The churlishness of Jason Dufner when it came to conceding putts provoked a tit-for-tat response from an irked-looking Rory McIlroy who still crushed the former US PGA champion 5 and 4 in the first round of the matches in the WGC – Cadillac Match Play in San Francisco.
On a day when Shane Lowry had to produce a trademark deadly pitch to see off Graeme McDowell at the 18th, McIlroy’s facile win over an out of sorts Dufner means his Friday match with former Walker Cup arch-enemy Billy Horschel will be key.
Horschel - who got seriously up McIlroy’s nose with his over the top antics at Royal County Down in 2007 — also looked impressive as he hammered Brandt Snedeker by the same 5 and 4 scoreline.
With just one player from each of the 16 groups advancing to Saturday's quarterfinals once everyone has played everyone else in the new round robin format, the McIlroy v Horschel game will be well worth a look despite neither having to exert themselves much on day one.
McIlroy, who's still hoping to escape to Las Vegas for the Manny Pacquiao v Floyd Mayweather super-fight on Saturday night, will not want to go out early with Masters champion Jordan Spieth looking so impressive in his 4 and 2 dismantling of Irish Open champion Mikko Ilonen of Finland.
“I felt like tee to green I played really well,” said McIlroy who was clearly irked to be made putt out from little more than two feet early in the match and started forcing Dufner to hole everything in retaliation.
“I put myself out of position I think only once and got up and down for par there on 10. But apart from that it was good. I didn’t hole many putts and felt like the green speeds were inconsistent. But I did what I had to do and move on to tomorrow.”
McIlroy’s was dubbed the Group of Death with two FedEx Cup winners in Snedeker and Horschel and a major winner in Dufner. But he didn’t sound too worried after one birdie and 13 pars was enough to see off Dufner, who threw away a few holes after the turn with bogeys.
“Going on form, Brandt has had a win earlier this year but Billy has not been playing his best and Jason hasn’t been playing his best,” McIlroy told Sky Sports. “So form-wise it didn’t seem that bad a draw. Obviously the pedigree is there and they can turn it on when they have to. But Jason didn’t have his best and I was able to get through.”
Later, McIlroy added: “It's good to win that first match. Luckily I’ve done that and the mindset going into tomorrow is I have to win, you have to win every match.
"There’s no point in thinking you can't win matches and progress here. I need to hole a few more putts. Jason didn't have his best stuff, obviously, so I just tried to put him under pressure from the start, tried to hit fairways, hit greens, and try and make him force a little bit. In match play, you just need to beat the person that's in front of you and I did that today.”
It was more of a struggle for Lowry, who beat McIlroy in the first round in 2013 eventually lost to McDowell in the third round that year.
But despite opening the door to his former stablemate by throwing in a careless double bogey five at the 17th when two up with two to go, the Offaly man closed out the match at the par-five 18th with a super pitch.
McDowell, who has not been in top form this year, had applied serious pressure by hitting an 80 yard third to around three feet. But Lowry recovered position after a poor drive and hit a 37 yard pitch inside McDowell and holed the putt for a half in fours and a 1 up win.
Lowry had eagled the first and taken advantage of a McDowell three-putt at the second to go two up. But while McDowell hit back to be all flat at the turn thanks to birdies at the fifth and par-three ninth, Lowry birded the 12th from eight feet and then took the driveable 16th with another birdie.
McDowell had found rough off the tee and couldn’t hold the green from 30 yards, tricklng into a bunker and eventually taking three more to get down.
At the par-three 17th both missed the green but Lowry fluffed his recovery and made a double bogey five to McDOwell's four, taking the match to the last.
“I made it hard coming in but to win there on the last was very nice,” Lowry said. “Going down 17, to be hones, I got ahead of myself, got complacent and thought the game was over. That’s what happens.
“I hit a bad drive on 18th but I got the second shot in play. Graeme hit it in stiff there and I knew I just needed to make birdie. If anything it was a good thing that he hit it in stiff.
“I said to myself, ‘right, you need to get his up and down.’ Thankfully I did and managed to get it close enough it was basically unmissable.”
Having beaten McIlroy in this event a few years ago, he admitted he loves the format and the big stage.
“I just love playing in the biggest tournaments in the world and competing against the best players. Maybe that’s what spurs me on. There is no bigger tournament in the world to be playing this week than this. If you can’t get yourself up for this then you’ll get yourself up for nothing.”
Lowry now faces Rickie Fowler, who was a 1 up winner over Harris English.
Englishman Lee Westwood was another high profile European victor with a one up win over Matt Every, while Francesco Molinari pulled off a brilliant 5&4 win over World Number Nine Adam Scott.
Sergio Garcia and Jamie Donaldson emerged one up winners in their respective European battles with Tommy Fleetwood and Bernd Weisberger, while Louis Oosthuizen was in great form to take down Keegan Bradley 6&5.
There was disappointment for English Ryder Cup stars Ian Poulter and Justin Rose who both lost 3&2 to Webb Simpson and Marc Leishman, but Danny Willet and Marc Warren produced strong debut performances by defeating Ryan Moore and JB Holmes.
India’s Anirban Lahiri, who six months ago was playing at The European Tour Qualifying School, continued his meteoric rise with a 4&2 win over American Ryan Palmer.
Chris Kirk lost to Paul Casey on the 22nd but not before hitting a tremendous recovery that set up what should have been a match winner at the previous hole:
- Rory McIlroy (1) v Brandt Snedeker (36)
- Rickie Fowler (13) v Shane Lowry (48)
- Graeme McDowell (33) v Harris English (58
|12:50 p.m.||Justin Rose vs. Marc Leishman||Leishman wins, 3&2|
|1:00 p.m.||Ryan Palmer vs. Anirban Lahiri||Lahiri wins, 4&2|
|1:10 p.m.||Jimmy Walker vs. Gary Woodland||Woodland wins, 19 holes|
|1:20 p.m.||Ian Poulter vs. Webb Simpson||Simpson wins, 3&2|
|1:30 p.m.||Henrik Stenson vs. John Senden||Senden wins, 19 holes|
|1:40 p.m.||Bill Haas vs. Brendon Todd||Haas wins, 3&2|
|1:50 p.m.||Matt Kuchar vs. Ben Martin||Martin wins, 1 up|
|2:00 p.m.||Hunter Mahan vs. Stephen Gallacher||Mahan wins, 7&6|
|2:10 p.m.||Jason Day vs. Charley Hoffman||Hoffman wins, 4&3|
|2:20 p.m.||Zach Johnson vs. Branden Grace||Johnson wins, 2 up|
|2:30 p.m.||Sergio Garcia vs. Tommy Fleetwood||Garcia wins, 2 up|
|2:40 p.m.||Jamie Donaldson vs. Bernd Wiesberger||Donaldson wins, 1 up|
|2:50 p.m.||Jordan Spieth vs. Mikko Ilonen||Spieth wins, 4&2|
|3:00 p.m.||Lee Westwood vs. Matt Every||Westwood wins, 1 up|
|3:10 p.m.||Patrick Reed vs. Andy Sullivan||Reed wins, 2&1|
|3:20 p.m.||Ryan Moore vs. Danny Willett||Willett wins, 3&2|
|3:30 p.m.||Jim Furyk vs. George Coetzee||Furyk wins, 3&2|
|3:40 p.m.||Martin Kaymer vs. Thongchai Jaidee||Kaymer wins, 3&1|
|3:50 p.m.||J.B. Holmes vs. Marc Warren||Warren wins, 2&1|
|4:00 p.m.||Brooks Koepka vs. Russell Henley||Koepka wins, 1 up|
|4:10 p.m.||Bubba Watson vs. Miguel Angel Jimenez||Watson wins, 5&4|
|4:20 p.m.||Louis Oosthuizen vs. Keegan Bradley||Oosthuizen wins, 6&5|
|4:30 p.m.||Rickie Fowler vs. Harris English||Fowler wins, 1 up|
|4:40 p.m.||Graeme McDowell vs. Shane Lowry||Lowry wins, 1 up|
|4:50 p.m.||Dustin Johnson vs. Matt Jones||Johnson wins, 3&1|
|5:00 p.m.||Victor Dubuisson vs. Charl Schwartzel||Schwartzel wins, 5&4|
|5:10 p.m.||Adam Scott vs. Francesco Molinari||Molinari wins, 5&4|
|5:20 p.m.||Chris Kirk vs. Paul Casey||Casey wins, 22 holes|
|5:30 p.m.||Rory McIlroy vs. Jason Dufner||McIlroy wins, 5&4|
|5:40 p.m.||Billy Horschel vs. Brandt Snedeker||Horschel wins, 5&4|
|5:50 p.m.||Hideki Matsuyama vs. Alexander Levy||Matsuyama wins, 5&4|
|6:00 p.m.||Kevin Na vs. Joost Luiten||Luiten wins, 19 holes|