Upset alert! 5 biggest surprises from the WGC-Match Play
There was ample madness on the first day of pool play at the WGC-Match Play. On any given Wednesday, one highly-ranked professional golfer can always beat another, of course. But when we see them do so face-to-face, mano a mano, No. 52 seed over No. 2 seed, well, that’s the beauty of this event.
Before we count down the five biggest surprises from Day 1 in Austin, let’s sneak in a few honorable mention mini-surprises, free of charge:
–Jordan Spieth led all day en route to beating fellow blonde Under Armour grinder Matt Fitzpatrick 3 and 1. The win felt more decisive than the score, and Spieth’s seed (49) felt misleadingly low.
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-English everyman and No. 57 seed Andy Sullivan battled No. 6 seed Xander Schauffele to a stalemate. Sometimes a tie feels like a win.
–Carlos Ortiz won the first three holes to get way up on Hideki Matsuyama before he coasted to a decisive 4 and 3 victory.
–Matthew Wolff was 2 down before reeling off five birdies in a row to finish off a 3 and 1 win over Corey Conners. Hopefully that’s a sign he’s on his way back to full form.
A solid appetizer! Now to the top five:
5. Hovland didn’t win a hole
Kevin Streelman is no slouch, but he can hardly match the form of Viktor Hovland, who has four top-five finishes in his last seven PGA Tour starts. But you’d never have known that Wednesday; Hovland made just one birdie and didn’t win a single hole all day, eventually falling 4 and 2 thanks to a rock-solid Streelman showing.
“He was born in ’97, I was graduating high school the year he was born and it’s just like, geez, they’re getting good, they’re getting good and young,” Streelman said after the win. Clearly, the 42-year-old felt fortunate to escape on top.
4. Frittelli flattened Finau
It’s not shocking that Dylan Frittelli — a former Texas Longhorn — would win a golf match in Austin. But Tony Finau made double at No. 1, Frittelli birdied 4-5-6 and just like that, the underdog was 4 up on one of the game’s best players. Finau never won a hole and Frittelli finished off the match on No. 13, winning 6 and 5.
Despite his opponent’s resume, Frittelli made it clear he shouldn’t be seen as an underdog this week.
“If you had checked the betting odds, if those guys were doing their homework, I would figure they would put me in the top half, just having that sort of experience, hometown, sleeping in my own bed. I think that counts a lot,” he said. Any bettors who took Frittelli would agree.
3. Kuchar took it to Thomas
It would be tough to find a starker contrast in form between Justin Thomas, who won the Players Championship in his most recent start, and Matt Kuchar, who has been alternating MCs and T50s since last summer. It was certainly unexpected when Kuchar birdied five of the first eight holes on Wednesday and opened a 5 up lead at the turn. A bunch of back-nine pars were enough to close out Thomas 3 and 2.
“I’m not sure that many people have been picking me this week and certainly after the last few weeks I mean there’s no chance you would pick me,” Kuchar said with a grin. That’s the beauty of the format, isn’t it?
2. McIlroy got smoked
Broken record here, but it’s hardly a shocker for match-play ace Ian Poulter to stare down any golfer in the world and win — unless the result of that match is 6 and 5 and the opponent is Rory McIlroy.
Poulter leapt out to a 3 up lead through five holes after McIlroy launched a tee shot into a backyard pool.
But the world seemed to right itself when McIlroy birdied two of the next three to get back within one.
But Poulter then won the next five holes outright to slam the door on his Ryder Cup teammate. He deserves proper credit for birdies at 9 and 11 and even more credit for his eagle at 12, where his tee shot was 84 yards behind McIlroy’s but his score two shots lower.
“I kind of like the ‘s— or bust’ attitude, to be honest with you. It gets the adrenaline going, the ticker starts going and quite frankly you’ve just got to be — ‘s— or bust!’ You got to pony up and hit shots, right?
“This is that golf course where you’re going to make mistakes, hazards everywhere, tricky pin position, I was just trying to keep the foot down.”
1. Down went DeChambeau!
I’ll save you the trouble of Googling “Antoine Rozner” and tell you instead: He’s a 28-year-old Frenchman who took down Bryson DeChambeau on Wednesday, 2 up.
Before all of this? Rozner grew up in Paris. As a kid, his favorite golfers were Tiger Woods, Thomas Levet and Victor Dubuisson. His favorite football team is Paris Saint-Germain. And his favorite football team is the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s because he went to school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he won six events and finished T8 in the national championship. He also won the French Amateur.
After a couple years on the Alps Tour and the Challenge Tour, Rozner played his way onto the European Tour, where he quickly found his form. He has won twice in his last six starts, including making a long-range walk-off putt to win in Qatar two weeks ago.
In December he was outside the world’s top 200; now Rozner is No. 64, which is how he ended up in his first PGA Tour event this week. And after beating DeChambeau on Wednesday, he has a decent chance of advancing through to the WGC-Match Play’s Round of 16. On Wednesday, though, he was soaking in the moment.
“I’m very happy. I was trying to put a good score today. I was just trying to put a solid round of golf, and I think I did that pretty well, especially on the front,” Rozner said after the round. Interestingly, he didn’t see his win as a big-time upset, either.
“Not really, because I think in match play everyone is on the same level, so no, I don’t think it’s an upset,” he said. “Obviously [Bryson] is a heck of a player. He hit the ball so far. But I think it’s just a round of golf. It doesn’t matter who you are. In one round, you can beat anyone.”
That will remain true on Thursday.