Stamina, short game key in golf's version of March Madness

March 22, 2022 06:40 PM

’Tis the season for brackets, right? The PGA Tour has been providing its own version of March Madness for more than 20 years with the WGC Match Play. The event features the top 64 golfers in the world rankings, complete with player seedings, regions, a final four and eventually one shining moment for the last man standing on Sunday afternoon.

Austin Country Club, a Pete Dye design with a number of risk-reward opportunities, hosts the event for the fifth straight year. For those unfamiliar, match play pits one golfer against another over the course of 18 holes. If Golfer A makes a 4 on the first hole and Golfer B makes a 3, Golfer B wins the hole and goes 1-up. If both players make the same score, the hole is halved and the match remains all square. A large percentage of matches don’t go the full 18 holes. If one player is 3-up, for example, with two holes remaining, then the match is over. 

It’s a wonderful competition to watch, with an intensity that seems to exist at all times because of the one-on-one competition. Another major difference in match play: A player can have a blow-up hole and make an 8, for instance, but rather than those eight strokes counting toward their overall score, the player only loses one hole to his opponent. New life. Hit the reset button and try to win the next hole.

As far as the brackets go, the format this week is more similar to a soccer World Cup than golf’s Ryder Cup. The 64 players are separated into 16 groups of four players each. From Wednesday through Friday, each player will play one match against the other three players in his group. At the conclusion of play Friday, the player with the most points in each group advances to golf’s version of the Sweet 16. One point is earned for a match won and a half-point for a match tied. If players are tied at the top of a group, a playoff determines the winner. 

Once the group winners are determined, the remaining 16 players will play a single-elimination, bracket-style tournament over the weekend. Players must win two 18-hole matches on Saturday and two more on Sunday to win the title. 

If you haven’t noticed already, the finalists will play a lot of golf over the course of the championship. In my handicap this week and in playing the outright winner market, I looked at players who come in well-rested. I also emphasized the short game, both putting and scrambling. A big putt holed, or even a shot from off the green, can be a huge turning point in any match. Hitting fairways and greens and making a lot of pars won’t necessarily win a match. Some aggressive shots and some fireworks around the greens will likely be needed to have success.

In a normal stroke-play event, I always play full tournament head-to-head matchups. I rarely play individual rounds because the results over one day can be much more volatile than over the course of four days. I equate it to betting on a football game instead of betting on one quarter of that football game. So this match-play event is a very difficult one to bet. Thus, I’ll decrease my risk by at least half, if not more, when playing individual matchups this week. 

Here are the Day 1 head-to-head matchups I considered and those I ended up playing: 

Considered (8-7 YTD)

— Jordan Spieth (-130) over Keegan Bradley

— Bubba Watson (+ 105) over Abraham Ancer

Played (7-8 YTD)

— Brian Harman (-110) over Webb Simpson

— Sergio Garcia (-125) over Jason Kokrak

— Sepp Straka (+ 175) over Viktor Hovland

— Patrick Reed (-110) over Cameron Young

For all of the plays from myself, Wes Reynolds, and Matt Youmans, be sure to check out “LongShots.” We will be joined by a very special guest, Justin Ray of the Twenty First Group, who also does work for the PGA Tour, USGA and The Athletic. It's available now at

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