It happens to DiCaprio. It happens to Lady Gaga. Hell, even after all these years, it still happens to Tom Brady. After every great performance, it’s inevitable that someone will ask “What will they do for an encore?” After the high-quality drama at the past four WGC Dell Technologies Match Play tournaments at Austin Country Club, anticipation is understandable.
In 2019, Tiger Woods joined a field that boasted 64 of the top 66 players in the world while facing questions about whether his body would hold up or if his game was really trending in the right direction. When he survived the preliminary rounds to set up a Saturday morning showdown with Rory McIlroy, Austin became electrified for a match up of Goliaths from different generations.
When Woods closed out McIlroy 2 and 1 in spectacular fashion, he gave fans an inkling that he was prepared for The Masters, which he would go on to win two weeks later. That Woods was eliminated in the next round by Lucas Bjeergaard or that Kevin Kisner would top Matt Kuchar in the final, while amply entertaining, seemed to pale in comparison to the Woods’ promising run at a venue he’d never played in his professional career. Tigermania brought fresh eyes and record attendance to Austin Country Club in 2019 and the striking Pete Dye design was more than ready for its close up. And, by all accounts, the golf course and the tournament’s officials are ready to put on a big show again this year.
The Austin Chamber of Commerce couldn’t have asked for better branding than way Austin Country Club shows on television. The views from the 12th tee and the fairway, which cascades down to an inlet of Lake Austin with the iconic Pennybacker Bridge framing the background, are now etched into the memories of millions of golf fans. But that’s far from the only dramatic panorama showing off ACC’s rugged beauty and incomparable Hill Country setting.
As enticing as the holes along Lake Austin are, it could be argued that the holes that play perilously along rocky cliff edges on the property’s easternmost border, like holes 2, 3, 4 and 17, are equally, or more, thrilling in terms of the shot values and unspoiled natural locales. Here’s as good a place as any to acknowledge that the nines are reversed (for strategy, drama, logistics and in a stroke of pure genius) for the playing of the Dell Technologies Match Play, so we’re referring to the holes here in their reversed sequence.
Since its founding in 1899, there have been three different Austin Country Club locations. The nine-hole course just north of town known today as Hancock Park Golf Course was the site of the original ACC and served as such until 1949. The club moved to Austin’s east side off of Riverside Drive and lasted there for 35 years, leaving legacies of Harvey Penick as its longtime professional and his pupils Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite cutting their competitive teeth there.
The club moved to its current location on a 180-acre expanse of Davenport Ranch in 1984 and brought in Pete and Alice Dye, who were at their commercial and creative peaks, to craft the golf course which would wind through an uncommonly inspiring land. They transformed the ranch land into a tough-willed test of golf that would challenge even the most skilled players. Forced carries, discombobulating sidehill lies and a diabolical system of bunkers were placed over a routing with tremendous rise and fall and an unabated exposure to the Texas Hill Country’s most raw features.
I also never noticed on the scorecards and yardage books until recent years that Austin Country Club knocked it out of the park in giving its holes THE BEST, most clever and distinctive nicknames. Last Mesa? Earth’s Edge? Glensatan? Tumbleslope? Puzzle Landing? C’mon… These are tremendous names for Neil Young albums, but even better names for golf holes.
Holes two, three and four, two demanding par 4s and a short, forced-carry par 3 (easily one of the most scenic in Austin) play along the edge of a rocky canyon, so matches can swing in favor of the straight hitter who excels at placing the ball very early in the proceedings. Another swing hole on the opening nine is the par-5 sixth hole which plays nearly half a stroke under par during the Dell Match Play and yields 10 or 12 eagles almost every year. By contrast, the 498-yard par-4 eighth plays to a scoring average above 4.2 and has consistently been the site of 60-plus bogeys each year.
“The PGA Tour likes the course to play firm and fast the week of the tournament. Our superintendent Bobby Stringer and the PGA Tour agronomists will work closely together, but the conditions even in February were as good as they’ve ever been this early in the year,” says longtime head golf professional Dale Morgan.
A pivotal stretch starts at the severely downhill par-5 12th. It’s not uncommon to see pros hit drives that roll out past 400 yards but an approach to a narrow green pinched by water left makes this unforgettably beautiful hole impressively strategic. The next hole, the 317-yard, par-4 13th is a fascinating place to watch matches. Seeing players situationally try to drive the green or attempt to land a lay-up shot in the small landing area, can prove endlessly entertaining. Tiger Woods hole-out eagle shot provided one of the signature moments of last year’s event.
“When you start down holes, 12, 13 and 14, that’s where many matches come alive. It’s always interesting to see how golfers handle these lower holes because they’re faced with so many strategic decisions.”
The par-5 16th hole is and uphill test with bunkers lurking in strategic spots in its landing areas. A par-5 this late in the has proven a pivotal spot in many matches as has the next hole, a short par three that features a tiny putting surface that requires an all-carry approach over a treacherous canyon’s edge.
Austin Country Club’s finishing hole plays only 368 yards and features a significant downslope for golfers who can carry a large ridge in the fairway. Doing so guarantees no bargains, however. The second shot plays straight uphill from a deep Valley of Sin-like depression in the fairway. Birdies can be plentiful here as can the opportunities for embarrassment if you don’t play your approach cleanly.
“This golf course was built around the same time as TPC Sawgrass and is actually similar in the movement of the greens. When players get to the greens, that where the challenge really begins,” Morgan says.
The current #1 player in the world, Rory McIlroy agrees that the greens at ACC can be the toughest part of navigating a round there.
“I think you’d see a lot of guys get frustrated if this was a stroke play tournament because of the green complexes,” McIlroy said in 2017. “I played a nine-hole match with Andy Sullivan on the back nine, and there were some pins you couldn’t get it within 20 feet of the hole, just because it was like a crown. You play it and you start to play it more in competition, it grows on you and you start to appreciate some of the different nuances of some of the greens”
As a spectator event, the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play has grown into one of Austin’s can’t-miss cultural events. The same way South By Southwest, Formula 1 Weekend and the Austin City Limits Music Festival have capture the imagination of locals as well as tourists, this golf tournament is now one of Austin’s top times and places to see and be seen.
From technology-driven activations to family-friendly attractions and music to raucous spectator areas and fans lining their boats along the 13th and 14th fairways, the Dell already has its own Uniquely-Austin traditions you could consider rites of spring.
March is in Austin is a sublime time that invariably reminds of past springs in this great city and deepens our appreciation for the area’s natural beauty. When the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play rolls into town March 25 – 29, be a part of the tradition and enjoy witness the skill and power of the game’s top 64 players.
Get your tickets at https://www.pgatour.com/tournaments/wgc-dell-technologies-match-play/tickets.html.
By Carl Mickelson