Rahm roars in WGC Match Play

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Matt Cooper
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Fate of the Top Eight

Dustin Johnson – Eventually overcame Chez Reavie 4-and-3, but the front nine was a ding-dong affair which saw only two holes halved. On the back nine the World No. 1 asserted his authority and will take on fellow day one winner Branden Grace on Thursday.

Justin Rose – Birdied the first against Emiliano Grillo and was never again even level-pegging. Played his 17 holes in an approximate 3-under. Plays fellow Englishman Eddie Pepperell, who lost to Gary Woodland, on Thursday.

Brooks Koepka – Might have fancied he had an easy start with Englishman Tom Lewis and only needed pars at 1 and 2 to take a 2-up lead, but he later lost two holes to bogey as he slipped 1-down. In a topsy-turvy finish he won 16 with a par-5, 17 with a birdie-2 and lost 18 to a Lewis birdie. Plays day one winner Hao-Tong Li next.

Rory McIlroy – Swept Luke List aside 5-and-4. Made birdie at 1 and 2, yet then made two bogeys before the turn and was still 2-up. Three back nine par breakers sealed the deal. Takes on Justin Harding next.

Justin Thomas – Thumped 3-and-2 by Lucas Bjerregaard and all the more remarkable because he was 2-up after three holes. Five birdies in 11 holes for the Dane changed the match. Plays Matt Wallace, also a day one winner, next.

Bryson DeChambeau – 3-and-1 victor over Russell Knox, playing the front nine in level-par to be 1-down, but two birdies straight after the turn corrected matters and he sealed the deal with wins on 16 and 17. Plays Kiradech Aphibarnrat next, who lost to Marc Leishman.

Francesco Molinari – A fine 5-and-4 winner over Satoshi Kodaira. Birdies at three of the first four holes, plus two pars, had him 3-up and he never loosened the grip. Plays fellow first day winner Thorbjorn Olesen on Thursday.

Jon Rahm – 2-up after eight thanks to two birdies, it then all feel apart for his opponent Si Woo Kim and the Spaniard showed no mercy. Kim conceded 9 and 13, lost 11 to a par, and Rahm made winning birdies at 10 and 12. Result? A 7-and-5 thrashing.

Revised outright betting: McIlroy 15/2, Johnson 10/1, Rahm 12/1, Molinari 16/1, Rose 16/1, Fleetwood 16/1, Casey 20/1, DeChambeau 22/1

Notable Results:

Tommy Fleetwood – Previously just 3-3-0 in Austin, he toppled Byeong Hun An 3-and-2.

Ian Poulter – The match play king asserted himself over last year’s runner-up Kevin Kisner 2-up.

HaoTong Li – Thrashed 2018 semi-finalist Alex Noren 5-and-4, mostly the consequence of the Swede dropping shots on six of the front nine holes.

Jim Furyk – The old boy continues to chug along in this rich vein of form. He was 2-down to Jason Day at the turn, but nagged away and it bore fruit. Birdie at the last confirmed the win.

Henrik Stenson – A 2-and-1 winner over Phil Mickelson in a re-run of their 2016 Open Championship duel. In truth the standards were not quite the same. For example, Stenson won the par-4 third with a bogey-5.

Tiger Woods – Returned to the tournament with a victory over Aaron Wise in a match that started in ugly style, Woods going 1-up with a bogey-5 at the first. Par at the second sent hi 2-up, he bogeyed the third to give a hole back and Wise did the same at the fourth. They then both birdied the next two holes. Chaotic stuff. In total four birdies (oddly not one of them won him a hole), four bogeys and nine pars for Woods in 17 holes as he won 3-and-1.

Branden Grace – Plenty of sloppy golf from the South African but he also carded a pair of eagle-3s to trounce Hideki Matsuyama 4-and-3.

Thursday weather forecast

Temperatures in the high 70s, mostly a gentle breeze, but with gusts of around 15mph. An outside (10%) chance of thunderstorms.

Quotes

Tommy Fleetwood (on the vagaries of winning first up) - "I've lost the first day and then won the group and I've won the first day and finished last in the group. But it's great to have a good first day because once you lose you are behind the game and have to catch up."

Ian Poulter (who defeated Kevin Kisner, having been knocked out by him in the last eight 12 months ago when wrongly told he had already qualified for the Masters) - "It was a different mindset last year. A little bit of a good news, bad news situation probably affected me and I didn't want that to carry over today. He probably realized I wasn't going to be as easy to roll over as last year. It was a good match and pivotal to birdie the 17th and get up and down on the last."

Tom Lewis (halved with Brooks Koepka, needs a semi-final spot to make the Masters) – “That’s all I’ve been thinking of for the last month and it hasn’t done my golf any good at all. So I’m just glad to be here, competing with the world’s best.”

Francesco Molinari (5-and-4 winner) – “I played really well. I made some nice putts at the beginning and throughout the match. I'm really happy with the way I played. There were a couple of moments where I could have maybe done better, but all in all a very good day.”

Paul Casey (5-and-3 winner) – “One of the best rounds I've ever played around here. You just try to manage the energy after last week. That was pretty tiring, but good tiring.”

Henrik Stenson (2-and-1 winner) – “I'm in a tough group, we all know that. There's not going to be any easy matches or easy opponents out there. Sometimes it can almost make it easier in a way when you're up against some really top-class players, because you know you've got to bring your best game. I'm happy.”

Lucas Bjerregaard (the only man to defeat a top eight ranked player, Justin Thomas) – “I was confident that if I played well and stuck in there, I could give him a bit of fight for his money. He's one of the very best players in the world, so it gives me a lot of confidence.”

Road to Victory at Austin CC – the group stages

Jason Day, 2016 – Won all three groups matches (3-and-2, 5-and-3, concession)

Dustin Johnson, 2017 – Won all three group matches (5-and-3, 3-and-2, 5-and-3)

Bubba Watson, 2018 – Won his first two matches (5-and-3, 3-and-2), halved his third

Focus on – Losing a Match

Some players and many observers opine the loss of the pure knockout format of this tournament. Other players (notably Tiger Woods), sponsors and television prefer that three days activity are guaranteed for each golfer. However, given that only the top performer in each group progresses is it not the case that a loss on day one is particularly damaging to the chances of making the weekend, rendering much of Friday’s action moot? In the three events held at Austin CC just 13 of the 48 players who graduated from the group stage did so having suffered a defeat. No less than seven of last year’s 16 graduates head to the weekend with a 3 and 0 record.

Focus on – Francesco Molinari

This time last year the Italian gave a very honest assessment of his match play record. He was 4-10-0 in this competition, for example, and he admitted he lacked something in the cut throat arena of head-to-head. Perhaps giving voice to that sentiment was part of the reason for him turning that matchplay form on its head. He did, of course, go 5-for-5 in the Ryder Cup and on Wednesday he blitzed his opponent 5-and-4. But there’s more. When he won the BMW PGA Championship last year he did so going head-to-head with Rory McIlroy in the final lap (so much so that the Northern Irishman called him “a robot”) and in the Open at Carnoustie the focus of attention, initially at least, was on his playing partner Tiger Woods, who grabbed the lead at the turn. But it was the Italian who again triumphed, proving that he’s gone from bunny rabbit to wear wolf when golf is played mano a mano.

Focus on – Paul Casey

The Englishman often adopts a confident demeanor, but there’s often a sense that it is somewhat forced and awkward. However, in defending his title last week at Innisbrook there was absolutely no doubting his happiness and it seemed plausible that he might ride the wave this week. What was never in doubt is that when he’s on song he enjoys this format of the game. He was a winner of the old Wentworth-based HSBC World Match Play in 2006 and in both 2009 and 2010 he was runner-up in this event. He’s struggled a little here at Austin, only making the knockout stages the once in three tries, but a 5-and-3 defeat of Abraham Ancer sets him up nicely for the rest of the week. He plays Charles Howell III on Thursday, who bested Cameron Smith 2-and-1.

Focus on – HaoTong Li

The Chinese golfer has now played four matches at Austin CC and he’s yet to see either the 17th or 18th holes. Last year he slumped to three defeats (Patrick Reed 3-and-2, Jordan Spieth 4-and-2, Charl Schwartzel 3-and-2). Today, as referenced above, he eased past Alex Noren 5-and-4. He’s an ebullient character, just the type to one year go on a very long roll at this tournament.