Life was far from a bed of roses for Rory McIlroy, who endured a rather more turbulent journey to his destination than necessary in ultimately overcoming Keegan Bradley – by 3 & 2 – to preserve his 100 per cent record in the group and advance into the knockout phase of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship at Austin Country Club in Texas.
So much of what McIlroy did was really, really good. His driver, for one, again became the strongest weapon in his armoury. His scrambling, when required, was top of the class. Yet, too, there were unforced errors that made that route to victory more difficult than it needed to be. A water ball on the 12th, for one (that indiscretion only exonerated by his opponent’s woes with putter in hand); a missed short putt on the 13th for another which gave Bradley some hope.
Still, when it came the time to shake hands, it was McIlroy – with three wins from three – who did so as the victor and with a pep in his step heading onwards into the knockout phase in his quest for a second career win in this particular championship. He won in 2015 when it was staged at Harding Park.
McIlroy had turned three up and the only hole he lost was the 13th when he missed a short birdie putt to drop back to two up only to roll in a four-footer for birdie on the 15th to move back three holes ahead. He finally closed the deal with the fifth birdie of his round on the 16th to earn a knockout match in the round of 16 against Australian Lucas Herbert.
“I’m sure that won’t be an easy match ... he’s a great player. If he turns up with his A game I think I’m in a lot of trouble. But if he doesn’t, I’m looking for the fight,” said Herbert.
McIlroy’s improvement with the driver has especially pleased him: “I think as every day goes by, the more and more confidence I’m getting with it, which is great. It’s nice to stand up on a tee box and have that freedom knowing that the club’s going to do what it’s supposed to do and the feel of the swing is matching the shape of the ball flight.
“Yeah, another great day where I struck the ball well and sort of got up early, kept pressure on Keegan. It was nice to get through to the weekend ... [my game] is very solid. I didn’t make a bogey the last couple of days. I think I only made one in the last three days. It’s good. It’s probably as good as it’s felt all year, which is nice going into obviously the next couple of weeks.”
For the other two Irish players in the field, there was little to cheer: Séamus Power lost out to the unbeaten Sam Burns by two holes, while Shane Lowry’s win over Jordan Spieth only served as a confidence boost ahead of taking a week off before the Masters tournament in less than a fortnight’s time.
Power needed a win over Burns to force a sudden death playoff and although the Waterford man was one up through 11 holes, it was the American who finished strongest to win by two holes on the 17th and maintain a 100 per cent record in the group stages.
Lowry’s most impressive performance came when the horse had already bolted. Two losses over the opening two days meant Lowry couldn’t advance beyond the group phase, although his win over Spieth – by 2 & 1 – was the result of good play. That group was won by Mackenzie Hughes who defeated Taylor Montgomerie at the first hole of sudden death.
McIlroy was one of a number of players who won all three of their group matches, among them world number one Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay, Cameron Young, Jason Day, Max Homa (who got a walkover from the injured Hideki Matsuyama), Sam Burns, JT Poston and Herbert.
In the Jonsson Workwear Open on the DP World Tour in Johannesburg, Tom McKibbin added a second round 70 to his opening 68 for a midway total of six-under-par 138 which left him in tied-46th, seven strokes behind 36-holes leader Nick Bachem.