When Mixed Martial Arts champion Alistair Overeem was once asked to predict the winner of his next fight, his response surprised reporters: "In general, heavyweight MMA is a 50-50 coin toss" While professional golf is a long way from cage fighting, head-to-head over 18 holes at WGC Match Play has been equally hard to predict in the past. How else can you explain the greatest match play player of all time (Tiger Woods) losing to Peter O'Malley and Nick O'Hern (twice) in this tournament? Tiger's Ryder Cup singles record is also uninspiring. As pro golfers like to remind us: "18 holes in a sprint not a marathon: but the golfing powers that be have changed the format of the format of the WGC Match Play in recent years to keep the upsets to a minimum. This ensures the top players make it through to the knockout stages on the weekend and boost the TV ratings. These days the top 16 players from the world golf rankings are placed in 16 World-Cup-style groups along with three lower ranked players. Everybody in the group plays each other and the winner of the group enters the draw to the last 16 beginning on Saturday.
If this format works, the top seeds - Dustin Johnson, Rory Mcllroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, et al. - should go through. But golf is played on grass not paper and Johnson will have to get out of the "group of death", while Day has no easy ride having to face Westwood, Perez and Leishman. Another favorite, Jordan Spieth, despite not being the strongest match play player - as we saw in the Ryder Cup singles - has the advantage of playing on the course he played as college player at the University Of Texas.
Possible top seeds going home after the group stage could be Johnson playing in the toughest group, Mickelson who has a surprisingly inconsistent match play record, Danny Willet who has struggled since clinching last year's US Masters, and Sergio Garcia: despite his good form this season and epic match against Mickelson at the last Ryder Cup. The following players could offer surprises this week:
Patrick Reed: who proved at the Ryder Cup he's a hell of a match play player
Thomas Pieters: despite missing the cut at Bay Hill he will enjoy playing match play again after his breakout performance in the Ryder Cup
Brandt Snedeker: no player will look forward to drawing one of the best putters in the field
Louis Oosthuizen: has a good record in this tournament and is as solid as they come
Gary Woodland: his booming drives carried him to the final in 2015
Rafa Cabrera Bello: another European rookie at the last Ryder Cup who is tough to beat in one-on-one match play