Austin, Texas — Justin Thomas was on antibiotics when he arrived in Texas and mustered enough strength for a short practice round that left him wondering how long he would last in the Dell Technologies Match Play, if at all.
“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” Thomas said. “There were probably 15 or so people that watched me play nine holes. You find those 15 people and see if they thought I was ready to play in a golf tournament. Some of the shots I hit were pretty funny.”
His health improved. So has his golf.
And now Thomas is one match from reaching No. 1 in the world and having a shot at his first World Golf Championships title.
Thomas made quick work of Si Woo Kim to win on the 13th hole Saturday morning, and then he pulled away from Kyle Stanley in the afternoon by winning three straight holes to start the back nine that carried him to a 2-and-1 victory.
Now he has a clear path — and a familiar one for Bubba Watson — to replace Dustin Johnson at No. 1 in the world.
Johnson didn’t win a match this week and will not get any world ranking points. That means Thomas only has to beat Watson in the semifinals Sunday morning to become the seventh American to top the world ranking.
“I don’t care when it happens,” Thomas said about going to No. 1. “I just hope it happens, and it happens for a while.”
It’s only fitting Watson stands in his way.
Watson outlasted Brian Harman in a battle of Georgia southpaws and then won five of six holes to start the back nine to beat Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 and 3. That put him in the semifinals for the first time since his Match Play debut in 2011 when it was in Arizona.
That was the year the reigning PGA champion — Martin Kaymer — only had to beat Watson to reach No. 1 in the world. Kaymer won with an 8-foot par on the 18th hole.
“I guess I’m good at that,” Watson said. “If you want No. 1, just beat me, and you’ll be No. 1.”
Alex Noren extended his run at Austin Country Club by winning for the ninth time in his last 10 matches. His only loss was to Johnson a year ago in the quarterfinals, and he needed only 31 holes to beat Patrick Reed and Cameron Smith of Australia.
Noren and Thomas are the only semifinalists who have not lost a match this week.
Kevin Kisner reached the semifinals with a big putt and a big blowout. He made a birdie on the 18th hole to beat Matt Kuchar, and then matched the shortest match of the week with an 8-and-6 victory over Ian Poulter, who was disappointed for more than just losing.
“Probably didn’t see that one coming,” Kisner said. “I thought it was going to be a difficult match. Obviously, Ian’s match-play record speaks for itself. I got off to a good start making a few birdies. He made a few mistakes, and I was able to capitalize on those. And things just snowballed from there.”
Poulter was told after he beat Louis Oosthuizen in the morning that reaching the quarterfinals was enough for him to be in the top 50 at the end of the week, which would get him into the Masters. Moments later, he received a text that he needed to win his match against Kisner.
“I gave him no fight at all. It was rubbish,” said Poulter, who didn’t make a birdie.
The misinformation wasn’t to blame, though it clearly added to an all-around bad day at the office.
“Next time I won’t listen to other people. I’ll do my bit and focus better,” Poulter said. “I mean, I can’t put that down as an excuse. It would be an excuse if I said it. So it’s disappointing to be given the wrong information, but that wasn’t part of this afternoon.”
Kisner faces Noren, whom he knows from their college days — Kisner at Georgia, Noren at Oklahoma State.
Thomas (No. 2) and Noren (No. 13) are the only top seeds from the 16 groups who advanced to the semifinals. Noren has had a pair of close calls this year, losing in a playoff at Torrey Pines and finishing one shot out of a playoff that Thomas won at the Honda Classic.
Thomas knows what he’s up against. Watson, who won last month at Riviera, is looking very much like the two-time Masters champion again.
Watson has played the 18th hole just one time this week, a halve with Julian Suri that allowed him to avoid a playoff to advance. Reaching the semifinals was bittersweet in one respect — he was to leave the country Sunday morning for a family vacation.
That will have to wait.
Kiradech bogeyed the 10th and 11th to fall behind, and Watson birdied the next two holes to go 4 up, win the match and delay his vacation.
Why even book a flight on Sunday knowing he could reach the semifinals? Apparently, the flights were cheaper.
“I’ve never made it to Sunday at this golf course, so why not?” Watson said. “It’s a good problem to have, when you have to cancel stuff for an extra day. It’s well worth it to play on Sunday.”
So it will be a semifinal match between two players who at one time thought they wouldn’t be in Austin this long.
Cristie Kerr blew a five-stroke lead at Carlsbad, California, in the Kia Classic to set up a final-round showdown at Aviara Golf Club.
A day after shooting an 8-under 64 to open the big lead, Kerr had a 75 to drop a stroke behind playing partner Lizette Salas, Eun-Hee Ji and In-Kyung Kim. Kerr was tied with Caroline Hedwall, Wei-Ling Hsu and Cindy LaCrosse, and four players were another shot back.
The 40-year-old Kerr had a double bogey on the par-4 15th after snap-hooking a drive into the trees. The 2015 winner at Aviara, she also had two bogeys and two birdies.
Ji had a 67 to match Salas (69) and Kim (69) at 11-under 205. Salas had a chance to pull away, but missed birdie putts of 1 1/2 feet on the short par-4 16th and 2 1/2 feet on the par-5 17th.
Anna Nordqvist had a 66 to top the group at 9 under.
Steve Stricker moved into position for his second straight PGA Tour Champions victory, shooting a 3-under 69 at Biloxi, Mississippi, to take a one-stroke lead in the Rapiscan Systems Classic.
Stricker won the Cologuard Classic three weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona, for his first victory on the 50-and-over tour. He tied for 12th the following week in the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship.
Stricker had a 7-under 137 total at Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed layout with big, speedy greens.
The 51-year-old Wisconsin player bogeyed Nos. 2-3, rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6-7, birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th. He has six top-three finishes in eight career senior starts.
First-round leader Joe Durant followed his opening 66 with a 72 to drop into a tie for second with Jeff Sluman (67).
Brice Garnett took a six-stroke lead into the wind at Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, in the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship. He came out with a two-stroke advantage.
Garnett bogeyed three of the final six holes for a 3-under 69 and a 16-under 200 total. A stroke ahead after each of the first two rounds, Garnett opened with a bogey, birdied Nos. 2, 4 and 6, eagled the par-5 seventh, and made two more birdies on the par-3 ninth and par-5 12th. He bogeyed the par-4 13th, par-5 15th and par-3 17th.
Corey Conners was second after a 67, and Tyler McCumber also had a 67 to get to 12 under.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dropped out Friday, finishing last in the 132-man field in his PGA Tour debut. He shot 77-82 playing as an amateur on a sponsor exemption.