SAN FRANCISCO – One by one they exited, the biggest stars with the smallest numbers by their names sent off into the gloaming at chilly TPC Harding Park as the underdogs took over the WGC-Cadillac Match Play.
Only a late rally by No. 1 seed Rory McIlroy salvaged the day for the favorites, McIlroy coming back from 2 down with two holes to play to stay alive, then beating Billy Horschel with a par on the 20th hole.
“I played solid,” said McIlroy, whose comeback was sparked by a 26-foot putt for a birdie 2 at the 17th hole. “I wouldn’t say I played good. I dug deep when I needed to, making those three birdies on the last three holes.”
Notwithstanding the top seed’s escape, which included a birdie from the front greenside bunker at the driveable, par-4 16th hole—Horschel also birdied it—Friday was grim for the favorites, only five of whom advanced through the 16 four-man pools to make it to single-elimination play.
Just two of the top 10 players in the world will play this weekend.
“It’s match play,” said McIlroy, who will play Hideki Matsuyama on Saturday morning. “I don’t think there’s any other sport in the world where you get the top 64 guys and the margins are so fine, are so small.”
“Anything can happen,” said 27th seed Lee Westwood, who was 2 down after 2 holes but made five birdies and no bogeys from there to send second-seeded Jordan Spieth packing. “I think probably getting out of the group is really one of the toughest things to do this week.”
The only thing uglier than the fortunes of the favorites on black Friday was the sight of Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez, both winless and locked in a relatively meaningless match that Jimenez would win 2 up, going nose to nose over a ruling just left of the 18th fairway. The altercation turned heated when Jimenez told Bradley’s caddie, Steve Hale, to shut up.
“It’s unfortunate that happened,” said PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell. “It’s a gentleman’s game, but that’s not the first time that has happened and it won’t be the last. There’s a lot of pride on the line.”
Although they would shake hands after Jimenez closed out the match with a birdie, they did not seem to settle their dispute on the 18th green and had a heated exchange in the locker room. Both players briefly attempted to explain their positions to reporters after the round, Jimenez saying he was trying to help Bradley take a correct drop, and Bradley claiming his opponent had butted into the ruling in an “accusatory” way.
McIlroy’s match with Horschel had the potential to be emotional, as well, eight years after they clashed at the 2007 Walker Cup. Horschel’s demonstrative celebrations rubbed McIlroy the wrong way back then, but asked Friday if any animosity remained, McIlroy made light of the situation.
“No, not as much as Keegan and Miguel, apparently,” he said.
“No, it never got that bad,” McIlroy continued as the laughter in the interview room subsided. “But no, we were young and pretty high strung in that Walker Cup back in the day, and I felt like he over-celebrated a few times, so I retaliated with a few over-celebrations of my own. It went no further than that.”
Spieth was easily the hottest player in the game after his runaway Masters victory last month, and although he didn’t advance he noted that he went 16 under par in going 2-1.
“I think that’s a little messed up with the format, to be honest,” he said. “I was told at some point [Thursday] I had a seven-shot lead, in stroke play, on the field. I don’t know what it would be today, or if there would be a lead. The only thing I take out of it is that I’m ready for [the Players Championship] next week.”
People can and will debate the new format, but it’s undeniable that the favorites fell hard.
Patrick Reed (2-1), the 15th seed, beat Ryan Moore (0-3) 1 up, but if Reed was going to have any chance to move on he needed Andy Sullivan to beat Danny Willett. It didn’t happen, as 49th seeded Willett (3-0) won 1 up.
Marc Leishman, the 60th seed, beat Anirban Lahiri 1 up to run his record to 3-0 and advance out of Group 6, where Justin Rose came into the favorite and beat Ryan Palmer (0-3) on Friday to finish 2-1.
(John Senden, who mathematically clinched his pool win Thursday, was the biggest longshot pool winner, carrying a 65 seed into the week.)
Gary Woodland, seeded 52nd, beat Webb Simpson 1 up to go to 3-0 and advance out of Pool 11, where 11th-seeded Jimmy Walker, a two-time winner already in 2015, lost 4 and 2 to Ian Poulter (1-2) to drop to 0-3.
Louis Oosthuizen, seeded 30th, beat fourth seed Bubba Watson with a birdie on the first extra hole to stay undefeated and go through in Group 4.
And so it went.
Tommy Fleetwood, the 57th seed who beat Bernd Wiesberger in 19 holes to win Pool 10 with a 2-1 record, has three international wins but none since the 2013 Johnnie Walker Championship. He shot 80 to finish second to last at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral earlier this year. But none of that matters now. He's through, and will take on Branden Grace on Saturday. “Anyone can win on any given day,” Leishman said, in what may as well serve as the tournament slogan on T-shirts and souvenir programs.
One of the big questions coming into this week was who would be the first to lose a match and yet win his pool, and the answer came in the form of 39th seed Branden Grace, a 26-year-old South African whose needed a lot to break just right for him Friday in order to advance. It did.
First, Grace made six birdies and no bogeys to beat Charley Hoffman 2 and 1. Then he got help when Zach Johnson beat seventh-seeded Jason Day, 3 and 2, to leave Grace, Hoffman and Johnson at 2-1.
After his birdie chip lipped out on the second playoff hole, Grace finally won Pool 7 with a birdie at the third playoff hole to advance.
“A lot could have changed,” Grace said. “Zach could have lost [to Day] and it would be a different story. But it all worked out, and I knew it was going to be a grind after I finished, when I knew the playoff was going to happen.”
Paul Casey, a 37 seed, fell 4 down to Francesco Molinari but clawed his way back into the match with three straight birdies to start the back nine, then benefited from Molinari’s three straight bogeys from holes 15-17 to run his record to 3-0.
“I had to make some birdies quickly and I did that starting on 10,” said Casey, who finished second in this event in 2009 and 2010. “If I hadn’t I wouldn’t be standing here right now.”
Dustin Johnson, the eighth seed, beat Victor Dubuisson 2 and 1 to go to 2-1, but was eliminated when 38 seed Charl Schwartzel beat Matt Jones with a birdie on the 20th hole to remain perfect at 3-0 and win their pool.
In other matches, J.B. Holmes beat Brooks Koepka 2 and 1 and advanced from Pool 12 when Russell Henley beat Marc Warren 1 up.
Fifth-seeded Jim Furyk also needed a bit of help after he squeaked past Martin Kaymer with a birdie on the 20th hole, watching as George Coetzee edged Thongchai Jaidee in 21 holes to send Furyk through.
Rickie Fowler, a 13 seed who clinched his pool win Thursday, beat Graeme McDowell 5 and 4 in a largely meaningless match Friday. But perhaps, as the example of Bradley and Jimenez showed, no match is truly meaningless. After a whopping 96 of them in three days, 16 players, many of them largely unknown, go into the knockout rounds.
The tournament is just beginning.