Dustin Johnson

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

A stacked field of 64 players has dwindled down to four at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. Most of the top players in the world were ousted early on, but one particular semifinal match presents plenty of intrigue: Justin Thomas vs. Bubba Watson.

Both Thomas and Watson cruised their way into the final four. Each player was pushed to play the 18th hole at Austin Country Club just once. Thomas won his Round of 16 match over Si Woo Kim, 6 & 5. Watson dismantled Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 & 3, in the quarterfinals. Each golfer’s game has been well-rounded this week, setting up for an electric semifinal match Sunday morning.

It’s no secret what both Thomas and Watson do best: drive the ball. Both players are nestled inside the top 10 in driving distance this season. Watson is fourth at 316.2 yards per drive, and Thomas is third at 312.5 yards per tee shot. The gallery at ACC might stop to wonder if they’re watching a match play event or a long-drive competition.

Jason Day, who’s 11th in driving distance at 312 yards per blast, and Dustin Johnson, who’s widely considered as one of the best drivers on TOUR, are the past two champions of this event. Going deep yields a distinct edge at ACC, and it’s a big reason why Thomas and Watson haven’t lost any matches this week.

“(Day and Johnson) are known for hitting the driver well, just like Thomas is doing right now — he’s been hammering it,” Watson said. “Anytime you’re hitting the driver somewhat straight, it’s an advantage.”

Watson compared being able to outdrive his opponents to NBA superstar LeBron James being able to jump higher than his adversaries. Watson’s edge won’t be as evident Sunday with Thomas vying to outdo him every time the two take their headcovers off.

Whoever lights it up and bombs enough fairways to advance will take on either Kevin Kisner or Alex Noren. Neither player cracks the top 40 in driving distance, but both are as steady as they come.

Kisner advanced out of group play by coming out of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s group. He made eight birdies in 1-up victory over Matt Kuchar in the Round of 16 before easily destroying Ian Poulter — who is notoriously known for being stellar in match play — 8 & 6. Kisner won six holes on the front nine in that match.  

“It’s starting to click now,” Kisner said. “I started seeing some stuff on Tuesday. I played a practice round with Daniel Berger and started seeing stuff that I hadn’t seen in a few weeks. That was starting to build the confidence there. And throughout the week I’ve gained a lot more confidence.”

Noren, meanwhile, knocked out the long-hitting, pure ball-striking Tony Finau to make the Round of 16. Then he beat Patrick Reed, who was fresh off a victory of former Longhorn Jordan Spieth on Friday. Noren clearly and cleanly outplayed Australia’s Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals in a 4 & 2 victory.

Johnson beat Noren in the quarterfinals at this event last year. He said he’ll keep the experience he gained from that loss in mind when trying to advance to the final match time around.

“It obviously helps,” Noren said. “The more times you’re up here, the better.

“It’s going to be a great day. It’s a fun course to play, especially match play.”

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

The winds were up at Austin Country Club on Friday, but the horns were down. All three former Texas players in the field failed to make the weekend matches at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play.

Jhonattan Vegas and Dylan Frittelli had already been eliminated before Friday’s matches began. Jordan Spieth, the most successful professional player of the three, played in a win-and-advance match with Patrick Reed.

Spieth’s head-to-head bout with Reed drew the largest gallery of any match through the first three days of competition. Most of them supported Spieth, but they went home unhappy when Reed beat the fan favorite 2 & 1 with a clutch birdie putt from behind the green on the par-3 17th.

Spieth’s gone, but he’s not alone. Here are four other storylines from pool play at the Dell Match Play:

Defending champion Dustin Johnson strikes out

The No. 1 player in the world cruised to a victory in this event last year, never losing a match all week. This year, Johnson failed to win at all. He went 0-3-0 in a group with Kevin Kisner, Adam Hadwin and Bernd Wiesberger.

It’ll be interesting to see how Johnson fares at the Masters in two weeks. Last year, Johnson withdrew from the Shell Houston Open to rest the week before playing Augusta National only to withdraw from the Masters as well after he fell down a flight of stairs and injured his back.

Big names fail to make the weekend

Many of the games biggest stars will be leaving Austin earlier than they anticipated. In addition to Johnson and Spieth, Tommy Fleetwood, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm were all seeded in the top 10 but failed to make it to Saturday.

Phil Mickelson, who generated crowds that rivaled those of Spieth this week, is also without a Saturday tee time despite winning his match on Friday. For those not playing next weekend in Houston, this was a final tune-up for the Masters. Mickelson, however, will ride into H-Town having played better on days two and three in Austin than he did on Day 1.

“It feels good to come back and win these last two matches, even though I’m not advancing,” Mickelson said. “But it goes back to the first day. You need to be ready to play from Day 1, because the opportunity to be eliminated is there.”

Matt Kuchar fires an ace at No. 7

Last year, Hideto Tanihara hit a hole in one on No. 7 in the consolation round on Sunday. Plenty of players have had much worse fortunes attacking that pin this year. Many have left their tee shots short during all three days of play, making for a tough pitch out of the sand.

Not Matt Kuchar.

He took advice from his own Skechers commercial, in which he says, “I find the best place to position your drive is at the bottom of the cup.”

It took awhile for the ball to roll in from the center of the green, but Kuchar’s tee shot eventually dropped in the hole, causing a roar to shake the grounds at ACC.

“When I hit the ball, I knew it was a good line and had potential to be close for a good-looking birdie,” Kuchar said. “As it kept rolling, it kept getting closer and closer and finally it disappeared. And it was fun to be up at elevation and see the ball the entire way and see it disappear. That's always a special thing in the game of golf.”

Sweet 16 matchups and tee times

Both the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals will be played on Saturday. Here are the eight matches slated to get the day started on Day 4 of the Dell Match Play.

(16) Matt Kuchar vs. (32) Kevin Kisner

(58) Ian Poulter vs. (25) Louis Oosthuizen

(46) Cameron Smith vs. (12) Tyrrell Hatton

(13) Alex Noren vs. (19) Patrick Reed

(2) Justin Thomas vs. (50) Si Woo Kim

(45) Kyle Stanley vs. (7) Sergio Garcia

(18) Brian Harman vs. (35) Bubba Watson

(59) Charles Howell III vs. (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat