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Why 'anything can happen' and other clichés are so relevant at WGC-Match Play

AUSTIN, Texas -- Welcome to the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, where "anything can happen" -- until it does, of course, at which point we'll be reminded that "there really are no upsets."

Such are the "vagaries of match play," a format that serves as golf's version of man-to-man combat, where players "only have to worry about the other guy across the tee box."

The sport of golf is ripe with clichés -- from "tee it high, let it fly" to "drive for show, putt for dough" -- but this week it's rotten-apple overripe. While match play brings out the competitive nature of those playing, it also lends itself to some predictable analysis of the proceedings.

The highest-ranked players are "targets"; the more unknown players are "sneaky"; everyone in between is "a player to watch."

The most talented section in the bracket isn't just difficult to win. It's apparently heart-stopping enough to be called the "group of death."

As every competitor knows, "you can play great and lose" or "you can play badly and win."

For this week only, "you play against the opponent, not the course."

"Always assume your opponent will make the putt."

"Par is never a bad score."

"You're never out of a hole."

On and on and on.

What's the reason for it? What is it about match play that brings about the same boilerplate phrases every year? Why have we not evolved past these platitudes?

One theory is that since the format is contested only by the game's top players twice each year -- here and at the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup -- everybody falls into the same patterns of description. Another is that, well, even though they're clichés, most of them still are true.

"You can't underestimate any competitor in this kind of format because on any given day, they can go out and make as many birdies or more birdies than you," said defending champion Jason Day, who then lingered with more lingo. "Sometimes you can get lucky and get through, sometimes you can't."

He might be speaking in clichés, but he isn't wrong.

There is more "anything can happen" in this event than the concurrent -- and thus, comparable -- NCAA basketball tournament. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the 18 years since this golf event was first held in 1999, 15 No. 1 seeds have made the semifinals. That's 0.83 per year. Since the basketball tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four a total of 52 times, or 1.63 per year.

Moral of the story: It's nearly twice as difficult for a top seed to reach the semifinals of the WGC-Match Play than it is for a top seed to reach the Final Four.

Then again, those vagaries of match play have appeared less variable recently. Last year, Day became the world's No. 1-ranked player as a result of his victory in this event; two years ago, Rory McIlroy was already No. 1 when he won.

That should offer some optimism for current No. 1 Dustin Johnson -- not that he's buying into the concept.

"I'm playing very well right now; I think that's my advantage," Johnson said. "But playing match play doesn't matter if you're No. 1 or whatever number you are. That doesn't matter, because it's only 18 holes -- and anything can happen."

There it is again. The fallback nomenclature that becomes all the craze whenever the topic turns to match play.

That's because players "just have to hit the right shots at the right time" and "have to go out and try to beat the other guy" and "can't worry about anyone else" and "know anyone can win here."

But hey, we've all been guilty of speaking in these terms, so people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. When it comes to seeing these comments, laughter is the best medicine. But it's tough, because old habits die hard. In any case, this week's champion will have to get off to a fast start, since the early bird gets the worm. And as we know, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. For those who don't win, though, the grass is always greener on the other side.

Whew. Just when we thought every turn of phrase was cliché-laden this week, here comes Justin Thomas to save the day.

"Everyone here is really, really, really good," he explained. "It is funny how it's like, this is the group of death, or this is that. Let's all just calm down and go play golf."

That's a really good take. Then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.