The new and improved (?) WGC Match Play Championship debuted last week, resulting in more mental gymnastics and more golf, some of which was actually meaningful. It took 111 matches, but the two most deserving guys were left standing in the end, as world No. 1 Rory McIlroy faced off against another heavy hitter, Gary Woodland, who for 41⁄2 days at Harding Park in San Francisco had played the best golf of anyone in the field. It was one of the sexiest championship matchups in the star-crossed history of the Match Play but, alas, this tussle fell well short of being the fight of the century.
Woodland, 30, has long been billed as a star in the making, but he again failed to deliver on the promise, looking jittery throughout, as he played for what would have been the third and by far biggest title of his career. Wild driving led to three early bogeys and a 4-down deficit -- McIlroy riding a hot putter to four consecutive birdies also had a little something to do with it -- and Rory finished strong for a 4 and 2 victory.
McIlroy joins Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only men in the modern era to win 10 Tour titles ahead of their 26th birthdays. (Eldrick had 29 and Big Jack 17, but still.) This one came at exactly the right time, as McIlroy, who turned 26 on Monday, had won only once since last fall, in January in Dubai. Earlier in the week Tour oracle Geoff Ogilvy called Masters champ Jordan Spieth the best player in the world, acknowledging that McIlroy’s best stuff is still better than anybody else’s but opining that Spieth, the world No. 2, played at a consistently higher level.
McIlroy never quite had his A game at Harding Park, but he ground out victory after victory with gutsy finishes, the most outrageous being a birdie-birdie-eagle flourish to take down Jim Furyk in Sunday morning’s semifinals.
Throughout the early part of his career McIlroy was dogged by whispers that he only knew how to cruise to lopsided wins and wasn’t tough enough to scuffle his way to taut victories. He started to change that perception by prevailing in a back-nine dogfight at last year’s PGA Championship, and this triumph should erase any doubt about McIlroy’s moxie. Woodland got an up-close look on Sunday. After winning the 11th and 12th holes, he had cut the deficit to 2 down, and he would have won the 13th as well had he not blown a three-foot par putt. McIlroy reacted like a great white shark that happens upon a wounded baby seal.
“He definitely flipped another switch,” said Woodland. “He didn’t miss a shot coming in after that. A lot of guys can flip the switch, but the switch doesn’t work all the time. His switch worked. You could see he had a little more pep in his step, he was walking a little more quickly. You could tell. You look at guys in other sports who have dominated, they have that gear. And Rory did it at the highest level today.”
McIlroy acknowledges that ruthlessly closing out tournaments has been a learned behavior. “I feel like every time I get in these positions to win and do it,” he says, “it adds to that ability to really knuckle down when I need to.”
The other big lesson of last week was that the new Match Play format works. Sort of. The March Madness style win-or-go-home system was shelved in favor of pool play that evokes soccer’s World Cup. In this case, 16 four-man groups were created, with one player plucked from the top of the World Ranking and the other three slots in the bracket filled out through a random draw. Across the first three days the players in each cluster competed in a round-robin, with one man from each group moving on to the Sweet 16, at which point the knockout rounds commenced.
Wednesday of the Match Play used to be one of the wildest days in golf, but this one lacked any drama whatsoever, though there was still some stellar shotmaking, notably Ben Martin’s ace on the par-3 17th hole that propelled him to a 1-up victory over Matt Kuchar.
The Thursday matches were do-or-die, only if two players with 0–1 records met, and there were eight such pairings. The poor bastards who lost their first two matches -- among them defending champion Jason Day, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell, Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley, Jimmy Walker, Brandt Snedeker and Ian Poulter -- were then the lamest of ducks on Friday. That morning Poulter tweeted, “Well I’m about to play the most pointless round of golf of my life today. Could be a thriller Hahahaha.” Such was the frustration of the skunked that Bradley lost his cool when Miguel Ángel Jiménez offered some unsolicited advice on a drop during an otherwise meaningless match. Their nose-to-nose jawing sent a jolt through a day that already featured some spectacular survive-and-advance matches.
Spieth was unofficially 13 under par in winning his first two games (at one point it was calculated he would have been leading in stroke play by seven shots), but his ball striking was shaky during his tilt against fellow undefeated Lee Westwood. Spieth predictably fought hard, conjuring a birdie chip-in on the 15th hole that was then topped by Westwood’s 10-footer. Westy salvaged a halve on the next hole by chipping in for par and then birdied the last two holes to finally shake the kid. Of Spieth’s denouement, Westwood said, “That’s the cruelty of match play.”
McIlroy also faced a must-win scenario against a game Billy Horschel. Two down and facing elimination on the 17th green, McIlroy poured in a 25-foot birdie putt, what he called the key moment of his week. He then birdied 18 to force sudden death and dispatched Horschel on the second extra hole. Among the other playoffs was the three-man stroke-play tiebreaker involving Branden Grace, Charley Hoffman and Zach Johnson after each finished 2–1 in the round-robin. Grace prevailed. Furyk and J.B. Holmes each also lost a match but still made it through to the round of 16, testament to the more forgiving nature of the new format.
Of course, one of the rationales for switching to pool play was to get more big names onto the weekend telecast, but only five of the 16 survivors were seeded better than 26th. So it was left to McIlroy to provide all the star power on the weekend, and he didn’t disappoint, playing the first 12 holes in six under to dust Hideki Matsuyama on Saturday morning in the round of 16 and then, in the afternoon quarterfinals, engaging Paul Casey in a memorable scrum. McIlroy was 2 down at the turn, but he battled back to send the match to sudden death.
Unfortunately the Tour’s rapacious desire to push the telecast well into prime time meant that McIlroy and Casey ran out of daylight after playing three extra holes, forcing them to resume at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday.
“I was putting a lot of pressure on my myself,” said McIlroy, who awakened that morning at 4:30. “I didn’t want to have to do this for just one hole. I wanted to be here all day.”
And so he was, after beating Casey with a textbook two-putt birdie on that first hole. At the end of a grueling tournament McIlroy was asked if he felt more like the world No. 1 than he had five days earlier. “No, I don’t think of it that way,” he said. Yet McIlroy did admit that Spieth’s Masters triumph had gotten his attention. “I think everyone, not just me, but everyone on Tour was inspired seeing Jordan do what he did at Augusta,” he said.
McIlroy made another admission: Every Monday he checks the World Ranking website, to see how the numbers have changed. The new Match Play champ could sleep soundly on Sunday night, knowing that in the morning he would find himself still comfortably at No. 1, where he unquestionably belongs.