Two former Georgia Bulldog golfers are headed toward a possible clash in the finals of the WGC Match Play Championship today at Austin Country Club.
Bubba Watson and Kevin Kisner won their quarterfinal matches decisively Saturday afternoon after narrow victories in the morning over a pair of St. Simons Island residents, one of whom is also a fellow ex-Bulldog.
Both players face tough opponents in this morning’s semifinals, as Watson faces Justin Thomas, the second-seeded player in the field, and Kisner takes on 13th-seeded Alex Noren of Sweden.
Watson won the first four holes on the back nine to defeat Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat 5&3 in the quarterfinals, while Kisner demolished England’s Ian Poulter, one of the most successful match play competitors in recent history, 8&7 to advance to the semis.
Earlier Saturday, Watson scored a 2&1 victory over Brian Harman, one of three former Bulldogs to win his four-man group and advance to the round of 16, while Kisner needed a birdie on the final hole to edge former Georgia Tech star Matt Kuchar 1-up in one of the best matches of the tournament.
Six golfers with Georgia ties were among the 16 players to advance beyond the round robin stage of the tournament. Augusta native Charles Howell won his group for the second straight year, but lost 1-up Saturday morning to Aphibarnrat, who birdied the last two holes to erase a 1-down deficit. Former Augusta State standout Patrick Reed had nothing left in the tank after defeating Ryder Cup teammate Jordan Spieth the day before to win their group and lost 5&3 to Noren in the fourth round.
A total of 10 players with Georgia ties competed in the Match Play Championship. St. Simons’ Zach Johnson and Patton Kizzire, Macon native and former Georgia Bulldog Russell Henley, and Luke List, who grew up in north Georgia, all failed to make it out of the round robin stage.
Kisner, a native and resident of Aiken, S.C., just across the Savannah River from Augusta, went 2-0-1 in his group, which included top-seeded Dustin Johnson. Kisner managed a half in his first match against Canada’s Adam Hadwin, letting a late lead slip away with a bogey at the par-3 17th. He followed with a decisive 5&4 win over Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger, going 3-up after six holes with four straight birdies beginning at the third. He repeated that effort the next day against Johnson, talking a 4-up lead after six with three birdies to hand Johnson his third straight loss, winning 4&3.
In the fourth round Saturday morning, Kisner and Kuchar staged a birdie battle, with Kisner carding eight birdies and Kuchar six. Kisner briefly led by two holes on two occasions, but a pair of late bogeys enabled Kuchar to square the match going to 18. Kisner responded with a clutch birdie at the 18th to take the match, which featured a three-hole stretch on the back nine when all three holes were halved with birdies.
Kisner did not have to work nearly as hard in the afternoon against Poulter, who had won four straight matches before finally hitting the wall. Kisner was 6-up after nine with three birdies and a concession, and ended the match two holes later. Kisner was seeded 32nd in the field and was the last player to make it into the “B” group for players seeded between 17 and 32.
Kuchar went 2-0-1 to win his group, and was also involved in the most dramatic match from the opening day. He squared off against fellow St. Simons resident Zach Johnson and the two halved the match, combining for 15 birdies. Kuchar led 4-up after six birdies over the first 11 holes, but Johnson birdied five of the last six, including the final four in succession after being 4-down with four to play.
In his second match, Kuchar jumped out to a 3-up lead after four holes against Japan’s Yuta Ikeda, who rallied to pull even after 16 holes before a bogey at the 17th gave Kuchar a 1-up victory. Kuchar put together a blistering stretch of golf midway through his match against England’s Ross Fisher, going 8-under in a 10-hole stretch highlighted by a hole-in-one to win 6&4 and advance to the knockout stage. Kuchar was seeded 16th, the lowest seed among the “A” players.
Watson also went 2-0-1 to win his group, starting with an impressive 5&3 rout of South Africa’s Brendan Grace in his opening match. Watson was 6-up after nine holes thanks to seven birdies, and coasted from there. He followed with a 3&2 victory over Australia’s Marc Leishman, taking a 2-up lead on the front nine with an eagle at the fifth and birdies at 7 and 8. Leishman pulled even after 11, but handed Watson the next three holes, with Watson ending the match with an eagle at the 16th.
In his final round robin match, Watson got a surprising battle from Julian Suri, the last player in the field as an alternate. Watson was 1-down at the turn before taking the lead with birdies at 10 and 12. Suri won three of the next four holes to take a 2-up lead and could have forced a playoff with Watson to advance to the knockout stage had he won the match. But Watson, the “C” player in his group at No. 35, birdied 17 and 18 to halve the match and advance.
Harman matched Watson’s 2-0-1 record in round robin, beginning with a half against Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas, who trailed for most of the match before closing with a birdie at the 18th. Harman led all the way in his second match, carding six birdies to defeat Peter Uihlein 3&2. Needing to beat Rory McIlroy to advance, Harman rolled to a 5&3 victory over the No. 6 seed with five birdies and two concessions.
Harman’s usually reliable putter failed him in his fourth round loss to Watson, who took a 3-up lead after an eagle at the 12th and held on as Harman was unable to capitalize on several birdie opportunities. Harman was seeded 18th.
Howell scored one of several upsets the first day of the matches, defeating Phil Mickelson 3&2. Howell, one of the lower seeds in the field at 59, was all square with Mickelson after nine holes, but broke the match open with winning birdies at holes 10, 12 and 13. He trailed 1-down after nine against Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello, but won holes 14, 15 and 17 to take the match 3&1. Needing a win or draw in his third match to avoid a playoff with Mickelson, Howell played a bogey-free round against Japan’s Sotashi Kodaira to win 2&1.
Aphibarnrat never led in his match against Howell until his winning birdie at the 18th, with Howell leading after 13 of the first 17 holes. Howell was 2-up after nine before birdies by Aphibarnrat at 12 and 13 squared the match. Howell regained the lead with a birdie at 14, and had a chance to go 2-up with two holes to play. But he missed a 5-footer for birdie at 16 and missed again from inside 10 feet on the 18th after Aphibarnrat holed his birdie putt of similar length.
Reed went 3-0 in round robin, beginning with a 3&2 win over China’s Haotong Li despite managing just two birdies in the match. Reed won a back-and-forth match 1-up against South Africa’s Charles Schwartzel in the second round, taking an early 1-up lead with consecutive birdies at holes 4, 5 and 6. Schwartzel won the next three holes with the aid of a pair of Reed bogeys, but Reed took a 2-up lead by winning holes 13, 14 and 15, two of them with pars. Schwartzel closed within 1-down going to 18, but Reed almost jarred his approach shot on the short par 4 to close out the match.
The much-anticipated Reed-Spieth showdown turned out to be mostly a dud, as Spieth opened with back-to-back double bogeys. Reed had just one non-concession birdie over the first 10 holes and Spieth rallied to even the match. Spieth fell down 3-down after 15 following two bogeys and a Reed birdie, but stayed alive with a birdie at the 16th. Reed took the match 3&1 when he holed a 40-footer on the 17th for just his third birdie of the match.
Reed carded just one birdie in his loss to Noren and was never close after falling 3-down at the turn. Reed was seeded 19th.
Of the four Georgians who failed to win their group, Henley was the only one to have a chance to advance. He lost 1-up in his first match against Paul Casey, coming to the 18th all square before a bad break with his tee shot cost him the hole. Henley stayed alive with a 2&1 win over England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick after being 2-down after seven holes. Needing to beat Kyle Stanley to get into a playoff with Casey, Henley took the lead with a pair of birdies early on the back nine and was again all square going to 18. Henley, seeded 51st, missed a 13-footer for birdie and Stanley made his from 8 feet to take the match and advance when he defeated Casey in a playoff.
After his epic comeback against Kuchar, Johnson was eliminated when he lost 2-up to Fisher and tied Ikeda in his final match.
Kizzire and List were paired in the same group, but both lost their first two matches to Thomas and Francesco Molinari. Kizzire seeded 48th, defeated List 4&2 to take third in the group. List, seeded 60th, drew some attention from his 2-up loss to Thomas in the first round, putting with a wedge over the final 11 holes after damaging his putter and having to take it out of play. List was 3-down when he had to abandon his putter, but closed within one hole when he birdied holes 13, 15 and 16. Thomas birdied the 18th to win 2-up.