AUSTIN, Texas – Antoine Rozner had just stunned world No. 5 Bryson DeChambeau on Day 1 at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and was speaking with the media when fellow Frenchman Victor Perez walked by on his way to the 10th tee.
Perez was tied in his match against Marc Leishman but he paused on his way to the tee box with his fists in the air and a grunt to celebrate his countryman's victory. It might have just been one match but for these two, a victory on a world stage was worth celebrating.
Rozner wasn’t around Austin Country Club Saturday to return the admiration after Perez completed his marathon day, but somewhere he was likely celebrating.
In what he called his best round of the week, Perez steamrolled Robert MacIntyre in the morning session, 5 and 4, and put pressure on Sergio Garcia from the opening hole in the quarterfinals on his way to a 4-and-3 victory and a spot in Sunday’s Final Four.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker may not know much about Victor Perez but he knows his kind.
Born in Hautes-Pyrénées, France, developed in the American college system at the University of New Mexico and plucked from the depths of the European Tour talent pool, Perez has emerged as this week’s outlier following four days of impressively efficient golf.
He’s been a top-50 player for over a year - a winner at the 2019 Alfred Dunhill Links - but until his tie for ninth place at The Players Championship earlier this month he was something of an unknown commodity to U.S. fans. However, the 28-year-old isn’t the first Frenchman to make his mark on the WGC-Match Play.
Back in 2014, Victor Dubuisson took eventual champion Jason Day to 23 holes in the final match, brilliantly scrambling from every corner of the Arizona desert along the way. Perez was a junior at New Mexico.
“It gave us the belief in France that it was possible,” Perez recalled. “I think he got all the way to the top 15 in the world and played in the Ryder Cup and obviously did great things in the Match Play and bigger tournaments. It gave us the belief that it was possible back then.”
It’s that hope that will make the 6-foot-6 Perez a wildcard at this year’s Ryder Cup, like so many underestimated Europeans before him, and why Stricker likely spent Saturday taking notice.
“I've been into golf obviously from a young age and been watching those tournaments and the Ryder Cup is something that Europeans take a lot of pride in and obviously you want to try to be a part of it,” said Perez, who was at Le Golf National in 2018 as a spectator and celebrated the European victory. “It [2018 matches] was a perfect finish for the Europeans, winning the Ryder Cup there, it was just great energy.”
He’ll face Billy Horschel in Sunday’s semifinal while it will be Scottie Scheffler, who had himself a day defeating Ian Poulter in the morning and Jon Rahm in the twilight match, and Matt Kuchar rounding out the semis.
Perhaps five rounds in four days took a toll or maybe Austin Country Club simply showed some teeth with a freshening wind. Either way, the fireworks that highlighted Friday’s knockout finale and Saturday’s Sweet 16 gave way to some clunky golf as the day’s final matches reached the back nine.
After putting on a ball-striking display for three days, Garcia looked human with a second shot at the par-5 sixth that bounded out-of-bounds. At the par-4 13th hole, which he had dismantled this week, the Spaniard drove into a water hazard and Perez admitted that neither player had their best stuff.
“I think we were both pretty gassed, it showed,” Perez said. “I don't think it was the prettiest golf. I think it was about hitting as many greens as possible, giving myself opportunities and really not giving any holes away.”
On this front, Perez appeared to be a quick learner. Other than his Round 2 loss to Russell Henley in pool play he’s been largely unchallenged, trailing in just four holes in his other four matches, and he conceded that not having played the WGC-Match Play before allowed him to abandon any expectations. Even entering Saturday’s two-match marathon he had no idea how exhausting match play can be both physically and mentally.
“I think it's the benefit of not knowing, sometimes ignorance is a good thing in golf, not really knowing what's coming, not knowing the 36-hole day, you come out and try to play your best,” he said.
C'est la vie.
Sunday will be a new experience for Perez. Another chance to learn and, if he continues to perform the way he has for four days, another chance to celebrate.