By Sam Belden
They say that match play is the most volatile format in golf, but is it really? The action at last week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play might lead you to think otherwise.
It’s not like the chalk won every match — if Hideto Tanihara and Soren Kjeldsen can advance to the knockout rounds over guys like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, then there’s still some unpredictability at play. But we can’t ignore the fact that out of a field of 64 players, the two who advanced to the finals are arguably the top names in the game right now.
Those names are Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm, both unbelievable talents who are just starting the latest chapters of their respective careers. Johnson, the world No. 1 and reigning U.S. Open champion, entered the week on the heels of back-to-back wins. Always a prodigious driver of the ball, the South Carolina native has made huge strides with his shorter clubs over the past year, and the results have been plain to see.
Rahm’s resume isn’t as good, but that’s more because of inexperience than anything else. Despite having made just 15 starts as a professional, the 22-year-old Spaniard rolled into town with the momentum from a recent win at the Farmers Insurance Open, as well as two other top five finishes over the last six weeks. For such a new professional, that’s a Spieth-like level of production.
Johnson and Rahm went head-to-head on Sunday at the Match Play, and it didn’t take long for fans to notice the similarities between the two. Both hit the ball a mile, both can dial it in with their irons and both are capable of piecing together stretches of ridiculously good golf. Case in point: Johnson managed to open up a five-hole lead through eight, but Rahm battled back to bring the match all the way to 18, where he made a par to lose by one.
Again, in a format that’s supposed to be unpredictable, we got a predictable result: Johnson’s game was more polished than his opponent’s, and with a decade of PGA Tour experience, he was much better at handling the pressure in the early part of the round. Rahm was my pick prior to the match — he was actually slightly better over the first few days of the event — but Johnson brought his A-game, and there’s no one in this world who can compete with that.
Ultimately, this showdown between superstars was more the result of the WGC-Match Play’s new structure than anything else. Since switching over to a World Cup-style, pool-based format in 2015, the No. 1 player has won it every time. That’s not just predictable — improbably, it’s the best identifier of talent on the PGA Tour.
I can’t say that I don’t miss the pandemonium that came with the win-or-go-home format that used to define the event — it was golf’s own version of March Madness. But if pool play continues to give us exhilarating matches like Johnson versus Rahm, then the change won’t be for nothing.