AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Dell Technologies Match Play has changed golf courses twice and the format once since the last time Tiger Woods played.
He still remembers what it takes to succeed.
“Still got to win matches and move on,” Woods said.
The opponent doesn’t really matter, as is the case with the rest of the field that begins group play on Wednesday at Austin Country Club.
Dustin Johnson is the No. 1 seed for the third straight year and could only name two of the other three players in his group. Paul Casey had to look at a sheet of paper to remember who he faced in the opening round.
It’s not a sign of disrespect as much as knowing this format is so fickle — 18 holes of match play — and the field in golf is so deep among the top 64 players available from the world ranking that there are no guarantees.
Johnson recalls falling into that trap of looking ahead.
“I’ve made that mistake of not thinking somebody was going to be a problem, and lost a couple of times, actually,” he said.
Johnson smiled before adding, “Maybe.”
Maybe he was talking about Mark Wilson, a short hitter who took down Johnson in consecutive years on the big-hitters course of Dove Mountain in Arizona. Either way, he knows the drill to emerging as the winner from each of the 16 groups to advance to the knockout stage on the weekend.
“It doesn’t matter what your rank is. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Johnson said. “If you don’t go out and play well that day, you’re probably going to lose. It’s pretty simple. So I don’t underestimate anyone I’m playing. I’ve learned that lesson.”
Woods lost to Charles Howell in the first round in 2013, the last time he played.
First up for the only three-time winner of this World Golf Championship is Aaron Wise, a former NCAA champion and the PGA Tour rookie of the year who won his first tour title in Dallas last year.
It’s easy to look ahead at possibilities, and for Woods to advance out of group play, there’s a chance he would face Rory McIlroy when the knockout stage starts. McIlroy first plays Matt Fitzpatrick, who outplayed him in the final group at Bay Hill three weeks ago (both were beaten by Francesco Molinari).
McIlroy won the Match Play when it first went to group play in 2015 at Harding Park. Johnson won at Austin Country Club two years ago in a performance so dominant that he never trailed at any point in the seven matches he won.
Woods created his aura by winning 80 times on the PGA Tour, most recently at the Tour Championship to end last season and cap off a remarkable comeback from four back surgeries. He also had a reputation for being particularly tough in match play.
His record is 45-16-2, minus exhibitions, and that includes 33-10 in this event. And it was clear after playing nine holes of practice Monday and Tuesday that he was ready to get started.
His only experience in the format since his last Match Play appearance was at the 2013 Presidents Cup (he beat Richard Sterne) and the 2018 Ryder Cup (he lost to Jon Rahm).
“That was the singles, one-on-one,” Woods said. “I really haven’t played a whole lot of match play since 2013 and I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the fact that I just get to focus on one guy. Each and every shot is different, and you don’t really care what the rest of the field is doing. I just have to beat the guy standing in front of me.”
Johnson, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and McIlroy are the top seeds, all with a chance to be No. 1 in the world by the end of the week, along with Justin Thomas (No. 5).
Home-course advantage should fall to Jordan Spieth from his three semesters playing for the Texas Longhorns, who used to be invited to play the course. That hasn’t helped Spieth much the last three times. He won his group in 2015 before losing in the Round of 16. The last two years, he was eliminated in group play by Hideto Tanihara and Patrick Reed.
More of the focus now is on his game. Spieth has missed two cuts and finished no better than a tie for 35th in his other four starts this year. But this week, it’s not about posting a score. It’s about winning matches with whatever score it takes on each hole.
“I feel good about my game right now,” Spieth said. “I got off to a bad start at The Players, but it’s been progressing nicely. Match play provides freedom to feel less protective swings and more trust if you are working on something.”