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Justin Thomas leads the pack into Dell Match Play knockout round

By Suzanne Halliburton
Published on

Justin Thomas hadn't fared well in Austin in his previous two trips to the WGC-Dell Match Play, posting only one victory in six tries.
 
But why remember two years of failure after enjoying such a brilliant outing for the third straight day?
 
The second-seeded Thomas probably is the hottest guy in this year's field after three rounds of group play at Austin Country Club. He was an easy winner Friday, dispensing of Francesco Molinari 7 and 5. For context, Molinari was undefeated after his first two matches. But he couldn't keep up with Thomas -- really, who could? -- after Thomas was a sizzling 6 under par through 12 holes. Molinari conceded the 13th hole. Match over.
 
Thomas was one of five of the top 16 seeds who survived pod play to qualify for Saturday's knockout round. The field will thin from 16 to eight by Saturday evening. The semifinals and finals are set for Sunday.
 
 
Thomas said he was feeling much "the same as the other (15) guys who are going to get through. We all start at the same place."
 
However, a lot of stars will be headed away from Austin after pod play, since eight of the top 10 failed to win their groups.
 
Defending champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson was 0-3. Jon Rahm, the third seed and a finalist a year ago, had a tie and two losses.
 
Jordan Spieth, the former Texas Longhorns star and the tournament's fourth seed, lost to Patrick Reed 2 and 1 to end his stint in Austin.
 
Spieth started his Friday round double bogey, double bogey, bogey. He was fortunate to stick around into the back nine. Spieth righted his round with three birdies, but Reed clinched victory with a 40-foot birdie putt on 17.
 
"I thought I rebounded nicely after it looked like a round of 90 or 92 through the first few holes," Spieth joked. "I thought I played decent golf from there, but with three water balls and three three-putts, you're not going to win many matches."
 
Defending Masters champion Sergio Garcia, who was seeded seventh, was the only other player in the top 10 to earn a spot in the round of 16. Like Thomas, it also was Garcia's first time to make it to the weekend in Austin. He was unbeaten in pod play after a 3-and-1 victory over Xander Schauffele.
 
Garcia was down by two holes through 11, but he birdied four of the next five holes to earn a Saturday spot. Garcia had to rally late for all three of his wins in group play.
 
"It just kind of clicked on the back nine," Garcia said. "I feel like I've played well in the front, just a couple of mistakes here and there that I've been a little more punished by it, but mainly (it was) some strong playing from my opponents on the front nine."
 
Matt Kuchar, the 16th seed who won the WGC match play when it was based in Arizona, had the shot of the day with a hole-in-one on No. 7.
 
 
There were several surprise qualifiers for the knockout round.
 
Bubba Watson, a two-time winner of the Masters, was seeded a lowly 35th here. He tied with Julian Suri on Friday to win his group.
 
Charles Howell III, an alternate who earned a last-minute spot in Austin, won his group, too, with a 2-and-1 victory over Satoshi Kodairi. Phil Mickelson had been the top-seeded player in the pod, but Howell beat Mickelson earlier in the week. Howell made it to the top 16 a year ago.
 
Brian Harman, who is making his debut in Austin, won his group with an upset of Rory McIlroy. Harman had an easy time with McIlroy, the sixth seed, who was coming off a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, earning a 5-and-3 victory.
 
"Well, Rory did not play his best golf today," said Harman, who was 5 under for the day. "I played extremely well. I'm proud of the way I came out. Rory is an intimidating guy. He hits it a mile, especially what he did last week" to win the tournament.
 
Thailand's colorful Kiradech Aphibarnrat also earned a spot in the round of 16, beating Rahm 4 and 3. Aphibarnrat, seeded 28th, was 3-0 in pod play.
 
"I'm really enjoying every single minute here and in Austin," Aphibarnrat said. "I don't mind playing with anybody tomorrow. I just want to go out and play my best golf."
 
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 legal@newscred.com.
 
 

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