Graeme McDowell’s ring rustiness following a four-week break caught up with him when he was beaten 3 and 2 by Korea’s YE Yang in the third round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club outside Tucson.
The reigning US Open champion, 31, battled hard to be all square with the 2009 US PGA champion with five holes to play.
But in the end he just wasn’t clinical enough with his short irons to see off the 39-year old former weight-lifter, who won the 14th with a par and the 15th in birdie to go two up before chipping in for a match winning birdie at the long, par-three 16th.
“There was a little bit of ring rust and I wasn’t quite on top of my game this week,” said McDowell, who moves on to Florida swing for next week’s Honda Classic. “I’ve been working hard on it all week, trying to find it.
“Bizarrely today was probably the best I’ve felt. I hit a lot of good shots but YE played very solidly and this golf course has never really fitted my eye.
McDowell could have gone to world No 2 with a win this week but he will have to wait until the conclusion of tomorrow’s quater-finals at the very least to see if he will move up one place to a career high of third in the world on Monday.
Only Luke Donald can deny him the No 3 spot, but the Englishman must win the title here and he faces a tough path to the final.
Donald saw off Italian teenager Matteo Manassero 3 and 2 to set up a quater-final clash with Ryan Moore this morning and if he comes through that one, he must then beat the winner of the clash between Yang and Matt Kuchar, who edged out Rickie Fowler by 2 and 1.
It was always going to be a long day for the 31-year old Irish star, who found himself trailing after three holes for the firs time all week.
Having dodged a bullet at the first, where the Korean lipped out from seven feet for the win, he survived again at the par-five second when he hit a superb, 25 yard bunker shot to five feet and holed the birdie putt to remain all square after Yang had hit the green in two.
Yang eventually edged in front with a birdie at the par-three third, where McDowell was short left with his approach, chipped clumsily 18 feet past and missed the putt with his opponent just 15 feet away.
The South Korean doubled his advantage at the fourth with a wedge to five feet before handing back a hole at the next where he failed to get up and down from greenside sand.
McDowell was still struggling to find his swing and he immediately handed the momentum back by bogeying the 165-yard sixth with a ballooned tee shot into the front bunker.
Two down again, it looked like being a long afternoon for the Portrush star when he missed a three a half footer for a win in birdie at the par-five eighth.
But he holed a 13 footer for a winning birdie at the ninth to turn just one down and then levelled the match at the 10th, where Yang pushed his approach into the desert and ran up a double bogey six after failing to make the green with his third.
Yang won a pitch and putt battle to edge ahead again at the par-five 11th but while McDowell won the 12th, where Yang bogeyed after overshooting the green, he was soon trailing again.
Texas resident Yang bravely holed a 10 footer for a half in birdie fours at the 13th to remain all square before edging a vital hole in front at the 14th.
With Yang just six feet from the stick, McDowell felt he’d hit a perfect short iron from 131-yards but his shot caught a gust of wind and overshot the green. He then failed to chip close and conceded the hole when he missed from 15 feet for his par.
Yang then drove the 15th green to set up an easy two putt birdie for the win after McDowell had failed to pitch close from 50 yards. Bunkered at the long par-three 16th, McDowell was dealt the coup the grace when the Korean holed a 20 foot chip from the fringe to secure a comfortable victory.
McDowell will console himself with the fact that his game is there and he also knows that he will wake up on Monday ranked higher in the world than Tiger Woods.
“There are a lot of positives to take away from the weekend,” said McDowell, who had never gone past the second round in four appearances. “It was my best ever performance in this tournament. Not saying much for me. But I really enjoyed the week. It’s great to get my confidence up on this event, where I’ll not be so scared of it next time and I’m look forward to teeing it up next week.
“I’m playing Honda, Doral, the Tavistock Cup in Orlando and Bay Hill and getting ready for the The Masters. I feel like I’m getting back into my season again after four weeks break. I’m just gearing back up and I’m excited about things.”
On the other side of the draw, Martin Kaymer remained on course to replace Lee Westwood as world No 1 when he came back from two down with six to play to beat Hunter Mahan 2 and 1.
Kaymer will take on 47-year old Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez, who beat Ben Crane 8 and 6, just 24 hours after the American had beaten Rory McIlroy 8 and 7.
Bubba Watson blitzed two-time champion Geoff Ogilvy 6 and 4 to set up a battle of the big hitters with JB Holmes, who beat Jason Day 1 up.
One of the great characters in the modern game, Watson said: “You know, if I win this week, it would be awesome, it would be great, that’s what I want to do. But in the whole scheme of things, it means absolutely nothing. If I make a bogey on the first hole and lose the next nine holes and lose my match, it means nothing. It means next week I’m going to try harder.
“So I realized that my life — it revolves around golf, but it’s not my life. My tombstone is not going to say how many wins or losses I had. It’s going to hopefully say I’m a good person and everybody misses me. But don’t tell nobody that, though.”