullish match player Patrick Reed. The two have partnered together in the past for Team USA in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.

But on this day, they were against each other — winner moving onto the weekend’s knockout round of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.

The playing conditions were brutal, with severe winds gusting and switching on the players all day. That gave way to some so-so golf from both Spieth and Reed throughout the match. And in the end, it was Reed who prevailed, sending Spieth home early for the second consecutive year in this event.

“It was just one of those days that with how the conditions were, it wasn’t fun,” Reed said. “It was a grinder’s day out there.”

The hype for this match began almost as soon as the groups were announced Monday night.

After his match on Thursday, four-time major winner and world No. 7 Rory McIlroy was even asked if he had any interest in watching Spieth-Reed.

“I have a lot of interest in that,” McIlroy said. “What time are they playing?”

“In the afternoon — 1:30,” a reporter said.

“Hopefully I get done early, I can watch it.”

Joking or not, McIlroy wasn’t able to make it out for the match on Friday afternoon — but plenty of others did.

It was easily the largest gallery of the tournament thus far, and to no surprise it was pulling hard for its hometown hero in Spieth.

Shouts of “Hook ‘em” echoed among the spectators all day. Fans on a Lake Austin party boat began a “Texas! Fight!” chant as Spieth walked to the 14th tee box. At times, the crowd was five deep or more.

Former professional cyclist and Austinite Lance Armstrong even followed Spieth and Reed on the back nine.

“First golf tournament ever,” said Armstrong, a Longhorn fan.

Spieth appeared to be a little off on the practice range as he warmed up prior to his match. It carried over into his first few holes. He knocked his opening tee shot out of bounds. He hit both approach shots on the second and third holes into the hazard. After two holes, Spieth was already 2 down.

Spieth birdied the par-4 5th to move to 1 down and made a crucial 8-footer for par on the par-3th 7th. He bogeyed the par-4 8th to fall 2 down again. But then the 24-year-old three-time major winner turned it on.

Spieth’s wedge shots at the par-4 9th and par-4 10th were knocked stiff and conceded for birdies, which squared the match with Reed.

“I thought I rebounded nicely after it kind of looked like a round of 90 or 92 through the first few holes,” Spieth said.

But Spieth made another costly mistake at the par-3 11th and bogeyed, giving Reed a 1-up advantage. Reed didn’t surrender it for the rest of the day.

Spieth missed critical birdie putts at the par-5 12th and the par-4 14th that kept him from mounting a charge. It was a struggle all day, and beside holes 9 and 10, Spieth could just never get it going.

Spieth was 3 down heading to the par-5 16th. His birdie closed the gap to 2 down. But at the par-3 17th, Reed drilled a 40-foot putt from off the green to win the hole and the match, 3 and 1.

“Today I tried four or five different things and started to really feel good about it towards the end of the round,” Spieth said. “It was just a little bit late.”

Spieth hasn’t had a stellar 2018 season. He said after his match with Reed that he’s struggled with his putting and alignment. He’s finished in the top-10 twice this year, but he’s also missed two cuts. In less than two weeks, he’ll return to Augusta National seeking a second green jacket.

Until then, it’s about more fine-tuning as he searches for his form. Spieth will play at the Shell Houston Open next week before heading to the Masters.

“All in all, I didn’t come in expecting a whole lot this week,” Spieth said. “I’m just trying to continue to make progress. I have emphasis on four events a year. And anything in between, especially as we get really close to them, is leading up to it.”

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

A handful of family members and a few sporadic stragglers followed Jhonattan Vegas during his first match of this year’s World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play on Wednesday.

Thursday was different.

The gallery following Vegas’ match lined the ropes and spread four to five people deep at times. But most of those observers weren’t scurrying from hole to hole to get a glimpse of the former Texas Longhorn — they roared for Rory McIlroy instead.

As Vegas hiked from the third green to the fourth tee at Austin Country Club, some local supporters stayed true to their roots as they threw up their horns and bellowed “Hook ‘em!” in his direction.

Others simply let him walk by, their eyes fixed on the No. 7 golfer in the world. McIlroy held a 1-up advantage over Vegas at the time, and his fans encouraged him to extend it.

“Yeah, Rory!” boomed one of his followers.

“C’mon, ‘Rors’!” shouted another.

Vegas played his college golf at Texas from 2004-07 and graduated from the University with a degree in kinesiology, but McIlroy was clearly the crowd favorite.

“I don’t even know who Jhonattan Vegas is,” a voice from the gallery said after the players hit their tee shots on No. 4. “I only follow (Jordan) Spieth and McIlroy.”

Diehard Longhorn fans are surely fine with the former but maybe not with the latter. With both the odds and the crowd weighing against him, Vegas didn’t necessarily thrive in an underdog role. He fell 1 down early and dropped to 3 down when McIlroy made birdie on the 13th hole.

Still, Vegas had a chance to garner momentum at the 14th by sinking a 20-foot birdie, but his putt lipped out. Wednesday, fans screamed “Hook ‘em!” from the hospitality tent behind the 14th green. Thursday, they hollered “Alllright, Rory!” as last week’s champion at the Arnold Palmer Invitational walked to the 15th tee with a chance to win the match. Vegas hung tough at 15, matching McIlroy’s par and pushing the match to the par-5 16th.

He wouldn’t let it end there, either.

McIlroy outdrove Vegas by 50 yards on the hole, but Vegas left himself in a better spot after the two played their second shots. McIlroy’s approach from less than 200 yards flared to the right while Vegas’ from 250 yards settled just short of the green. He hit a brilliant pitch from there to birdie the hole and send the match to the par-3 17th.

Vegas’ tee shot found the putting surface, 20 feet short of the pin. Once again, he failed to roll it in and was forced to rely on McIlroy to make bogey from just off the back of the green to push the match to the limit.

Not a chance.

The Northern Ireland native blew his chip shot six and a half feet past the hole, but he calmly knocked it in from there to earn a hard-fought 2 and 1 victory over Vegas. McIlroy struggled a day prior, losing 2 & 1 to Peter Uihlein. McIlroy didn’t make a birdie until the 12th hole, but he was already 5 down at that point and needed a miracle to escape unscathed. He pushed, but it didn’t happen.

On Thursday, the former world No. 1 regained his form and won a match that was never truly in doubt. He said winning late in the day at Bay Hill on Sunday and then having to turn around and play more tournament golf in Austin on Wednesday took a toll on him. Unsurprisingly to himself, he regrouped a day later against Vegas.

“I'm never too far away (on) either side,” McIlroy said. “I'm never too far away from playing great. On the flip side, I'm never too far away from struggling. It's more of a mindset thing, and that's been the pattern of my career over the past ten years. I'm conscious of that — it's always great because I have the belief in myself that I'm able to flip it around very quickly.”

Unfortunately for Vegas, it’s officially too late to flip it around like McIlroy did. Vegas sits at the bottom of the group standings with half a point. Brian Harman, who halved with Vegas on Wednesday, leads with 1.5 points. McIlroy and Uihlein have one point apiece, which means Vegas has been eliminated.

Harman controls his own destiny to a weekend match, while a win for McIlroy either guarantees him that fortune or puts him in a playoff with Uihlein if Uihlein beats Vegas. Either way, McIlroy said he’s happy to be playing in a Friday match with high stakes — unlike last year.

“That’s the beauty of this group play,” McIlroy said. “Some years it works in your favor, like this year, and some years it doesn’t, like last. I played a match on Friday that was basically meaningless. It’s nice to still have something to play for tomorrow.”

Vegas, meanwhile, has nothing to play for but the Texas fans in his gallery who will flash their ‘hook ‘em’ hand signs and cheer him on — win, lose or draw.

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

With the sun beginning to set in the background, Dylan Frittelli set up on the far left end of the practice range at Austin Country Club in the early evening on Thursday. The 27-year-old former Longhorn hit balls as his swing coach, Chuck Cook, kept a watchful eye.

The past two days at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play hadn’t been exactly what Frittelli desired. He had lost his first two matches, effectively eliminating him from advancing to the knockout round, which begins Saturday.

But Frittelli still had a smile on his face and was upbeat as he beat balls into the range.

“There’s a lot to reflect on,” Frittelli said. “A lot of good stuff, in with a few bad things. I’m still gonna look favorably over the last two days.”

Frittelli had a much different view of this tournament last year. At the time the Johannesburg, South Africa, native was ranked 190th in the world. Only the top 64 in the world qualify for the event. But Frittelli still attended last year’s tournament as a spectator.

This year, though, after two wins in 2017 on the European Tour, he’s right where he expected to be — inside the ropes — a place few thought possible.

“I mean I told a lot of people — I know tons of people. I was running into them. I said I'll be here next year. I'll be playing in this tournament,” Frittelli said in his Monday press conference. “People looked at me: ‘You're 190 in the world, that's hard to get to 64.’ It was a goal I set myself. I kept on telling people, and self affirmation. The more I told myself, the more I started to believe it.”

After losing to world No. 24 Xander Schauffele, 1 down, on Wednesday, Frittelli needed a win on Thursday to stay alive in group play. His opponent was a familiar face — Sergio Garcia, last year’s Masters champion, and someone who Frittelli befriended over a year ago.

“Yes, we are friends, but we are both trying our hardest to beat each other,” Garcia said. “Obviously it's always a little bit more enjoyable when you are good friends with your opponent.”

The crowd on Thursday seemed to be pulling for both players equally — it would’ve been a hard decision one way or the other. Frittelli, while not a big name in professional golf, helped deliver the Longhorns a national championship in 2012. A guy named Jordan Spieth was Frittelli’s teammate at Texas.

“I had lots of fans out there. It was awesome,” Frittelli said. “Dream come true for me.”

Garcia, meanwhile, has recently become a popular face within the Austin golf scene. Last summer, he married former UT golfer Angela Atkins. The two just had their first baby last week.

On Thursday, it was about as Longhorn of a crowd as it gets. UT men’s golf coach John Fields and UT women’s soccer coach Angela Kelly followed the match. Multiple current UT golfers followed as well, including Scottie Scheffler and the 2017 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, Sophia Schubert.

And then of course, there was Matthew McConaughey, who walked inside the ropes.

“I showed the ‘Hook ‘em’ to him, and Matthew responded with a casual ‘Hook ‘em,’” Frittelli said.

Frittelli built a 2-up lead over Garcia on the front nine but then faltered on the back. Garcia made birdies at the par-4 10th and par-5 12th to square the match. Frittelli hit each of his approach shots in the water on the short par-4 13th and the par-4 14th, and he quickly found himself 2 down to Garcia.

“I played really well through that front nine. And I guess that drive from the ninth green over to the 10th tee kind of just sucked all the life out of me,” Frittelli said. “I didn’t seem to have anything on the back nine.”

Frittelli made a crucial par save at the par-4 15th, birdied the par-5 16th and made a critical 7-footer for par at the par-3 17th to keep the match alive. He was 1 down to Garcia when he arrived at the par-4 18th. Garcia drove the green and two-putted for birdie, while Frittelli made par, giving the Spaniard a 2-up win.

“I love playing with him. He’s a great guy,” said Frittelli, who’s played multiple rounds in Austin with Garcia before. “He’s one of the best players in the history of the game.”

Frittelli has one more match left in Austin. He plays India’s Shubhankar Sharma on Friday at 11:31 a.m.

“Hopefully I can just pull ahead and win early tomorrow,” Frittelli said. “My goal is to beat the traffic on 360 — finish in three hours and hopefully get out of here before the traffic starts.”

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

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.

Buckets.

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.