WGC-Match Play: Top 10 players to watch

By Tom LaMarre, The Sports Xchange  |  March 21, 2017 at 11:33 AM
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1. Dustin Johnson, United States -- DJ has taken the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings by winning his last two events, the Genesis Open and the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, and will try to become the first player to win three straight starts on the PGA Tour since Rory McIlroy in 2014. Johnson, top-seeded in the WGC-Dell Match Play heading into his opening match against Webb Simpson, surprisingly has only an 11-10 record in singles matches in his career, but last year in this event he had his best result, reaching the quarterfinals before losing to Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, 2 and 1. He beat Chris Wood of England, 2 and 1, in Ryder Cup singles in September, and after being considered by many to be the most talented player in the world for a few years, he has proven to be the best recently. Although he has not won the WGC-Match Play, Johnson has four titles in the World Golf Championships, second to Tiger Woods' 18.

2. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland -- Even though Patrick Reed beat him, 1 up, in singles at the Ryder Cup last year, McIlroy is considered one of the best match players in the world. He won the WGC-Dell Match Play two years ago at Harding Park in San Francisco by beating Gary Woodland, 4 and 2, in the final, lost in the 2012 final to Hunter Mahan, 2 and 1, at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz., and finished fourth last year when eventual champion Jason Day beat him in the semifinals, 2 and 1, at Austin Country Club in Austin, Texas. McIlroy has a 28-12-2 match-play record in his pro career, including a 12-0-1 stretch between 2014 and his loss to Day a year ago. He has lost three in a row, also falling to Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain, 3 and 2, in the consolation match and to Reed, so McIlroy probably is due to start another streak as he prepares to face Soren Kjeldsen of Norway in round one.

3. Jordan Spieth, United States -- So far, Spieth has been better with a partner in match play, posting a 9-3-2 record in the Ryder and Presidents cups, but is only 8-7 in singles after losing to Henrik Stenson of Sweden, 3 and 2, in the Ryder Cup and to Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, 4 and 2, in the round of 16 last year in the WGC-Dell Match Play. His loss to Oosthuizen came after he reeled off victories over Jamie Donaldson of Wales, Victor Dubuisson of France and Justin Thomas in the three rounds of pool play. Spieth is top-seeded in his group again and Wednesday will open with unheralded 38-year-old Hideto Tanihara of Japan, who has 14 victories in his career but is playing in the event for the first time and in only his second World Golf Championship, having tied for fifth in the 2006 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. Spieth's best result in the WGC-Match Play came when he lost to Ernie Els in the 2014 quarterfinals and he has never won a WGC title.

4. Jason Day, Australia -- Although he is the defending champion in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match play and has won the event twice, Day is something of a question mark this week because he was inconsistent last week in a tie for 23rd in the Arnold Palmer Invitational after coming off an illness that sidelined him for several weeks. However, if the Aussie get his legs under him in an opening match against Pat Perez, he will be a player to be reckoned with, as he has a 22-8 match-play record in his pro career. Last year at Austin Country Club, he posted a 7-0 record, including a 5-and-4 rout of Oosthuizen in the final. Day was 6-0 while claiming the title two years ago at Dove Mountain in Arizona, beating Victor Dubuisson of France for the title in a scintillating 23-hole match, but surprisingly went 0-4 as defending champion at Harding Park in 2015. He also finished third in 2013, losing to eventual champion Matt Kuchar in the semifinals, 4 and 3, and beating Ian Poulter in the consolation match, 2 and 1.

5. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan -- Although he hasn't played much match play as a pro, Matsuyama has proven to be a tough out and has been one of the best players in the world with six victories around the globe since late last year. The Japanese star, who has a 7-4 record in match-play singles including a 1-1 mark in the Presidents Cup, has a first-day match against dangerous veteran Jim Furyk. Matsuyama is playing in the event for the third time, and in 2015 he ran off victories over Alexander Levy of France, Joost Luiten of the Netherlands and Kevin Na before eventual champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland sent him packing, 6 and 5, at Harding Park in San Francisco. Last year in Austin, he got past Kevin Kisner and Kjeldsen, but could not get out of pool play when Rafa Cabrera Bello edged him, 1 up, to move on. However, Matsuyama is a different player this season, with three PGA Tour victories and leads the FedExCup standings.

6. Louis Oosthuizen, South Africa -- Although he is a deceptive 27th in the world, Oosthuizen is a player to watch this week in the WGC-Dell Match Play based on his record in the tournament the last three years. He has a 15-9-2 mark in match play as a pro and last year in this event he turned back his first six opponents including Johnson and Spieth before Day took him out in the final, 5 and 4. In 2015 at Harding Park in San Francisco, his victims included Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler as he went 4-0 before Furyk beat him in the quarterfinals, 4 and 2. Three years ago at Dove Mountain in Arizona, Oosthuizen knocked off three straight opponents, including major champions Stenson and Webb Simpson, before eventual winner Day ousted him, 2 and 1. The South African starts out with a match against Ross Fisher of England in and also has early matches against Furyk and Matsuyama, top-seeded in Group 4.

7. Sergio Garcia, Spain -- Most of Garcia's match-play success has come in team play at the Ryder Cup, in which he has a 20-11-6 record in four-ball and foursome matches for the European team, but he also has a 30-25-3 mark in singles play during his professional career. His best finish in what was then the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship was fourth in 2010 at Dove Mountain in Arizona, where he knocked off David Toms, Anders Hansen of Denmark, Tim Clark of South Africa and Oliver Wilson of England before things fell apart. Ian Poulter of England routed Garcia in the semifinals, 7 and 6, and Camilo Villegas of Colombia trounced him in the consolation match, 5 and 4. Sergio, who opens with Shane Lowry of Ireland on Wednesday at Austin Country Club, reached the final of the 2002 Cisco World Match Play Championship before Ernie Els beat him, 2 and 1, at the Wentworth Club outside London.

8. Patrick Reed, United States -- Not only has Reed won five times on the PGA Tour in recent seasons, he has become one of the best match players in the world, especially in the Ryder Cup. However, he has struggled since being given the nickname "Captain America" when he led the United States past Europe in September at Hazeltine, which included his 1-up victory over Rory McIlroy in Sunday singles. That gave him a 2-0 mark in singles in the biennial event, part of his overall 10-5-1 record on his own as a pro. Reed, who takes a 5-2 mark in the event against Jason Dufner in the first round of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, beat Phil Mickelson, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Daniel Berger in pool play in Austin last year, before Johnson knocked him out in the Round of 16. Reed reached the quarterfinals of the 2014 Volvo World Match Play Championship in England before George Coetzee of South Africa beat him, 2 and 1.

9. Matt Kuchar, United States -- One of three former champions in the WGC-Match Play field joining defending champion Day and McIlroy, Kooch has a first-round match on Wednesday against Brendan Steele as the top-seeded player in Group 16. He won the title in 2013 at Dove Mountain, defeating defending champion Hunter Mahan in the final, 2 and 1. Kuchar captured five straight matches en route to the final, including an early 2-and-1 victory over Garcia and a 4-and-3 semifinal victory over Day, who has gone on to win the tournament twice in the last three years. Kooch has a 21-13-1 overall singles record as a pro and also finished third in the 2011 WGC-Match Play, losing to Luke Donald of England, 6 and 5, in the semifinals before beating Watson in the consolation match, 2 and 1.

10. Paul Casey, England -- Anyone looking for a dark horse this week might want to focus on Casey, who owns a 30-22-3 record in singles matches in his pro career. He won the 2006 Volvo World Match Play Championship with a dominating performance, pounding Shaun Micheel in the final, 10 and 8, after knocking off Retief Goosen (6 and 4), Mike Weir (5 and 3) and Colin Montgomerie (6 and 5) on his way to the title match. Casey, who plays Joost Luiten of the Netherlands in his first match on Wednesday, also has finished second twice in the WGC-World Match Play. Geoff Ogilvy of Australia beat him, 4 and 3, in the 2009 final and Ian Poulter of England defeated him in the title match the following year, 4 and 2. Casey reached the quarterfinals in 2015 before McIlroy beat him on the 22nd hole en route to winning the title at Harding Park.

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