On his way to a fifth career WGC victory in the Dell Technologies Match Play a season ago, Dustin Johnson never trailed after any of the 112 holes he played, eventually defeating Jon Rahm in the final match, 1 up. Things went a little differently for the World No. 1 this week at Austin Country Club, where he won’t get a chance to defend his title after dropping his first two matches, including Thursday’s 4-and-3 defeat at the hands of Adam Hadwin (1-0-1).
Hadwin, who is making his first start this week in the Match Play, is no pushover, having earned his first victory a season ago at the Valspar Championship and making all 10 of his cuts this season, including three top-10 finishes. The Canadian took a 1-up lead early before Johnson squared the match at the fifth with a birdie, but Hadwin regained the lead with a birdie on the following hole and never relinquished it.
“I played extremely solid all day, obviously. I made the putts when I needed to keep the momentum on my side. I expected Dustin to play a lot better than he did, I think everybody did,” said Hadwin, who can at least guarantee himself a spot in a playoff to get into the final 16 by beating Bernd Wiesberger (1-1) in Friday’s final match. With some help from Johnson, who faces Kevin Kisner (1-0-1), winning outright would get him in.
“Fortunately there’s three of us still playing tomorrow. Unfortunately for Dustin, there’s really no chance of him moving on. So hopefully for my sake and Bernd’s sake, he comes out and plays Kevin well tomorrow. So our matche mean something, I guess. Still lots to play for and it will be fun.”
Rory McIlroy, another big name to fall on day one, is not done yet thanks to a 2-and-1 victory over Jhonattan Vegas (0-1-1). The Northern Irishman will take on Brian Harman (1-0-1) on Friday morning, also needing an outright win to keep his final 16 hopes alive.
“It’s out of my hands, unfortunately. I wish it wasn’t but if I go out tomorrow and win again, I have got a decent chance to progress. It will be an interesting Friday,” said McIlroy.
Fortunately for the viewers at home, there are several do-or-die matches that will provide drama and remove most of the confusing scenarios. The main event of course being Jordan Spieth (2-0) vs. Patrick Reed (2-0), a match made even better but some comments from Reed following his 1-up win over Charl Schwartzel.
Another match of intrigue will take place late on Friday morning between the reigning Masters champion and the 2017 PGA Tour rookie of the year, Sergio Garcia (2-0) vs. Xander Schauffele (2-0). Both players took down rising European Tour stars on Thursday, Garcia beating South Africa’s Dylan Frittelli, 2 up, and Schauffele defeating India’s Shubhankar Sharma, 3 and 1.
“It’s going to come down to that match with Xander. So excited about it. He’s obviously a very nice young player. And I expect that we’ll have a nice, hopefully a good match and see who comes out on top,” Garcia said.
Of Friday’s do-or-die matches, the one flying under-the-radar will be between Alex Noren (2-0) and Tony Finau (2-0), who will go off in the early afternoon. Noren made the quarterfinals in his first try here a year ago before running into the buzzsaw that was Dustin Johnson, while Finau is making his first appearance this year. They each made relatively quick work of their opponents Thursday, Noren, 5 and 4, over Thomas Pieters and Finau, 3 and 2, over Kevin Na.
“I kind of like it’s very direct, it’s only one guy going through. You have got to win it all. And it makes it very clear in your mind and you go out and try to win it. Today I needed to get a win today,” said Noren, adding, “Tony is such a good player. I played a lot with him this year. He hits so long and very consistent as well. I need to play as well as I did today probably.”
Finau had similar things to say about the nine-time European Tour winner.
“That’s going to be a great match, I feel. Obviously he’s playing some good golf. He’s won a couple of matches. I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. He spent a lot of time in the States this year. A great friend now, and we’re going to have a good competitive match tomorrow. I know he’s a fantastic player, and I think we’re both playing some pretty good golf. I expect to see the man that makes a lot of birdies tomorrow, he’s going come out on top. It will be a fun match.”
Justin Thomas (2-0) and Francesco Molinari (2-0) will also play on Friday for a spot in the final 16.
Among a group of players sitting at 2-0 and needing only to halve their matches on Friday to advance include Bubba Watson, Tyrrell Hatton, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey.