Dustin Johnson headlines first day of upsets at the WGC Dell Match Play
By Suzanne Halliburton
It was only a Wednesday, just the opening round of the WGC-Dell Match Play.
There still were so many more holes to be played at Austin Country Cub between now and Sunday. Yet Jordan Spieth, the former Texas star and decided crowd favorite, proclaimed "it's win or go home."
If that's the case, then the tournament will lose a chunk of its star power before the weekend's official knockout rounds. Five of the top 16 seeds suffered upsets, the biggest being defending champion and top-seeded Dustin Johnson.
Johnson, the world's top-ranked player, looked out of sorts all afternoon. He lost his match to Bernd Wiesberger, a member of the European Tour who is seeded 50th. Wiesberger won 3 and 1. In winning in Austin last year, Johnson never trailed. But on Wednesday, he trudged through a round that included above par scores on six holes, including a pair of double bogeys and a quadruple bogey.
Phil Mickelson, who won the WGC-Mexico event earlier this month, fell to Charles Howell III, 3 and 2. Howell cracked the Austin field last Friday only after five higher-ranked players declined invitations to Austin.
Then there was Rory McIlroy, the sixth seed who won last weekend's Arnold Palmer Invitational. He found himself down by five holes to Peter Uihlen, an American who has never won a PGA event. McIlroy tried to rally, stringing together five straight birdies on the back nine. But Uihlen won 2 and 1.
"I made him earn it, at least," McIlroy said. "I made the score line a little more respectable."
The goal of the pod play, which continues Thursday and Friday, is to qualify for the round of 16. A year ago, only three players who lost their Wednesday openers made it to Saturday. In Wednesday's opening round, the higher seeds took on the lowest-ranked players in their group.
"You have to essentially win every single match to advance," said Spieth, who lost his first match a year ago and failed to qualify for the weekend. "I mean, there will be instances where people will lose matches and advance out of group stage, but it's a win-or-go home typle situation in my mind."
Spieth beat Charl Schwartzel, a South African who won the 2013 Masters, 2 and 1. He birdied Nos. 13 and 14 to put the match away.
Other top seeds stayed away from the upsets.
Justin Thomas, ranked second in the world, needed all 18 holes before he clinched against Luke List, the 60th seed who is playing in his first WGC event. List was one of the alternates invited last Friday. He bent his putter and was forced to use a sand wedge on the last 11 holes.
Jason Day, who won here in 2016, had a relaxed outing, dispensing with James Hahn, 4 and 2. Day, the eighth seed, quit after six holes in his opening round last year. His mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and he said he was too distraught to play.
"Obviously, with a round-robin format, you can't give yourself a buffer and think, OK, I'm going to lose," Day said. "And then something happens and you don't have a chance to get through. Every match is important. You can't underestimate anyone out here because they're obviously here for a reason."
Sergio Garcia, the part-time Austinite who won last year's Masters, birdied the 18th to secure his win over Shubhankar Sharma. Garcia and Sharma, who made his PGA debut earlier this month, were tied from the 14th through 17th.
Jon Rahm, who is seeded third, tied Keegan Bradley. Rahm reached last year's finals. Pat Perez, who is seeded 15th, also halved his match against Si Woo Kim.
Wiesberger's upset of Johnson made the greatest noise on an afternoon full of the unexpected. Yet Wiesberger acknowledged that he wasn't at his best, either.
"He made some mistakes," Wieberger said of Johnson. "He made some mistakes. I gave him a few holes with bogeys early on and it wasn't pretty."
This article is written by Suzanne Halliburton from Austin American-Statesman and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.