Watson never trailed from the opening hole in their semifinal match at Austin Country Club, and he pulled away early on the back nine. Thomas didn’t make a birdie putt until No. 9, and the only other putt he made was at the end of the match when Watson had 3 feet for birdie to win, 3 and 2.
The scenario was familiar to Watson. The only other time he had reached the semifinals of Match Play was in 2011 at Dove Mountain in Arizona when the reigning PGA champion, Martin Kaymer, beat him to reach No. 1 in the world. Watson was in good spirits for this match, and after a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 5 to go 2 up, he walked to the tee and said, “Just remember, I was beating No. 1 at some point.”
Thomas wasn’t No. 1 yet, and he won’t get another chance until the Masters.
The PGA champion wasn’t sharp off the tee, and Thomas was increasingly frustrated by putts that burned the edge. No one likes losing this deep in the tournament, but Thomas conceded being distracted at the additional prize — the No. 1 ranking — attached to a semifinal match.
“I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much. And that really sucked,” Thomas said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest. And I think you’re constantly getting questions about it with the media. But I need to be mentally stronger than that, and understand that it’s just a match.”
Watson will be going after his second World Golf Championships title, and his second victory this season with the Masters approaching.
Thomas simply couldn’t stop him, though he had his chances.
Thomas went into the water from an awkward lie on the par-5 12th, pitched to 6 feet and had a chance to escape with a halve and remain 2 down. His putt caught the left edge. His 12-foot birdie putt to win with the 13th again narrowly missed, and the force with which Thomas whipped the putter shaft onto his shoulder showed his frustration. He also missed from 15 feet on the next hole.
Then, it was simply a matter of time. His last hope was on the par-5 16th, and his second shot went through the green and onto a dirt path with a boundary fence right behind him. He tried to bump it with a fairway metal, but it never had a chance.
Thomas made the long birdie putt and had Watson make in his 3-footer for birdie.
“I made one mistake. I guessed wrong on No. 7,” Watson said of his lone bogey. “And then I made some putts early. And when you make putts early, you have a chance to get the lead. I just played solid and he didn’t make any putts.”
Neither did Noren, and it cost him dearly.
Kisner remarkably stayed in the match early, making a 30-foot birdie putt on No. 3 and a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 5, both times halving the holes with Noren in closer range for his birdies. Noren pulled ahead, only for Kisner to make a 50-foot eagle putt on No. 12 to square the match.
Noren had it in his hands. He had a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 17 to go 1 up and left it short. He had a 7-foot birdie putt on the 18th to win, and the putt never touched the hole. And then he made it easy on Kisner at the 12th, the first extra hole.
From just short of the green, Noren’s putt was so weak that it peeled away quickly to the left and nearly rolled off the green toward the water. He missed from 12 feet, and Kisner made birdie from 5 feet.
“He kept hitting it in there close, and if he probably would have made any of those putts, it could have been tough to come back from,” Kisner said. “Hung in there and made putts when I needed to and was fortunate to get a win.”
Noren missed six putts from about 10 feet or closer in regulation, two around the turn that kept him from building a big lead.
“It’s terrible,” Noren said. “I had so many chances.”
This was the eighth all-American championship match in the 20th year of this event, and the first since Matt Kuchar beat Hunter Mahan in 2013.