AUSTIN, Texas (AFP) - Justin Thomas won twice on Saturday (March 24) to move one triumph from the world No. 1 ranking and into a semi-final against two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson at the WGC Match-Play Championship.
Second seed Thomas, who won his first Major title at last August's PGA Championship, routed South Korean Kim Si Woo 6&5 in the round of 16 and saw off fellow American Kyle Stanley 2&1 in the quarter-finals at Austin Country Club.
If he beats Watson on Sunday, Thomas will play in the afternoon for the crown against the winner of the other semi-final between Swede Alex Noren and American Kevin Kisner.
"All I can do is go play the best I can," Thomas said. "(Bubba) has been showing some really good form. He's a really great player. I have to hope he doesn't have a hot day."
Watson, seeded 35th, edged out Brian Harman 2&1 in the round of 16 and ousted Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat 5&3 in the quarter-finals.
"We were just trying to put the ball in position, trying to give us the best birdie chances. The pin placements are in some tough spots around here," said Watson, whose only other semi-final run ended in a 2011 loss to Germany's Martin Kaymer.
Top-ranked Dustin Johnson crashed out in group play to give the No. 1 opportunity to Thomas, who along with Noren were the only group top seeds to advance.
With the start of the Masters looming on April 5 at Augusta National, Thomas could join Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth in reaching the top ranking before the age of 25.
He is seeking his ninth career PGA title and fourth in seven months after wins at TPC Boston last September, the CJ Cup in South Korea last October and the Honda Classic last month.
Kisner thrashed Ian Poulter 8&6 in the quarter-finals, the most lopsided win ever so deep into the event, after edging out compatriot Matt Kuchar 1 up.
Noren, seeking his first US PGA victory, eliminated Patrick Reed 5&3 in the round of 16 and downed Australian Cameron Smith 4&2 in the quarter-finals.
Thomas and Stanley were all square after nine but Thomas won the next three holes.
Stanley answered by winning 13 on an 11-foot birdie putt but they halved the next four holes as Thomas advanced.
"I played well today but didn't get off to the same start I had been getting," Thomas said. "I made a lot of key putts, par savers, to keep me running smoother on the back nine.
"I've just been trying to play my game. I haven't been trying to play my opponent too much."
Noren led Smith, the only debutant in the last eight, after every hole. Smith was 2-down when he missed a six-foot birdie putt at the par-five 12th, hurling his ball in frustration at missing a chance to close the gap.
"I played good in the beginning," Noren said. "In the middle of the round I had a few hiccups. I was fortunate a few times. He burned the edges. It could have gone either way and I stepped it up at the end."
Poulter fails in Masters bid
Englishman Poulter needed to reach the semi-finals to crack Monday's top 50 in the world rankings and book a spot at the Masters in two weeks.
But Kisner won five consecutive holes to go 5-up after seven and Poulter's misery ended at 12.
"I didn't mess up and I threw a few birdies in there and that's how it got that way," he said. I hadn't been playing well but put in some prep this week and started to see some results."
Kisner is looking for the biggest title of his career, having won PGA titles at Colonial last year and Sea Island in 2015, while Poulter must now win next week's Houston Open to qualify for the Masters.
Kiradech, unbeaten entering the quarter-finals, was level with Watson after nine holes, but lost four straight holes to gift the big-hitting left-hander a semi-final spot.