By Tom LaMarre
Bubba Watson has been scuffling a bit this season, but prepared for his title defense this week in the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship by closing with a 68 on Sunday to tie for fourth in the Valspar Championship.
Watson recorded only his second top-10 finish this season and first since a tie for fourth in the Waste Management in February, which has to make him feel a lot better about his return to Austin Country Club www.austincountryclub.com in Austin, Texas, where he routed Kevin Kisner, 7 and 6, in the final last year.
It was one of Bubba’s three PGA Tour victories last year, giving him 12 in his career, and made him think a bit about his career legacy.
“You know, you don’t think about lists or anything, you just think about trophies and trying to win,” said the 40-year-old Watson, a two-time Masters champion. “And having two majors, and now having two World Golf Championships are the closest things to majors.
“You’re talking about the top in the world (in the WGC-Match Play). So, what an honor and a privilege, overwhelming sensation to know that I have another trophy at the house.”
Watson joined Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy (pictured), Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els as the only players to have won multiple majors and multiple World Golf Championships.
There will be 62 of the top 64 players in the World Golf Rankings playing in the WGC-Dell Match Play this week, with only Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott of Australia deciding not to play.
Dustin Johnson is among the favorites, and not only because he is No. 1 in the world. DJ is second to Woods with six victories in the WGC events, including the WGC Mexico Championship last month, and won the match play title two years ago with a 1-up victory over Jon Rahm in Austin.
Woods, whose record of 18 WGC titles probably will never be broken, has won the WGC-Match Play three times, but not since 2008, and is playing in the tournament for the first time since 2013.
Other former WGC-Match Play champions in the field include Jason Day (2014, 2016), McIlroy (2015), Matt Kuchar (2013), Henrik Stenson (2007), and Ian Poulter (2010), the Ryder Cup ace, who also won the 2011 Volvo World Match play title.
McIlroy is coming off another huge victory in The Players Championship, the so-called “Fifth Major.”
Others to watch include Rahm, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari, Mickelson, Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Bryson DeChambeau and hometown favorite Jordan Spieth, who would love to snap out of his slump in front of the home fans.
Casey won the 2006 Volvo World Match Play title, has finished runner-up in the WGC-Match Play twice, and successfully defended his title in the Valspar Championship on Sunday.
The players have been split into 16 groups of four players and will play a round-robin format the first three days, with the winner of each group advancing to the round of 16. It’s sudden-death from there until one man remains standing on Sunday.
- Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – The 2015 WGC-Match play champion, beating Gary Woodland, 4 and 2, in the final, also lost 2012 final to Hunter Mahan, 2 and 1. McIlroy, who owns an impressive 29-16-3 singles record, also finished fourth in 2016, losing to eventual champion Jason Day in the semis, 1 down. Plays Luke List in round one.
- Dustin Johnson, United States – DJ claimed one of his six WGC titles in this event two years ago, when he got past Jon Rahm in the final, 1 up, but he lost to Kevin Kisner, 4 and 3, in the round of 16 in his title defense. Has a career record of 18-14-1 in match play singles, including 3-1 in the Ryder Cup. Will face Chez Reavie in the first round.
- Jason Day Australia – The Aussie is a two-time winner of the WGC-Match Play title, having won in 2014 and 2016, and also finished third in 2013, losing to Matt Kuchar in the semifinals. Comes off missed cut in the Valspar after skipping the API because of a back injury. Has a superb 24-11 career record and gets Jim Furyk in the first round.
- Justin Thomas, United States – Has only a 7-8 singles record in match play, but won six of his last eight, including a victory over Rory McIlroy in the 2018 Ryder Cup. Ran off five straight wins in the 2018 WGC-Dell Match Play before losing to eventual winner Bubba Watson and lost third place match to Alex Noren. Opens with Lucas Bjerregaard.
- Francesco Molinari, Italy – One of the heroes in Europe’s 2018 Ryder Cup victory, in which he defeated Phil Mickelson in singles, 4 and 2, but has only a 14-16 singles record in his career. Had best finish in WGC-Dell last year when he reached the round of 16 before being routed by Justin Thomas, 7 and 5. Will play Satoshi Kodaira in round one.
- Justin Rose, England – Owns two WGC victories, but made a run in the Match Play only when he lost to Trevor Immelman in the 2007 quarterfinals. Rose has a 16-16-2 career record, including two Ryder Cup wins over Phil Mickelson, but lost to Webb Simpson and Rickie Fowler in the last two Ryder Cups. Starts with Emiliano Grillo.
- Bubba Watson, United States – Bubba is defending his title, which he won with a 7-and-6 rout of Kevin Kisner for his second WGC title. That was easily his best result since he finished fourth in 2011, losing to Martin Kaymer in the quarterfinals and Matt Kuchar in the third place match. Watson, who is 20-12-4 in his career, opens with Kevin Na.
- Brooks Kopeka, United States – Posted best finish in WGC-March Play in 2016, losing to eventual winner Jason Day, 3 and 2, in the quarters and lost to Alex Noren in the round of 16 in 2017. Koepka, who missed the event last year because of a wrist injury, holds a 9-5-1 career record in match play singles and faces Tom Lewis in the first round.
- Ian Poulter, England – One of the best match-play golfers in the world, Poulter won this title in 2010 by beating Paul Casey in the final, 4 and 2, and has reached the quarterfinals five times. He also won 2011Volvo World Match Play title with a 4-and-2 victory over Luke Donald and has a 41-17-5 career mark. Opens with Kevin Kisner.
- Tiger Woods, United States – Tiger has claimed this title a record three times, but the last came in 2008, and he holds another record with 18 WGC titles. Also lost to Darren Clarke, 4 and 3, in the 2000 final. Woods has a brilliant 50-17-2 career singles record, but has not played in this event since 2013. Drew Aaron Wise in the opening round.
- Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Thailand – Won two Euro match play titles. Eventual champ Bubba Watson beat him in 2018 quarters. Has 14-6-2 mark; opens with Marc Leishman.
- Rafa Cabrera Bello, Spain – Has 15-7-1 singles record and in 2016 WGC-Match Play lost to Louis Oosthuizen in quarters, beat Rory McIlroy for third. Drew Tyrell Hatton.
- Si Woo Kim, South Korea – Upset Gary Woodland and Webb Simpson in WGC-Match Play last year, then lost to Justin Thomas in round of 16. Starts with Jon Rahm.
- Jim Furyk, United States – Only qualified with T9 in Honda, solo second in Players. Has 28-25-2 singles mark and fourth in 2015 was best finish. Opens with Jason Day.
- Chez Reavie, United States – Second start in this event. Last year, halved with Keegan Bradley, upset Jon Rahm and fell to Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Plays Dustin Johnson.
For first-round tee times visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html