If you’ve earned your way into the WGC-Dell Match Play field, you can quite literally beat any golfer on the planet, especially in a format as impossible to predict as match play. This week, there really is no such thing as an “upset.”
But reminding people of that fact makes you “that guy” at parties, the know-it-all guy who calls them hors d’oeuvres instead of appetizers. We know Antoine Rozner beating Bryson DeChambeau, 2 up, on Wednesday isn’t all that surprising given the level they’ve both reached in the game. Rozner has won twice in his last six European Tour starts, DeChambeau twice in his last nine on the PGA Tour. They’re both world-class golfers playing world-class golf at the moment. Rozner may be an unknown to the casual golf fan, but that does not mean he had no chance of beating Bryson on Wednesday. Appalachian State over Michigan, this was not.
All of that said, it’s still a little bit surprising! DeChambeau is currently trying to break the sport, while Rozner, who hails from France, was a spectator at the 2018 Ryder Cup in his home country (DeChambeau was playing in it). Rozner was ranked 203rd in the world in November, while DeChambeau was two months removed from picking apart iconic Winged Foot to win the U.S. Open. Yes, Rozner earned his way into a World Golf Championship, making him one of the best players in the world, but the David-takes-down-Goliath angle is a fun one to mess around with during this event each year. It’s what makes the first three days so compelling. Another thing to note—some folks in the desert would classify it as an upset, too, albeit a mini one.
Rozner’s (gulp) slaying of one of the game’s giants was not the only one on Wednesday, either. Down went Rory McIlroy, 6 and 5, to Ian Poulter. Down went Tony Finau, also 6 and 5, to Dylan Frittelli. Justin Thomas, two weeks removed from an impressive Players Championship victory, lost 3 and 2 to Matt Kuchar, who has missed five of his last 11 cuts and his finished no better than 34th during that stretch. In any given round, all of these guys can beat each other and beat each other badly. They are all that good. But for these three days, it’s OK to use the word “upset” or “Cinderella story,” even if it’s neither of those things. We are still in the midst of March Madness after all.
Three other takeaways from Day 1 of the WGC-Dell Match Play.
Jon Rahm squeaks past Sebastian Munoz in best match of morning wave
Rory-Poulter was billed as the morning wave’s title fight, and perhaps the must-watch match of the entire first day. It turned out to be anything but.
Rahm-Munoz wound up filling that void rather admirably, with the 28-year-old Colombian giving World No. 3 everything he had. After falling in a 3 down through 10 holes, Munoz clawed all the way back to all square with three to play, having won the 11th, 13th and 14th. Rahm was able to clip him on 16, then the two halved 17, giving the Spaniard a 1-up lead with the 18th to play. Munoz fought to the very end, banging home a 24-footer for birdie on the home hole and forcing Rahm to have to make a seven-footer to win the match. Rahm did, and you could tell in the way he embraced Munoz right after there was some serious respect for the grind. How can you not love match play?
The must-see Thursday match we didn’t see coming
If you put a gun to my head yesterday and said pick a winner in the Matt Fitzpatrick, Matthew Wolff, Corey Conners and Jordan Spieth group, I’d have gone with Fitzpatrick first based on recent form. My next case would then be made for Conners, also based on recent form. As much as I, too, am enjoying the Spieth revival, I would not have put my life in his hands, even in match play. As for Wolff? The least trustworthy of all given his recent dip in form.
And wouldn’t you know it, I’d be a dead man. Spieth’s match with Fitzpatrick was never in doubt, a 3-and-1 victory in which Fitzpatrick won a grand total of ONE hole. Wolff and Conners had a much closer clash, but Wolff ended up pulling away late, winning 12, 13, 14, 15 and 17 to close out the Canadian, 3 and 1. Now, we’ve got Spieth v. Wolff, the must-see Day 2 matchup no one saw coming, mostly nobody had any clue what Wolff would look like coming into the week. Lucky for us, he’s seemingly in good health in ready to get back in the conversation, as is Spieth. No one is complaining about that.
It’s amazing what a simple format change can do
We’ve briefly mentioned both Kuchar and Poulter already, but they deserve a little extra shine for their performances on Day 1. In 27 combined starts since the Memorial in July, Kuchar and Poulter have missed 10 cuts and failed to register a single top-10, Kuchar’s best start a 18th at The Northern Trust and Poulter’s a 12th at the CJ Cup. They’ve both struggled mightily with their approach play and neither has been all that great on or around the greens, where they’ve both made a nice living over the years.
But on Wednesday, in match play, all that stuff gets tossed aside. Every hole is a new opportunity, a chance to throw a haymaker. A “sh-t or bust” attitude goes a long way in match play, as Poulter explained after his beatdown of McIlroy. Kuchar must have a little “sh-t or bust” in him too, though he wouldn’t dare to use such a word. These two have both been playing pretty poorly of late and one guy took down Rory with ease and the other took down the Players champion, 3 and 2. Match play just hits different for some, including “defending” champ Kevin Kisner, who opened with a 2-and-1 victory over Louis Oosthuizen. He and Kuchar meet Friday in a match that could be for a berth in the knockout round.