What Graeme McDowell once described as a relationship of “jokes with jabs” will get deadly serious later today when Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood square off in the semi-finals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson.
It’s got all the hallmarks of a classic Louis L’Amour gunfight with The Kid looking to show the old hand who’s the fastest gun in the west. Only in this case the winner of this particular duel will get the chance to battle for the title against Mark Wilson or Hunter Mahan with their reward a move to No 1 in the world.
“It’s the match I wanted and I think it’s the match everyone else wanted,” McIlroy said after outgunning Korea’s Sang-moon Bae 3 and 2 in his quarter-final. “It will be great to see him on that first tee tomorrow.”
There is no public hostility between the two but there is unquestionably an undercurrent of edgy rivalry there since McIlroy decided to leave the ISM management stable they shared until the end of last year.
“I think with both of us being up there in the world and both of us with the possibility of going to No 1 it gives the match definitely an extra little bit of spice or extra edge,” McIlroy said.
Westwood gave little away in his press conference following his 4 and 2 steamroller job on Scotland’s Martin Laird. He claimed that the McIlroy match was an “exciting” hurdle to be crossed; another rival to beat if he’s to achieve his goal of “winning the golf tournament.”
So there’s no tension then Lee? No bad blood after McIlroy decided to leave Chubby Chandler swinging in the wind last November?
“We don’t spend as much time together as we did when we were in the same management group, but that’s understandable,” Westwood said. “Rory doesn’t want to spend time with the people that manage me, and I don’t want to spend time with the people that manage Rory. “But there’s nothing strained about the relationship between the two of us. It’s still the same as it was.
“We had a chat on the steps out there. Rory said to me before I went out, see you tomorrow morning. And then today again there he said, ‘See, told you.’ That’s the trouble with kids nowadays, they think they’re always right, don’t they?”
Did Westwood let his mask slip with his final “kids nowadays” remark? He’s always appeared a little too eager to play the big brother role to the annoying younger sibling who thinks he knows it all.
Many remember his remarks at the Masters last year when McIlroy drove into the cabins left of the 10th and lost the green jacket.
“I’ve played with Rory a lot. When he gets under a bit of pressure he does have a pull hook in his bag,” Westwood said somewhat uncharitably.
Asked about McIlroy’s six shot lead at the halfway stage of the US Open last June, Westwood said: “He’s had leads before.”
Good humoured banter can end in tears sometimes and when asked if he’d always felt the need to take the “precocious” McIlroy down a peg or two over the years, Westwood played the humour card.
“I’d have to go and get a dictionary and find out the definition of precocious first before I answer that question,” he said, flashing a grin.
There’s no doubt that both Westwood and McIlroy want to win this week and head to next week’s Honda Classic as world No 1. Just how much McIlroy will be distracted by the world No 1 carrot remains to be seen.
Westwood claims he’s been there, done that and bought the tee shirt.
“I’ve been at No. 1 a couple of times,” Westwood said. “It would be a different way of thinking to me compared to Rory who hasn’t been No. 1. may be thinking about it, but my main goal is to play well or play as well as I’ve been playing tomorrow morning and try and win that match.”
Westwood was excellent for the third day in a row beating Laird. He lost the first hole to a birdie but slowly ground the Scot into the desert dust, winning the second in birdie, the sixth in par and the seventh with another birdie to go one up.
Pars at the ninth and 10th were enough to see him take a comfortably three up lead and while Laird won the 11th, there was no way back for him after he missed a 12 footer for a winning eagle at the 13th that would have cut the gap to one hole.
Westwood drained a six footer for a half in birdie to remain two up and didn’t have to putt at the 14th as Laird took two to escape from a bunker and conceded.
After halves in birdie at the 15th, Laird finally crumbled completely when he three-putted the 16th to lose 4 and 2.
McIlroy had a tougher match against 25-year old South Korean Sang-moon Bae but he was never behind. Taken back to all square at the second and the 11th, his length and accuracy off the tee proved to be the difference in the end.
He won the 11th with a simple chip and putt birdie to regain the lead, then played an exquisite, 30 yard bunker shot to 18 inches at the 13th to go two up before a perfect drive to the edge of the 330 yard 15th set up another stress-free, tap-in birdie that Bae failed to match from 22 feet.
Three up with three to play, the South Korean waved the white flag at the next when he found greenside sand with his tee shot.
Whether McIlroy’s flair is enough to beat Westwood’s grinding consistency is another matter. But it can be noted that the Northern Irishman has been improving steadily this week.
He can’t wait to see Westwood at 7.20am and told him so before the quarter-finals and again as their paths crossed outside the press centre.
“I think it’s the match that most people wanted and definitely the match that I wanted. And I’m excited about tomorrow. It should be a lot of fun and very exciting for everyone involved.”
Their duel is a godsend to the TV networks following the poor fare offered in the other quarterfinals yesterday.
Peter Hanson hardly put up a fight as he crashed to a 4 and 3 defeat to the consistent but unexciting Mark Wilson as Hunter Mahan had enough with just three birdies and 10 pars to hammer an out-of-sorts Matt Kuchar 6 and 5.
For the die-hards out there, I attach the PGA Tour’s comprehensive notes on Saturday’s play. It’s a fantastic selection of facts and figures about every game.
The bottom line is that McIlroy will replace Tiger Woods as the youngest winner of a World Golf Championship and the youngest Accenture Match Play champion if he wins two matches today.