Austin, Texas — Dustin Johnson is one victory away from something not even Tiger Woods has accomplished: a sweep of the four World Golf Championships.
All that remains is the Match Play, and Johnson has to be considered a strong favorite. He is the No. 1 seed for the first time. He is coming off consecutive victories at Riviera and the Mexico Championship. His form has never been better.
And he won’t have to worry about Mark Wilson.
Wilson isn’t part of the 64-man field at Austin Country Club, but he illustrates why this might be the toughest World Golf Championship to win.
Anything can happen. Anything usually does.
On a Dove Mountain course in the high desert of Arizona that favored big hitters, Wilson eliminated Johnson in back-to-back years. Wilson showed good putting makes up for a lack of distance off the tee in any format, particularly match play. And Johnson showed power still requires a little bit of accuracy.
“I played in the desert a lot there,” he said with a smile.
Even so, there is reason to believe Johnson might actually make it to Sunday for the first time in his ninth try.
While the seeds of the Match Play champions resembled lotto numbers in the early going of this tournament, that hasn’t been the case recently. Over the last 10 years, the worst seed to win was No. 21 (Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan). And with the format changing to round-robin group play the last two years, the winners were Rory McIlroy at No. 1 in the world, and Jason Day, who went to No. 1 in the world.
“It gives you a chance,” McIlroy said of the format.
The Match Play begins today with three rounds of group play, preceded by endless speculation about who has the best chance to advance out of the 16 groups of four players, when no one ever knows what to expect, including the players.
The brackets make it look like the NCAA Tournament. The game makes it look more like roulette.
Jose Luis Campra, the caddie for Emiliano Grillo, grew up with his beloved Argentina in the World Cup, so it was not surprising to hear him inquire about the “grupo de la muerta,” known as the “death group.”
Johnson has only major champions in his group — Jimmy Walker (PGA Championship), Martin Kaymer (PGA, U.S. Open), Webb Simpson (U.S. Open). It sounds daunting, except that Kaymer is 0-for-73 since winning the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, and Simpson is winless in his last 80 starts dating to 2013.
“I’m playing very well right now. I think that’s my advantage,” Johnson said. “But playing match play doesn’t matter if you’re No. 1 or whatever number you are because it’s only 18 holes. And anything can happen.”
If nothing else, this World Golf Championship that uses the world ranking to determine the field and seeds illustrates how tough it’s been to stay at the top.
Tiger Woods was the last player to be the No. 1 seed in successive years — 2008 when he won, 2009 when he lost in the second round to Tim Clark in his return from knee surgery.
WGC Match Play
Site: Austin, Texas.
Course: Austin Country Club. Yardage: 7,108. Par: 71.
Purse: $9.75 million. First prize: $1,660,000.
TV: today-Friday, 2-8 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Golf Channel), 2-6 p.m. (NBC). Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Golf Channel), 3-7 p.m. (NBC).
Defending champion: Jason Day.
Puerto Rico Open
Site: Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
Course: Coco Beach Golf & CC. Yardage: 7,506. Par: 72.
Purse: $3 million. First prize: $540,000.
TV: Thursday-Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday, 2-5:30 p.m. (Golf Channel); Sunday, 2:30-6 p.m. (Golf Channel).
Defending champion: Tony Finau.
Site: Carlsbad, Calif.
Course: Aviara GC. Yardage: 6,593. Par: 72.
TV: Thursday-Friday, 8:30-10:30 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday, 5:30-9 p.m. (Golf Channel); Sunday, 6-9 p.m. (Golf Channel).
Defending champion: Lydia Ko.