Ben Coley looks ahead to the first knockout round at the WGC-Match Play, where Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy dominate the outright market.
Scottie Scheffler remains on course to defend his WGC-Match Play title after what was in the end a resounding victory over Tom Kim on Friday.
Scheffler, playing in his home state, now has a 13-2-2 record at Austin Country Club which is frankly outrageous and makes him the man to beat. When you throw in the fact that he faces JT Poston in the last 16, it’s no wonder he’s a strong 4/1 favourite.
I felt after day one that Rory McIlroy was being underestimated a little and he’s since won both matches to progress with ease. He’s now a 5/1 chance and, with the theoretically tougher draw as well as the fact that he’s in the same half as the standout player so far, I’m happy to leave things as they are and remain hopeful of a Cantlay-McIlroy final.
Based purely on performance levels so far, those seeking an outright bet should be considering Cameron Young and Kurt Kitayama at 9/1 and 25/1 respectively. Should both come through their first matches today, they will meet in the afternoon with a place in the semi-finals at stake.
Max Homa v Mackenzie Hughes (1235 GMT)
Strictly speaking, Homa ranks last among the 16 qualifiers in strokes-gained terms, but remember he only played two games following the withdrawal of Hideki Matsuyama.
That in turn throws up a conundrum – will he benefit from a day’s rest, or will it prove difficult to switch competition mode on and off and back on again? Who can say, but having put up Hughes at odds-against the last two days, there’s certainly some temptation to do so again.
The Canadian has now won six from 10 matches at Austin and is dangerous. That being said, yesterday we could back him at 6/4 to beat a potentially nervous Taylor Montgomery. Today he’s a best of 7/4 to beat a fearless and world-class opponent. It’s not quite enough.
Patrick Cantlay v Sam Burns (1246)
Cantlay has done nothing to dissuade me from the view that he’d be a hard man to beat this week, overcoming a back-to-form Brian Harman to go 3-0-0 in his group. He managed it without making a great deal and the putter may ultimately be the club that determines just how far he can go.
It’s also the club which would be the only real worry here. Burns continues to hit his approaches to a very poor standard but has been rescued, spectacularly so at times, by a fantastic display of putting. Clearly that could again be the case over 18 holes and it will be a really frustrating match for Cantlay if he has to watch his opponent pour them in having been out of position.
Those are the negatives, but in terms of overall play it’s no contest between these two of late. I’ll be hoping for more of the same.
Jason Day v Matt Kuchar (1257)
Two former champions collide and this might be the tie of the round. Day was fortunate to bump into a hopeless putting performance from Collin Morikawa but nevertheless has continued in the form he’s shown all season, while Kuchar was electric on Friday and has improved with each round so far.
Coming into the event, Day was among the second wave in the market and Kuchar down towards the foot of it. However, I don’t think there’s a lot between them and let’s not forget it’s only six weeks or so since Kuchar was in the mix in elite company at Riviera.
Here at Austin, a course where he boasts a fabulous record, it’s not beyond him to cause an upset and take the outright record of most wins at the Match Play. At 6/4 that’s a chance worth taking after Day expressed concerns over his long-game.
Scottie Scheffler v JT Poston (1308)
It would be surprising if Poston got the better of Scheffler here, which isn’t telling you a great deal. The former is the world number one, his record in Austin is unparalleled, and he’s come through a tricky group without seemingly breaking sweat.
Poston can have one of those days where he gains four or five strokes on the greens, but the fact he may well need it tells you everything. Scheffler should be the shortest-priced player on the coupon.
Xander Schauffele v JJ Spaun (1319)
It’s been a generally quiet start to the year for Schauffele and the same has been true this week. He’s made very little noise despite being among the top-ranked players left in the competition, and a clutch birdie on 18 yesterday sets him up nicely to creep into Sunday.
Spaun has been the surprise package to some degree, really impressing in his group. He was made to work harder on Friday but still came through against Min Woo Lee and you could argue that he can continue to freewheel as the underdog, which he will be for every match he plays.
However, things do get serious now, because as the lowest-ranked player left, he’s for the Masters to think about. It didn’t stop him winning the Texas Open last year but is something to keep in mind as he goes about repeating the feat.
Rory McIlroy v Lucas Herbert (1330)
As with the Scheffler-Poston match, this looks clear cut except for the fact that the underdog can make anything and everything on his day. And whereas Poston isn’t exactly an in-your-face character, the shall we say not always popular Herbert is. In fact you could draw early comparisons with Ian Poulter, who beat McIlroy here in 2021.
Herbert arrived after two rounds in the eighties at Sawgrass and while he did explain that he had a neck issue as well as some personal problems that week, I do still have my doubts about his ability to go all the way in this competition. At some stage his waywardness will return and be too much to overcome and it seems likely that’s the case against McIlroy, who seems to have found the key to his driver.
Note that McIlroy and Cantlay are the two players who’ve putted worst among the top few performers so far. Improvement is possible but for either to win it will surely be necessary. For now, McIlroy can come through against a dangerous but unreliable opponent.
Kurt Kitayama v Andrew Putnam (1341)
Another big-hitter versus hot-putter match and it’s one I expect Kitayama to win. The Bay Hill champion can take great heart from the way he downed Tony Finau and then held firm in a play-off on Friday and he ranks third in SG total so far.
Putnam, who was 22nd in that category over the first three days, says he feels his long-game is improving with every passing round. The stats however tell us he’s the only player who qualified by playing three matches (i.e. excluding Homa) but lost strokes both off-the-tee and with his approaches.
Having generally been out of sorts coming in, and against an opponent who has his invite to Augusta secured, I suspect this is where Putnam’s week ends.
Cameron Young v Billy Horschel (1352)
Finally, Young takes on 2021 champion Horschel, who toppled Jon Rahm on Friday and now seeks to take out the best player in the field so far.
Young has been sensational, particularly with his approach play, and the gap between his strokes-gained total and that of Horschel has been over three shots per day. On form so far, he’s fully entitled to be an odds-on favourite.
Of course, match play golf doesn’t always go to plan, as Finau and Rahm found out yesterday, but Horschel’s swing changes leave him vulnerable against a world-class youngster who can bully him off the tee.
Posted at 0745 GMT on 25/03/23
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