MARANA, Ariz. — Rory the Kid versus Westwood Earp. It was impossible not to see the gunslingers analogy as McIlroy and Westwood moseyed around the cacti onto the first tee for their grudge match semifinal against a backdrop of the Tortolita Mountains. They could have been cowboys swinging through the doors of a saloon and fixing for a fight. And The Kid got his man. Shot down the old cowboy. Just like in the movies.
The handshake at the end was of the prickly cactus kind. McIlroy won, 3 and 1, and headed off for a tilt at becoming the No. 1 player in the world. Westwood, meanwhile, trudged off the green to try to motivate himself to play Mark Wilson in the consolation match, otherwise known as the losers' match, where Wilson beat Westwood, 1 up. (Wilson lost his all-American semifinal, 2 and 1, to Hunter Mahan.)
There was an early morning chill in the air, and it wasn’t just the temperature. There hadn’t been so much as a glance between McIlroy and Westwood on the practice putting green. They forced smiles as they posed for a photograph with the trophy. They looked at each other as if to say: “Howdy, playing pardner.” Or maybe it was more like that Sparks song from the 1970s: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us. And it ain’t me who’s gonna leave.”
That’s what match play is all about. Look your rival in the eye with a death stare and aim to take him down. There was a ripple of applause from the early risers who had come to witness this pistols-at-dawn duel in the desert. Their clapping sounded like milk poured on Rice Krispies. Maybe they’d actually brought their breakfast with them for this 7:20 a.m. tee time.
Once the sun had risen over the mountain tops, there was plenty of warmth in the valley of Dove Mountain, but none of it was shared between McIlroy and Westwood. Hardly a word was said between them, and they gave each other no quarter. Nothing. Indeed, Westwood signaled to McIlroy to hole out from no more than 18 inches to win the fifth hole. So that was nice and friendly. But McIlroy refused to be intimidated.
McIlroy drove off first: bang, 3-wood straight down the middle of the fairway. He stood back and folded his arms to see if Westwood could follow that. Bang: big booming drive that just bounced into the rough. But no problem. Both players were clearly pumped up. Both twirled their drivers like sharpshooters spinning their Colt 45s around their fingers before slotting them back into their holsters. Okay, stuffing their drivers back into their bags.
The first hole was halved with pars. Westwood then raced to a three-hole lead courtesy of McIlroy messing about in two bunkers and missing a short putt. The Englishman had the swagger, his sergeant major’s strut. McIlroy was being bullied.
Not so fast, cowboy. The best way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him, hit back, and run the critter outta town. McIlroy went on a scintillating run of six birdies in eight holes, starting at the sixth, to go 3 up at the 13th, where Westwood drove his ball into a woman’s sweater. His caddie Billy Foster said to her: “Would you mind walking 250 yards forward?” Still time for banter in the heat of battle.
The poor woman wasn’t the only one feeling hot under the collar. Westwood was overheating in the desert, and now McIlroy was strutting his stuff. In that comeback run, McIlroy rammed home 77 feet of putts. They were killer blows for Westwood. Bullets into his heart.
This match had everything: booming drives, dazzling chips, birdies rattling in as if it were the Ryder Cup, air punches, lucky bounces, and even a motivational "get in there" F-word from Westwood as he holed out to halve the 11th. McIlroy got lucky at that hole when his second shot at the par 5 ballooned along a cart path. It could have ended up behind a cactus, but it didn’t.
Westwood was fighting to the death, as you would expect. He drove his ball at the short par-4 15th to 20 feet and slammed in the putt for eagle with a fist pump. McIlroy’s lead was back to two holes. But just as McIlroy looked to be having a wobble, it was Westwood who crumbled under the pressure. His Achilles' heel kicked him on the 17th. A poor chip allowed McIlroy to close out the match with a par.
“Rory made a couple of big putts on me, and the 11th was a big turning point,” said a disappointed Westwood.
This defeat will hurt Westwood badly. He may well be back off the wagon he has been on all year to ease his pain. McIlroy, meanwhile, was punch-drunk after such a personal vendetta. He had nothing left for the final, as he admitted after losing to Mahan, 2 and 1.
"No disrespect to the other two guys in the other semifinals, Hunter and Mark, but it was like my final in a way," McIlroy said. "That was the one I wanted all week and I got, and that's what I got myself up for."
So McIlroy didn't win the tournament Sunday, but you could certainly say he got his man.