SAN FRANCISCO — There were 112 matches at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship at TPC Harding Park. There was a boxing match that dominated the conversation, one near boxing match between two of the golfers, a controversial format change, copious confusion over that format change, and no shortage of cold, damp weather that got into your bones.
Years from now, though, all anyone will remember is this: The right guy won, Rory McIlroy restoring order to a week that bordered on chaos.
“I played some great golf this week and got the job done, which was the most important thing,” McIlroy said after making five birdies and four bogeys in his 4 and 2 victory over Gary Woodland. “Great to get the first win stateside this year and move to next week and try and do the same.”
Danny Willett beat Jim Furyk 3 and 2 in the consolation match.
McIlroy now turns his eye to the Players Championship, which he has never won—his second start in a stretch of five straight weeks of golf. In a sense, his season has only just begun, what with his previously un-Rory-like play in four previous U.S. starts this year, his best result a backdoor fourth at the Masters despite never seriously contending for the green jacket.
No matter what happens each weekend, McIlroy said after notching his 10th Tour win at Harding Park, he does the same thing Monday morning, namely check the World Ranking to see how his lead is holding up.
Lately that lead had been shrinking.
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McIlroy had become almost an afterthought this year while the public fell for Masters champion Jordan Spieth. But McIlroy reminded everyone how he got to the top at Harding, bending but never breaking as he overcame late deficits against first Billy Horschel (2 down with two to play), Paul Casey (1 down with two to play) and finally Jim Furyk (ditto) in the semis.
He would need no such heroics against Woodland, who hit a series of errant drives into the trees as McIlroy birdied holes 5, 6 and 7 to pull away.
“The adrenaline—I was pretty pumped up to play,” Woodland said. “I hadn’t hit a ball left all week and I hit three drives left early in the round, and that kind of set the tone for the ball-striking.”
“I think sometimes finals can’t rival the quality of previous matches,” said McIlroy, the first No. 1 to win this event since Tiger Woods in 2008.
Sunday was a long, cold slog for the winner, who had to come back to the course for the 6:45 a.m. resumption of his quarterfinal match against Casey, who came down with food poisoning overnight. They played only one hole, the par-5 first, as McIlroy ended it with a two-putt birdie.
He then flipped his semifinal match against Furyk, going from 1 down to a 1-up win with a birdie-birdie-eagle finish on holes 16 through 18.
It was the third time McIlroy trailed as he went to 17, but he said he was more nervous against Casey. “I’d say the toughest thing was standing on the first tee this morning at 6:45,” McIlroy said, “and thinking, If I’ve just got up to come all this way to play one hole…”
All told, McIlroy played 121 holes. Three of his seven matches came to the 18th hole, and two of them went extras. His stamina and fortitude salvaged a topsy-turvy week that was at times sublime and ridiculous.
The tournament’s new round-robin format stole the show early, especially when players wondered aloud if the Tour had erred in adopting it. Thanks to a wrinkle that saw the Tour using head-to-head results in lieu of a playoff between two players who finished 2-1 in pool play, Rickie Fowler and John Senden mathematically won their respective pools Thursday.
“It’s all come out a bit flat,” Henrik Stenson said of the new format, which rendered Friday play irrelevant for everyone in his four-man group.
Meanwhile, players who went 0-2 over the first two days wondered if they wouldn’t be better off just going home in lieu of playing Friday.
Then came the near fisticuffs between third-round opponents Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez, both of whom came into their match 0-2. Their much-chronicled rules kerfuffle on 18 spilled into the locker room, where according to an eyewitness only Jimenez remained calm as he tried to explain himself, while Bradley and his caddie Steve Hale became so livid as to require uniformed security to step in between the warring parties.
All week players and others were preoccupied with another fight, this one the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. McIlroy said he had bought tickets and hoped to fly to Las Vegas to be ringside Saturday night, but with golf keeping him at Harding into the late afternoon, he gave them away and watched the fight from the media center.
Sunday’s final was as tame as the much-ballyhooed boxing match. Woodland had piped his driver all week but it let him down in the end. He shot a front-nine 38 and was 4 down by the time he got straightened out.
“Rory, fortunately for me, he didn’t play very well, either, and that kept me in it,” said Woodland, who last won in 2013, got bogged down amid swing changes, and has been rebuilding under instructor Jim McClain.
This was the week that Jordan Spieth finally looked his age, 21. First 42-year-old Lee Westwood outplayed the world No. 2 in their third round match, and then Spieth mentioned in post-round interviews how well he would have been doing in stroke play—as if that really mattered. He later went on Twitter to think out loud about a potential format change.
This was also the week the casual fan was introduced to Willett, a 27-year-old Englishman with a history of back problems who has the look of a future star, provided he can stay healthy. Willett moves the ball both ways off the tee, putts way better than average, and among his trove of victories outplayed Patrick Reed, fellow Brit Westwood, with whom he’d shared dinners all week, and finally a flat Furyk in the consolation match.
In the end, though, the relentless McIlroy stole the show. He joins Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win 10 Tour events prior to their 26th birthday in the last 75 years. And he’s out to win more as he sets his sights on the Players Championship, the Wells Fargo, the BMW PGA at Wentworth and the Irish Open over the next four weeks.
Whether he plays from ahead or behind, or has to wear mittens, rain pants and a ski hat, as he did at foggy, cold TPC Harding Park, doesn’t seem to matter. The nominal No. 1 is again playing like he’s the best in the world.