Unlikely WGC Match Play heroes emerge from the cauldron in Austin

Scottie Scheffler plays Matt Kuchar while Billy Horschel challenges Victor Perez in an intriguing set of semifinals at the Austin Country Club

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Matt Kuchar - PGA TOUR - Getty Images

28 March 2021: The WGC Match Play returned an unlikely selection of semi-finalists, with none of the top 29 men reaching there for the Sunday battles. Scottie Scheffler couldn’t get the picture out of his head. Sitting on the couch watching Ryder Cup’s with his father and seeing European Ian Poulter bury putt after putt to sink the Americans.

Then there was the time in 2012 that he played the Junior Ryder Cup at Olympia Fields in Chicago while the big boys were at battle at nearby Medinah. But Scheffler was on his way home to Texas on Sunday and in the airport watching as Europe mounted an epic fightback. Poulter was again leading the way.

Those visions sat there for Scheffler Saturday morning as a carrot while he prepared to play the wily veteran. I can beat this guy he thought – and he did it in style with seven birdies helping him to a 5 and 4 rout.

Before he could catch his breath he was back out on Austin Country Club – a place not unfamiliar for the former University of Texas Longhorn – to play against the new breed of European superstar in Jon Rahm.

This is a Ryder Cup year and there is no doubt U.S. captain Steve Stricker would have taken notice of his 3 and 1 dismantling of Rahm. It wasn’t just the fact he won – it was how he won. Scheffler posted up eight birdies and when Rahm came after him with birdies of his own down the stretch the Texan just matched them.

“I played some really good golf. I think I kept things bogey-free, and I got some early leads and made sure that I kept the pressure on those guys and made them feel like they had to do something special to beat me, which they weren’t able to do,” Scheffler said.

Scheffler won the Arnold Palmer Award as the PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year last season. He famously shot 59 during the FedExCup Playoffs and while he’s yet to win on TOUR, plenty of people have long suggested that’s just a matter of time for the 24-year-old.

He made a choice not to be intimidated by any situation on Saturday and he plans to do the same when he comes up against another veteran in Matt Kuchar in Sunday’s semi-final. There is no doubt he has the lion share of the crowd support and is riding the energy as far as he can.

“This is the position I want to be in at the end of the week,” Scheffler added. “I didn’t want to lose any matches and I have another great opponent in the morning. I’m looking forward to getting on the course with him.”

Kuchar showed grit and guile to come from behind to beat Jordan Spieth on the 18th hole in the round of 16 and then held off a tenacious finish from Brian Harman in the quarters. The 2013 champion was also runner up the last time the tournament was held in 2019 and sits behind only Tiger Woods for total wins.

The 42-year-old knows all the tricks of the match play trade and will prove a formidable roadblock for Scheffler’s dreams. A former U.S. Amateur winner and a veteran of Ryder and Presidents Cup teams, Kuchar seeks to join Woods, Ogilvy and Jason Day as multiple winners. And he would become the oldest winner should he get through to the trophy but says his legs aren’t dead yet.

“I can’t tell you how good I feel right now. I feel like I’m still floating,” Kuchar said. “There’s a high level of intensity and to come out on top, to make a 10-footer on the last to win the match, I feel incredible. Certainly a little easier tonight being done kind of 5 o’clock than it was last night being done after 7. So get a full night’s rest and hopefully a couple good matches tomorrow.”

On the other side of the draw Billy Horschel will meet Frenchman Victor Perez. Horschel came back from the dead to beat Tommy Fleetwood in a playoff when the Englishman sent a tee shot out-of-bounds. Now the former FedExCup champion has the chance to add another huge title to his resume.

As a five-time TOUR winner he’s no stranger to victories – but the last came in 2018. And while he does have a FedExCup title under his belt he is yet to win a WGC event. Recently he had the chance to win at WGC – Workday Championship at The Concession before finishing runner up to Collin Morikawa.

“Nothing changes. I know what tomorrow means. I know it’s no different than the final round,” Horschel said. “I’m not going to stress about it anymore, and I’m not going to worry about it. I’m just going to go play some golf and see where my game is and hopefully it’s good enough and I play well enough then I can move on and maybe hold a trophy tomorrow.”

As for Perez – he’s the wildcard who brings back memories of another French Victor. In 2014 Jason Day had to outlast Victor Dubuisson in the final in Tucson over extra holes when he kept making ridiculous par saves from the desert. Perez was a student in the desert himself in those days – as part of the golf team at the University of New Mexico.

“He got all the way to the top-15 in the world and played in the Ryder Cup and obviously did great things in World Match Play and bigger tournaments. It gave us the belief that it was possible back then and obviously I’m very pleased to be where I am today,” Perez says of his countryman.

There aren’t as many cacti around Austin Country Club, but this does represent a chance for the 28-year-old to emulate Dubuisson and leverage this tournament into a Ryder Cup berth. Having already won the Dunhill Links on the European Tour last year, Perez will move inside the top 20 players in the world if he wins in Austin.

“I’m a big believer in trying to get better at what you’re already good at and my trainer has this funny line he says, ‘Just kind of sharpening your sword. Don’t try to change your sword, just try to keep doing what you’re doing and do it a little bit better.’ That’s what I’ve been very disciplined on doing.”

All four know one thing. A career-changing moment awaits.

 

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