Allow this piece to be the official symbol of a return to sports in 2021, for the image of that normalcy is the bracket – the perfectly symmetrical conglomeration of 127 horizontal lines, one for every team and subsequent win. The wholly American pursuit of perfection manifested by taking our best, pitting them against one another and singly eliminating the weakest one-by-one until our bloodthirst for a true champion is satisfied.
Is it perfect? No. Is it objective? Sadly, not really. But damn it, it’s what we have. And we love the bracket.
And for the lucky few of us who geek out over both golf and college basketball, our sports worlds collide beautifully together each March with brackets for both. And for the geekiest of us all, I present to you our annual mashup, for entertainment purposes only, of the best golfers in the world with their NCAA Tournament doppelgangers. For this year, and this year only, here is how you can connect the dots between the guys swinging in Austin with the teams hooping in Indy.
The structure of this exercise has varied over the years, but felt most enjoyable when presented in matchup form, so there will be no reference to “Pods” from this point forward.
I also wanted this to have as many players as possible with matchups, so I wrote it before the tournament started. Obviously, that means before the Match Play draw is announced. I eliminated players we know won’t be there (Tiger, Wolff? and Koepka?), but kept in a handful that might not actually make it to Austin (Rose, Scott, English, Berger). I mean, an NCAA team might Covid themselves out of the tournament, so it works!!
1-Seed Gonzaga is Justin Thomas: We agonize year after year with justifying both of these as the best in the sport. The Zags win big when we aren’t paying close enough attention, beat up on their conference and then return to our consciousness. JT ho-hums his way to top 5s in big events and wins his fair share, but he ‘can’t beat Dustin Johnson’s A-Game.’ Why is it hard to simply recognize consistent greatness? 2021 is setting up to be the best year ever for both.
16-seed App State (hopefully beat Norfolk State) is JT Poston: The little engines that could from North Carolina
8-seed Oklahoma is Sergio Garcia: Let’s just take a moment to appreciate what Lon Kruger has done in his career, taking 5 teams to the tournament and just winning almost every year. It’s impressive. Take a moment to realize that Sergio, at age 41, has won a tournament every year for a decade and is second on Tour in strokes gained off the tee. Impressive, and not discussed enough.
9-seed Missouri is Robert MacIntyre: You know the name. You think you know how they earned their spot here, but you don’t really know them.
5-seed Creighton is Hideki Matsuyama: Capable of hitting a dozen from distance and beating the opponent by 30, and then capable of missing everything inside of 10 feet and blowing up your bracket before the ink dries. How many sequels of this movie have been made now?
12-seed UCSB is Russell Henley: It’s like looking in the mirror. The Gauchos score over 80 per game. Henley is a top 5 iron player on Tour right now. The rub? Henley was once, statistically, a fantastic putter. I smell an upset. (And yes, I too am upset I didn’t do more with Gauchos. I even tried to find any Central or South American player who once wanted to be a cowboy)
4-seed Virginia is Rory McIlroy: On top of the sport before the pandemic (Virginia is still the reigning champion), life post-Covid has not been as grand. The Cavaliers, as of the writing of this, were still stuck in protocols after a weird up-and-down season. Rory is going back to the drawing board to find his old swing. The thing is, you really like how they stuck to their strengths before and trust it will get better soon. In fact, you’re rooting for them.
13-seed Ohio is Si Woo Kim: You want to believe in this seed line, primed for an upset of a wounded opponent and ready for a big pay day. But predicting success here is like blindly throwing a dart at the wall.
6-seed USC is Cameron Smith: Maybe things are all starting to come together. Andy Enfield, he of ‘Dunk City’ at Florida Gulf Coast, seems to be establishing a nice rhythm in L.A., while Smith seems to be embracing the promise of his youth, while growing a head of hair that would blend in nicely on the SoCal piers.
11-seed Wichita State/Drake is Sebastian Munoz or Joaquin Niemann: Both golfers on career heaters and (as of the writing of this, didn’t know the winner of the game and didn’t bother to go back and edit it because…) you are picking them to win no matter what because you are still slow to trust that 6-seed. [I actually added too many golfers to the field anticipating WDs, so here we are with two studs that could win. One of them slides into the hole filled by the inevitable Adam Scott no-show. The magic of brackets!]
3-seed Kansas is Matthew Fitzpatrick: About as polished and consistent as you would want out of this seed line, but we’ve been burned before haven’t we? For that one title in 2008, the Jayhawks have more and more first round guffaws or early bounces. For every 65 Fitzy gets us on Thursday, that 72.14 final round scoring average (191st on Tour) is his Bucknell or Bradley.
14-seed Eastern Washington is Mackenzie Hughes: Likeable folk from the north
7-seed Oregon is Paul Casey: Market appeal and a pleasantly consistent annual participant, but what is the pathway back to elite status? The Ducks were a 1-seed in 2016. Paul Casey did win earlier this year, salvaging a ranking that was falling out of the top 20. Another peak or already summited pinnacle?
10-seed VCU is Lanto Griffin: I believe this is the second time I’ve hooked these two together, because, you know, alma mater matches are so much fun when it works out.
2-seed Iowa is Patrick Reed: There will be a very loud, yet small, group of fans cheering for both to win. Luka Garza is an unconventional national player of the year candidate. Reed is an unconventional lighting rod who happens to be playing great golf. Both teams ooze grit. One is coached by a guy who will scream his way to an ejection. The other is tiptoeing the line of ejection with each embedded ball.
15-seed Grand Canyon is Bubba Watson: Run it back for those with a sense of nostalgia. Bubba won this tournament. Grand Canyon is coached by Bryce Drew, who once won the media cycle with a 1998 buzzer beating play that now bears his name.
Okay, before we get to the East Region, we have to pay our respects to the teams/players that won’t be in your bracket in 2021:
- Brooks Koepka is Kentucky – The Alphas of the modern sport in style and swagger, the last year has been (mostly) a disappointment. Kopeka’s body just can’t get out of its own way, and neither can Kentucky’s freshmen. But, like Brooks’ win in Scottsdale, the moment you sleep on Coach Calipari, he will heal the wounds and be a 1-seed next year.
- Tiger Woods is Duke – The Alphas of the sport in general; Father Time is not kind. Will Tiger ever truly swing competitively again? Does Coach K want to figure out how to navigate the one-and-done reality of college hoops again after this season? Car crash is, tragically for one, figurative for the other, a descriptor of 2021 for both top brands.
- Phil Mickelson is Indiana – The glories of yesteryear are longer ago than die-hard fans want to admit. Lefty is chasing distance at 50, while the Hoosiers are chasing the ghost of Bob Knight in yet another coaching search.
1-seed Michigan is Dustin Johnson: Timeless in their greatness, being at the top of the sport is nothing new for either. Michigan was great (1989 champs) before they were popular. DJ’s win streak started in 2008, when Tiger was still king. The Fab Five transformed college basketball culture a few years later, the way DJ’s length ushered in golf’s most recent era. Today? These might be the best versions of either, with the Wolverines led by a former Fab Fiver (Juwan Howard) and DJ becoming the best in the sport not with his driver, but with his experience, irons and putter.
16-seed Mount St. Mary’s/Texas Southern is Andy Sullivan: Pray for them.
8-seed LSU is Victor Perez: Dangerous. The definition of how the modern game is going – Victor’s strength and LSU’s pro illegal recruiting – this is a potential bracket buster. Or just a bust.
9-seed St. Bonaventure is Christian Bezuidenhout: Long names that start with ‘B’ that you won’t be doing much research on before filling out your brackets.
5-seed Colorado is Ryan Palmer: Cruising along and playing well enough to turn some heads on this seed line. This is the Buffs highest-ever seed in the modern tournament. Palmer got as high as 24th in the world this year, which was one off a career best.
12-seed Georgetown is Jordan Spieth: This is an old-school freight train running down the tracks and ready to bust everybody’s bracket with the feel-good story of 2021. The Hoyas ran it back with legend Patrick Ewing at the helm, winning the Big East tournament and putting the sport on notice. Spieth ran it back to 2017, finding fairways again, flashing short-game flare and nearing the winner’s circle for the first time in a while.
4-seed Florida State is Daniel Berger: Is Berger the best Seminole in golf? Kinda hard to say ‘no’ to that. Is Florida State the best program in the ACC? This year they are. Yet, both seem underappreciated for just how tough, gritty and talented they are. You don’t want to see either on your side of the bracket, because you will leave bruised and, likely, beaten.
13-UNC Greensboro is Bernd Wiesberger: Just a name that hangs around this time of year. The Spartans are in the postseason for the fourth straight (available) year, while the Austrian has been a top 64 guy for every (non-2018) year since 2012.
6-seed BYU is Kevin Kisner: A very straight and proper line to life and golf. The Cougars won’t stray from their mission, while Kiz doesn’t stray from the fairway. Oh, and both have the talent in this format to get it done, as we already know.
11-seed Michigan State/UCLA is Jason Day: Once the top of the sport, feared and on the short list of potential champions, both of these brands are in limbo at the moment.
3-seed Texas is Lee Westwood: A massive brand without a big trophy. Shaka Smart has turned things around this year to make the Longhorns a sleeper Final Four team with serious athleticism. Welcome back, Shaka! Westwood has turned things around over the past year by investing in his own athleticism and finding joy again. Welcome back, Lee!
14-seed Abilene Christian is Matt Wallace: From the same state/country as the opponent, but not on the same level at the moment.
7-seed UCONN is Adam Scott: A past champion at the highest level just trying to find footing in a crowded 2021 space.
10-seed Maryland is Gary Woodland: A past champion at the highest level just trying to find footing in a crowded 2021 space.
2-seed Alabama is Xander Schauffele: Buried deep, deep in the shadows of a Nick Saban, football-dominated athletic department is a little basketball program of the Crimson Tide. A team so good this season to have 17 Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins (most of any team in the country) but zero spotlight. Buried deep beneath the shadow of DJ, Bryson, Rory and others is a well-rounded golfer that finishes top 5 against big fields regularly but still doesn’t get recognized in grocery stores.
15-seed Iona is Ian Poulter: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Rick Pitino is the coach who won’t quit. He just lingers. And guess what? He wins. Poults could still be a Match Play eligible player thanks to some field attrition and guess what? He wins matches.
1-seed Baylor is Bryson DeChambeau: At the beginning of the season, these were the most talked about and successful entities in each sport. Bryson dominated the US Open. Baylor was running the table in the Big 12. Then the Bears paused the season and lost some mojo. DeChambeau topped a tee shot at TPC Sawgrass and didn’t win on a Sunday in contention for the first time in a while. Fair? Absolutely not! Both are probably the best in the country, even though most fans don’t truly understand why or want them to succeed.
16-seed Hartford is Adam Long: Nobody EVER wants to be associated with the phrase ‘happy to be here,’ when it comes to competition, but let’s be honest… Hartford just made its first NCAA tournament, and Adam Long has no problem basking in the glow of WGC invites (if he sneaks in) after a journeyman career.
8-seed North Carolina is Justin Rose: Top seeds just a few years ago, is a spot in the middle of the pack a blip on the radar or the sign of changing times?
9-seed Wisconsin is Marc Leishman: Big, burly, talented and big fans of beer (and cheese curds; I’m guessing Marc is a big fan of cheese curds, too).
5-seed Villanova is Harris English: Riding high, getting respect and living large after climbing the mountain to the top (Nova winning it all in ’16 and ’18; English getting his Dub in Maui) both were flying towards this 2021 bracket with championship aspirations, but the Wildcats have lost multiple players to injury, including heart-and-soul leader Collin Gillespie. English has gone T32, MC, MC, 66, T26, WD since his win.
12-seed Winthrop is Scottie Scheffler: You want NOTHING to do with either of these, if you are the opponent. You should be scared. Winthrop is on a scorched Earth tour after a nearly perfect record was disrespected with this seed line. Scheffler knows Austin CC like the back of his hand (I think) and is due for a breakthrough.
4-seed Purdue is Tony Finau: There is not a single opponent either will face that is longer or deeper than the Boilers or Big Tone. Purdue can run out a 6-10, 7-4 combo, while Finau could actually take the club back to parallel and bludgeon people. BUT… will it work against elite competition?!? A million-dollar question nobody is able to answer.
13-seed North Texas is Carlos Ortiz: The pride of the Mean Green is real, especially Ortiz rounding into the best form of his career.
6-seed Texas Tech is Sungjae Im: National runner-up is a pretty hard resume line to top for any team from Lubbock, much in the same way Im’s run prior to the pandemic shutdown probably set expectations a bit too high at the restart. At the end of the day though, both are really solid as presently constructed.
11-seed Utah State is Kevin Na: Probably seeded too low, but Utah State has one tournament win since the field expanded to 64, and the unpredictability of Na winning or withdrawing makes him about as safe of a bet as the Aggies.
3-seed Arkansas is Patrick Cantlay: What Eric Musselman has done in a very short time at Arkansas has him on the short list of coaches to jump to even bigger jobs soon. What Cantlay has done with a short schedule of tournaments has him on the short list of best player to win a major next. Some wonder if the hype is real. Others, including yours truly, think this is just the beginning.
14-seed Colgate is Talor Gooch: Fresh!
7-seed Florida is Billy Horschel: Might be the easiest to root for in the entire field. The Gators in hoops overcame the terrifying injury to their star, Keyontae Johnson, who collapsed on the court and recovered after a lengthy hospitalization. The Gator in golf, Billy Ho has endured his own ups and downs with class, openness and deserves another top trophy.
10-seed Virginia Tech is Louis Oosthuizen: I’ll admit, I am running out of golfers and teams to pair them with as I scattered around the bracket. I have as much faith in Virginia Tech winning it all as I do them getting bounced in round one, kinda like the ratio of a Louis win versus his back not getting him to the tee each Thursday.
2-seed Ohio State is Jon Rahm: There have been flashes from both at times to justify a higher seed. The Buckeyes have some of the best wins of the year (including Michigan last weekend), but also a few head-scratching losses (at Northwestern?!?). Rahm has finished outside of the top 25 in a tournament just once since August, but hasn’t truly challenged the top much either. Would you be surprised if either won it all? No. Would you be surprised if either didn’t make the Sweet 16? No.
15-seed Oral Roberts is Erik van Rooyen: You know they’ve been here before, but you have as many successful brackets with them as you do DFS lineups with EVR.
1 seed Illinois is Collin Morikawa: This is likely the “weakest” top seed in the committee’s eyes, but you’re not buying it, are you? The Illini have, arguably, the best weapon in the tournament in Ayo Dosunmu, an elite bucket-getter who can get you clutch shots. Morikawa has, arguably, the best weapon in the field with his irons, a shot-maker who can hit the ball where he wants when he wants. Big wins coming into the tournament should have everybody on high alert.
16-seed Drexel is Antoine Rozner: The Dragons were a 6-seed in the Colonial but ran the table in the conference tourney to sneak into the field, while Rozner ran in a 60-footer in Qatar to sneak in as well.
8-seed Loyola Chicago is Will Zalatoris: Probably woefully underseeded given the talent and ability, but victims more of circumstance – Loyola playing in a non-Power 6 conference; Zalatoris less than a year worth of good OWGR points – beating a 1-seed isn’t out of the question. Making a run to the Final Four (Sister Jean!!!) isn’t either.
9-seed Georgia Tech is Matt Kuchar: A couple of Yellow Jackets here that I don’t believe have the firepower to contend in the first round, especially with Tech’s best player out.
5-seed Tennessee is Tommy Fleetwood: The last time there was an NCAA tournament, the Vols were a 2-seed and ascending as a program to compete with Kentucky in the SEC and for national titles. A year ago, Fleetwood was a top-10 player in the world and one bad swing away from winning the Honda Classic. The last year, for both, has been wildly inconsistent, but many still believe.
12-seed Oregon State is Corey Conners: When you knock down 3s, you can win tournaments, as the Beavers did in shocking the Pac-12. When you make putts, you can win tournaments, which is what Conners is a threat to do if he can find four days with the flatstick. You just need that one heater.
4-seed Oklahoma State is Victor Hovland: A bunch of Cowboys here, but you want to talk about talented and trending?! The basketball version was overlooked late last year in both conference and country, but kept getting better and have serious talent with lottery pick Cade Cunningham an All-American. The golfer version was third fiddle to Wolff and Morikawa but won again in December and has been damn good since. Both would not be surprises to make it to the end.
13-seed Liberty is Kevin Streelman: Good, solid Christians, the lot.
6-seed San Diego State is Abraham Ancer: This is becoming a regular occurrence. It’s not a fluke. Solid years, high seeds, and yet what are the expectations? Are the Aztecs legitimate national championship threats? Is Ancer going to win against an elite field? You see the names and you nod along to their positions in the bracket, but admit it, you haven’t really seen enough to pick them.
11-seed Syracuse is Shane Lowry: Whether it’s Orange in mascot, or the orange of the Irish flag, both are champions that may never hoist the ultimate trophy again, but that’s okay. Shane gets an extra year to own the Claret Jug, while Jim Boeheim is on what feels like an endless retirement tour. Live it up, men.
3-seed West Virginia is Webb Simpson: I think this is a horrible comp in terms of personalities, but apropos when it comes to value and respect. The Mountaineers have been top-five seeds in the tournament seven times since 2010. Simpson has been a top-10 machine (34 since the start of 2017) and routinely overlooked as one of the game’s best players.
14-seed Morehead State is Brendon Todd: The Appalachian younger brother (less than 300 miles apart) in schools, Todd has returned to prominence with a Webb Simpson-esque game of irons, putting and accepting a loss in Off The Tee stats.
7-seed Clemson is Jason Kokrak: Really, really good for a while now, while lurking behind bigger names and games in the sport. Kokrak got the job done in the fall. Maybe this tournament is where Brad Brownell gets his due for maintaining a steady program.
10-seed Rutgers is Max Homa: We have nothing in common with 6-foot-8-inch young men who can dunk, nor do we have anything in common with pro golfers who hit it 300 and dance wedges. But when they let us in on their journey, when they make us feel like we are with them – or when they make the tournament for the first time since 1991 – then we feel as if we are a part of that team as well.
2-seed Houston is Tyrrell Hatton: We look at the resume and the talent and nod along with the seed line because we value the overall body of work and the respect that comes with it. Then we dive a little deeper and see that Houston has two, top-flight, quality wins this year and that Hatton has more anger management videos than made cuts in majors in a year. Prove us wrong, fellas.
15-seed Cleveland State is Brian Harman: Are you ready for a rock fight? The Vikings quickly rebuilt a program on grit and hustle, while Harman is the one Tour pro under 6 feet you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.
May your brackets be bountiful!