Alex Noren

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

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.”