The world's top professionals switch from stroke play to head-to-head competition this week, beginning Wednesday at Austin Country Club in the Dell Match Play Championships. It's the only match play event on the PGA Tour schedule -- and a great preview of what we might see at the 2016 Ryder Cup, coming up in September at Hazeltine National.
Instead of the original 64-player knockout format, the Dell Match Play is a three-day, 16-group round-robin, with the overall group winners moving into a 16-man showdown over the weekend. It's more like soccer's World Cup than March Madness, but the idea is the same: survive and advance.
The players were sorted into one of four groups by world ranking, and placed in their four-man groups by a random draw held Monday night at Austin's Paramount Theater.
Rory McIlroy is the defending champion after beating Gary Woodland 4&2 at San Francisco's Harding Park last spring. Other recent winners include Jason Day (2014) and Matt Kuchar (2013).
Here are five groups to keep a close eye on this week (world ranking in parentheses):
Jordan Spieth (1); Justin Thomas (31); Victor Dubuisson (39); Jamie Donaldson (51)
Reason to watch: Longtime friends Spieth and Thomas played a practice round together Monday, just hours before they were grouped together by the random draw. They've been playing against each other for almost a decade, so there shouldn't be any secrets there. Then there's Dubuisson, the mercurial Frenchman who pushed Jason Day to 23 holes in the 2014 final. And Jamie Donaldson, whose match play resume includes knocking the winning shot stiff in the 2014 Ryder Cup. The winner of this group plays the survivor from Louis Oosthuizen's group in the round of 16.
Jason Day (2); Paul Casey (23); Thongchai Jaidee (36); Graeme McDowell (62)
Reason to watch: Coming off a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, you'd think Day would catch a break here. Not even close. The ping-pong balls were very unkind to the 2015 PGA Champion. Casey has the most career victories in this event -- 20 -- of anyone playing this year, and has runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2010. McDowell is outstanding at match play. And Jaidee has won four times in this event. And whomever survives could run into red-hot Charl Schwartzel in the round of 16.
Bubba Watson (4); J.B. Holmes (21); Emiliano Grillo (33); Patton Kizzire (63)
Reason to watch: If you love to watch them hit it long, this is your group. Watson and Holmes are two of the longest hitters on the Tour. But don't sleep on Grillo. He's not only 60th in driving distance this season, but eighth in accuracy. And Kizzire might not be as long as those three off the tee, but he's amazing with the putter. Kizzire's fourth in strokes gained putting, and while you drive for show, in match play you truly do putt for dough.
Patrick Reed (9); Phil Mickelson (17); Matthew Fitzpatrick (42); Daniel Berger (53)
Reason to watch: Call this group the "Old Man and the Three." Mickelson has 16 career Match Play wins, but he'll be pushed hard by three 20-somethings. Reed has the perfect temperament for match play, as shown by his 2014 Ryder Cup results. Young Englishman Fitzpatrick is making his first Match Play appearance, but he's battle-tested when it comes to head-to-head play. And Berger is the wild card. The winner of this group gets a huge test from Dustin Johnson/Jimmy Walker/Kiradech Aphibarnrat/Robert Streb in the next round.
Zach Johnson (14); Shane Lowry (24); Martin Kaymer (44); Marcus Fraser (60)
Reason to watch: All four have played very well this winter, so it's a matter of keeping that momentum going. Johnson just finished fifth at Bay Hill. Lowry's made six consecutive cuts this season. Kaymer, the 2011 runner-up, lost his Tour card for this season but had a top-10 finish in Dubai in November. And Fraser, perhaps the least-known of this group, won the European Tour's Maybank Championship in Malaysia. Rory McIlroy's group awaits the winner.