AUSTIN, Texas — Golf’s most fickle tournament delivered its usual dose of oddities Wednesday in the Dell Technologies Match Play, including the fortunes of Maverick McNealy.
The last man to get in the 64-man field, he was the first to close out his match.
McNealy, who got into his first World Golf Championship only when Sam Burns decided to withdraw after his victory Sunday at Innisbrook, tied for the third-shortest match in tournament history with an 8-and-6 rout over Riviera winner Joaquin Niemann.
“I was home last week, really hoping I’d get the chance to play, preparing like I was going to get a chance to play,” McNealy said. “And had a nice round today, for sure.”
He was 4 under through seven holes and already 5 up against Niemann, and McNealy closed him out on the 12th hole when the Chilean golfer conceded his 18-foot birdie putt.
It technically wasn’t the shortest match of the day. No one had an easier time than Corey Conners, who played only two holes when Paul Casey had back spasms and conceded the match. Casey remained in the Match Play, hopeful of playing his next two matches.
Six of the top eight seeds won their first match, while Patrick Cantlay earned a halve against Keith Mitchell when both missed birdie putts in the 10-foot range on the final hole. The exception was Justin Thomas, who made only one birdie after the opening hole and lost, 3 and 2, to Luke List, who had a 1-5 record in this tournament.
Wins and losses were secondary to the bizarre circumstances of a sprinkler head.
Thomas Pieters of Belgium hit a long pitch that ran down the slope of the 13th green and was headed for the water when it settled in a sprinkler head. That looked like a good break except that his ball was touching the red paint of the hazard line, so no relief was given.
All he could do was whack at with a sand wedge in frustration — Tom Hoge already had made a birdie — though it had a happy ending when Pieters won the match.
An hour later, Bryson DeChambeau was in the spot — and he was given a free drop.
A change in the ruling can only happen in this format because it’s not players against the entire field, rather players going head-to-head. Each match is its own tournament.
Chief referee Gary Young said the red paint is supposed to go around the sprinklers. In this case, it touched the side. Once officials realized the problem, they went to redo the paint. He said the crew was on its way when DeChambeau’s chip landed in the same sprinkler hole.
The official was instructed to provide relief.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right. To make the correction before Bryson’s match got there was important,” Young said.
DeChambeau, playing for the first time since Feb. 4 at the Saudi International because of injuries to his left hand and left hip, wound up halving his match with Richard Bland. It was hardly a thing of beauty. Five holes were halved with bogeys.
“I know I can play golf. That’s first and foremost,” DeChambeau said to Golf Channel. “I don’t have to one-hand it all day. Although I was very cautious. There was a lot of drives out there I felt really bad because it’s not going the places I want it to go just because I’m not confident with how my wrist will go through it. That will get ironed out over time.”
His match wasn’t the only pillow fight.
Jordan Spieth halved a hole after hitting his tee shot into the water on the 13th, only because Keegan Bradley‘s chip from behind the green went into the water. Spieth took his first lead on the par-5 16th when Bradley’s second shot caromed off a hill and went out of bounds.
But it was a win for Spieth, just as it was for Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland, neither of whom were thrilled with how they played except for the outcome.
Scottie Scheffler, the No. 5 seed, had reason to be happy for getting past Ian Poulter, a match play wizard, for the second time in as many years. He took down Poulter in 14 holes in the fourth round a year ago on his way to reaching the championship match. This one went to the 17th, a match in which only three holes were halved.
“I was technically the highest seed versus the lowest seed in my group today, but if you looked at, like, gambling odds, I’m sure they probably weren’t a crazy disparity on who was supposed to win that match,” Scheffler said. “You never really know what’s going to happen in this tournament, so I don’t think the seeding is too important.”
But he’s getting a reputation, especially against Europeans. Including the Ryder Cup, Scheffler now has beaten Poulter twice and Jon Rahm twice in the past year.
Kevin Kisner, who has won the Match Play and been runner-up, had no trouble against Marc Leishman in winning his 17th match at Austin Country Club, the most of anyone.
The round-robin format among the 16 four-man groups resumes Thursday and Friday, with the winner from each group advancing to the knockout stage on the weekend.