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Bohls: Underdogs survive in the wonderful, wacky WGC-Dell Match Play

Kirk Bohls
Austin American-Statesman
Spain's Sergio Garcia runs up the No. 14 fairway during a round of 16 match Saturday in the Dell Match Play tournament at Austin Country Club.
  • Six of the eight WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play quarterfinalists were seeded 30th or worse.
  • Third-seeded Jon Rahm remained the only golfer in the top 20 who was still alive.
  • Scottie Scheffler making a push for his first PGA Tour victory in his career.

Austin doesn’t take its unofficial motto lightly.

Or its golf.

So in keeping with its quirky host city, the World Golf Championship-Dell Technologies Match Play has kept it weird. And highly competitive.

And to play off a recent popular PGA Tour slogan, it’s been weirder than most.

In this tournament’s brief five-year history, there hasn’t been a more unorthodox Dell Match Play event than this one, and that’s even with the bizarre quality that match play tournaments can often feature.

How weird has it been?

Golden:Jordan Spieth showed some signs at Dell Match Play but drought continues

So odd that six of the eight quarterfinalists were seeded 30th or lower, but then, there hasn't been a two-time winner on the PGA Tour all season.

It didn't get any more normal Saturday.

And Texas' Scottie Scheffler, who has yet to win on the PGA Tour, knocked off third-seeded and former No. 1 in the world Jon Rahm 3 and 1 late Saturday, and 31st-seeded Frenchman Victor Perez downed Sergio Garcia 4 and 3 to become the first golfer to clinch a spot in Sunday's semifinals.

Scottie Scheffler hits off the fifth tee during a first round match at the Dell Technologies Match Play Championship golf tournament Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in Austin, Texas.

Get this:

Gone by the weekend were 18 of the top 20 players in the world, including No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Justin Thomas and pretty much every other hot golfer you care to name. At No. 30, Scheffler is the highest remaining seed in the field.

Ian Poulter shot a Saturday round of 3 under par. And lost.

Poulter was also decked out in a lilac shirt and pink pants. OK, so that’s more the norm. Nothing to see there.

Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth advanced to the round of 16 for only the second time in five years and failed to move on, while Scheffler, who’s still seeking his first PGA Tour win in his two years, keeps on playing through. He's been so dominant, he didn't trail for a single hole against Rahm and on the day made 15 birdies in 31 holes.

South African Dylan Frittelli, another Texas ex, was the last entrant into the field of 64 and first to advance but never got into a groove Saturday morning and fell decisively to Tommy Fleetwood 4 and 3. 

Tommy Fleetwood watches as his eagle putt attempt misses the cup on the No. 6 green during a quarterfinal match Saturday.

As for Fleetwood, Mr. Calm buried an ace on the par-3 fourth hole Saturday. And didn’t even react. Or was that a yawn? Talk about missing out on a photo op.

Of the eight players who won their early Saturday matches and moved into the final eight, six were seeded 30th or worse, and Matt Kuchar (52) and Brian Harman (54) were in the last dozen players ranked. 

But the last two Dell winners were seeded 48th (Kevin Kisner in 2019) and 35th (Bubba Watson in 2018), so that’s another pattern that might continue. They’re all good.

On Saturday, Watson birdied four of his first six holes and led 4 up after five holes. And lost.

Harman, who eliminated Watson in an all-Georgia Bulldog, all-lefty confrontation, did the honors with eight birdies in a row. It would have been an eye-popping nine, but his 19-foot offering on the 14th green needed one more ball rotation. 

“It's nice to get the best of him today,” Harman said of Watson, “because I think he's about 10-0 against me.” Make that 10-1.

Spieth birdied the first two holes, then scuffled with his putting the rest of the day for the most part, leaving nearly every roller short. His four-year drought continues, but he’ll have another chance in the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio next week, his last tuneup before the Masters.

Thirteen major champions showed up at Austin Country Club on Monday. Only Sergio Garcia remained late Saturday, and he fell to obscure but talented Frenchman Victor Perez, the 31st seed.

If it was strange, it was going to happen this week. 

We got hail Wednesday night.

Bryson DeChambeau on Friday ricocheted a tee shot at No. 10 off an oak tree limb and onto the adjacent putting green.

Heck, Dustin Johnson even got a lecture from Kevin Na on golf etiquette Friday. 

That’s how it went.

Upsets ruled the week, which is the beauty — and the bite — of match play.

That strangeness trend continued Saturday when Spieth, who has regained his form this season, bowed out of the competition against Kuchar, a former WGC champion and the 2019 finalist to winner Kevin Kisner, on the pivotal 18th hole. But second-year Tour player and former fellow Longhorn Scheffler, who’s going to win a major or two someday, remains in the field by reaching the semifinals.

Scheffler continued his weeklong tear. And he’s been battle-tested but never trailed for a single hole against Rahm.

He’s been dominant with crisp, accurate drives and outstanding putting, and he’s playing stress-free in group play.

He never trailed a single hole in his opening-round victory over 2016 Dell champion Jason Day either and was never farther behind than 1 down against Andy Sullivan. Scheffler was pushed to the limit by Xander Schauffele, 3 down after 13, but he won three of the next five holes to prevail

To even advance to the quarterfinals, Scheffler had to hold off Poulter, a match-play machine, 5 and 4. The former Longhorn put on a clinic Saturday, staying aggressive and forcing the Englishman to try to keep up.

“I kept the intensity up all day,” Scheffler said. “You could tell by the look in his eye that he wasn't giving in at all. He was just waiting for a spark.”

Poulter had his chances but never could come up for air.

It was so frustrating for Poulter that he rolled in long-distance putts of 42 and 35 feet on the back nine. And halved both holes. That’s how clutch the dynamic Scheffler has been.

Scheffler was last year’s PGA Tour rookie of the year for a reason and might be closing in on his first victory.

So it wasn’t surprising when he was locked in a battle with the third-seeded Rahm, the only top seed in the 16 groups to advance to the knockout stages on the weekend, and led 2 up through 11 holes of their quarterfinal match. The Spaniard was also the only one of the top 20 ranked players to keep playing. The new norm, if you will.

“That shows, I mean, at this stage of the tournament nobody is giving it to you,” Rahm said. “You have to win it.”

Nothing strange about that.