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PGA Tour bidding Austin Country Club a fond – and too soon – farewell

AUSTIN, Texas — So long, Dell Match Play.

Nice knowing you.

After Sunday’s final round concludes, Austin will say goodbye to the both cherished and cursed eight-year-old event, and it will be a sad farewell to a friend.

The mouthful of all golf tournaments, the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play, quickly became one of the more popular dates on the schedule among the players, fans and sponsors and remains so. Or did.

The event at venerable Austin Country Club has seen major champions such as Scottie Scheffler, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Jason Day loft the Walter Hagen Cup on Sundays but also an ultimate grinder, Kevin Kisner. But because of the beauty of the quirky format and the depth of the field, it’s never disappointed.

Little chance of that when you have, as this year, a tournament with 64 of the best 77 golfers in the world, minus the nine ineligible LIV players. It’s been a huge success that’s almost universally embraced by the players.

Match Play: Sunday’s Final 4, tee times

So it makes little sense that the WGC-Dell Match Play is going away for good after Sunday. In the city that always keeps it weird, how weird is that, especially since there are zero plans for the PGA Tour to replace it with another match play event elsewhere?

“I would love to see there still be a match play event at some point,” said Rickie Fowler, who didn’t make it out of group play. “I prefer kind of the 64 knockout (from the start). But it’s fun. We obviously wouldn’t want it every week just because of how volatile it is, but I would love to see a form of it be in the future on the Tour.”

Fowler’s sentiments have been pretty much shared by all in the field and most who have been associated with the event.

“It’s a bittersweet time,” ACC golf pro emeritus Dale Morgan said. “We’ve had a great run, and we’re going to have a great champion. And who knows? Maybe someday we’ll get another tournament here with a different format.”

It gave as much as we got, and I’m not just talking the $6 million donated to Dell Children’s Medical Center and First Tee. Upwards of 10,000 a day have walked through the gates to see golf royalty.

And while we’re used to saying goodbye to Austin institutions such as Threadgill’s and Armadillo World Headquarters and Hut’s and Players — the hamburger joint, not TPC Sawgrass — it’s incredibly sad to lose something so special. Just when the Austin metro area is neck-deep in international events and high-caliber sports such as South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Formula One racing, MLS soccer and Triple-A baseball and doesn’t really need more top-shelf stuff, the city is losing a remarkable sporting event.

But at least we still have pickleball. And, we hope, Muny.

We’ve seen our share of history.

We saw the tournament help launch the practically homegrown Scheffler as the game’s next superstar, a meteoric ascent for the Longhorn ex that spawned a Dell title to go with a runner-up finish and a Masters championship. He outlasted J.T. Poston with three late birdies for his ninth straight match victory here to advance into the Elite Eight, and there’s a lot of that going on these days.

On Saturday, Scheffler came within 2 inches of acing the 17th hole and beat Day 2 and 1 to win his 10th straight match and reach Sunday’s semifinals. He’ll face LSU ex and good buddy Sam Burns, who got the better of Mackenzie Hughes 3 and 2 to improve his record to 5-0 in his tournament debut. Burns toppled Scheffler in last year’s Colonial, beating him in a playoff with a 38-foot putt off the green.

“He is pretty competitive,” Scheffler said of Burns. “I’ve been taking him on my team in pickleball recently. Usually, when he gets on the other team I’ll beat him pretty handily in that one, so pickleball for me is not much of a challenge.”

Heck, Scottie’s almost as famous as Bijan Robinson, the Texas running back/Austin mayor who traded cellphone numbers with Tampa Bay’s new quarterback, Baker Mayfield, as he followed Scheffler on the back nine of his win over Poston on the final hole.

Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson follows the match between Scottie Scheffler and J.T. Poston during the fourth round of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Dustin Safranek-USA TODAY Sports

“I came out to support Scottie,” said Robinson, decked out in a bright burnt orange shirt. “He’s a Texas grad, and I’m just a sports fan. I love to watch golf.”

We saw Day break in the event with a stirring wire-to-wire victory in 2016 with a perfect 7-0 record during his five-day assault on the course but also tearfully withdraw to be with his mother battling lung cancer. But he bested Louie Oosthuizen for the title in ’16, and sponsor Michael Dell walked the back nine and openly worried that King Louie could win because “I’m not sure how to pronounce his last name.” Alas, Day won 5 and 4 to spare him concern.

We saw Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar feud for a moment over what’s a conceded putt and what isn’t, but they kissed and made up.

We saw Dustin Johnson bomb the layout and take down Jon Rahm, but we can’t remember if he ever even made it to the 18th green, he was so dominant.

We applauded Tommy Fleetwood’s ace on the par-3 fourth hole last year and Garcia’s the year before.

We’ve seen Scheffler and Jordan Spieth serenaded with “Texas Fight” from the party boats on Lake Austin.

“Even if I wasn’t winning I’d be sorry to leave this place,” Scheffler said, having won 10 straight matches here. “This is a great tournament and the fans here are amazing and it’s very fun to play in front of them. Yeah, we’re for sure going to miss this place a lot.”

Heck, we even witnessed the Tiger Woods Affect as golf’s No. 1 citizen graced us with his red-shirted presence and wowed us with an eagle from 82 yards out to whip Rory McIlroy in the Sweet 16 . Too bad he lost to Lucas Bjerregaard 1 up in the 2019 quarterfinals. McIlroy has survived in this year’s marathon and will square off against 15th seed Cameron Young, who’s yet to win on Tour but has five runner-up finishes.

This week we saw Scheffler continue his spectacular play without so much as a hiccup. He was one of five of the top 16 seeds — including three of the past five champions — to move on to the Saturday afternoon quarterfinals. All four semifinalists are ranked among the top 15 seeds in the Dell.

We’ve also observed Bubba Watson’s pink golf balls and experienced Ian Poulter’s candor, Paul Casey’s friendliness and Brooks Koepka’s gruffness.

We saw McIlroy speak out in favor of controlling the unfathomable distances with a tamer golf ball, then blast his tee shot from the 18th tee to the fringe just right of the green to edge 46th seed Lucas Herbert, who played masterfully after a horrific time at the Players.

But that’s the unpredictability of this unforgiving format.

“This 18th hole has been good to me over the week,” McIlroy said after holding off Herbert. “It would be nice not to have to play it.”

We cringed with every Spieth missed putt or watery tee shot as he came up short of the knockout stage once more and walked away with frustration.

We watched as match play master Bill Horschel didn’t trail in a match until Saturday’s fourth round and advanced to the Sweet 16 once more. But we waved a fond goodbye to 2021 champion and 2022 runner-up Kevin Kisner, who won only one of his three group play matches.

And after we watch Sunday’s drama, we’ll say goodbye to one of the coolest, kid-friendliest sporting events that has ever made Austin home, albeit far too briefly. The PGA Tour will pull up stakes and bid adieu to Austin Country Club because. … well, that’s a very curious subject.

The relationship soured in the past year because:

LIV Golf drastically altered the sport’s culture forever and its way of doing business
PGA Tour got greedy
ACC membership got greedy and tired of the course being shut down for four weeks a year for course prep and the tournament
Golfers got tired of Kisner and Horschel schooling them
It has to be Patrick Reed’s fault, right?
Some nonsense about elevated tournaments
It ran its course
Or, nothing lasts forever

Take your pick. But don’t blame Kiz or Billy. Has to be the Saudis’ fault.

It’s most likely a combination of confluences. The Tour stonewalled the club in negotiations for months after a great offer of $3 million from ACC. Some powerful ACC pooh-bahs didn’t want to renew the contract and never took any proposal to a membership vote. (Hey, it’s a private club.) Then there’s the drastic upheaval brought on by the no-cut, 54-hole, turn-up-the-loud-music, who-cares-who’s-watching-or-if-anybody-at-all-is-watching grinch that is LIV golf.

A shame, no matter where the fault lies.

It’s been a stirring event full of spectacular play and fascinating personalities and a captivating tournament that no doubt has inspired some 8-year-old to take up the game with hopes of becoming the next Scheffler.

It’s equally sad that the PGA Tour has no plans to stage a match-play event on next year’s schedule.

Golf needs this once-in-a-blue moon format, if not to better prepare Americans for play in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, at least to provide a change of pace for the golfers, an opportunity for the best in the world to compete and offer some different entertainment.

But we do get that it’s not the best ratings blockbuster on television since the format allows for only four golfers left standing for the Sunday semifinal and final.

Few love this event more than Day, who battled Scheffler head-to-head in the quarterfinals.

“I do (love it). It’s a great match play golf course,” Day said. “It just presents so well. The holes down on the water. It’s definitely going to be sad to see this go.”

It will because for seven straight days, Austinites can follow every shot by these top-flight golfers in person and then wonder why they can’t drive the ball as far as McIlroy on Monday.

As Herbert said before bowing out against McIlroy, “It’s just a lot of good positives to take into the future. But yeah, just sucks that I came up against the best player in the world today.”

True. But they’re almost everywhere you look on the course.

But only for one more day.

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