Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell were reminded of the cruel reality of top class matchplay when they were eliminated with one round of matches remaining in the WGC – Cadillac Match Play in San Francisco.
But while it took a series of incredible putts by Rickie Fowler to take Lowry from the cusp of the last 16 to early elimination as a lacklustre McDowell fell 2&1 to Harris English, McIlroy was sublime once again.
He’s lost just three holes in 32 in beating Jason Dufner 5 and 4 and Brandt Snedeker 2 up. And while he faces a tough match today against his old Walker Cup foe Billy Horschel, he’s on course for that dream meeting with No 2 seed Jordan Spieth, who also faces a winner take all clash with Lee Westwood.
“I played Billy the Walker Cup and we played two matches against each other,” McIlroy said, recalling their fraught 2007 meetings at Royal County Down when McIlroy accused the American of gamesmanship and “obnoxious” behaviour. “He won the first one, I won the second. We’re good mates now, but back then we were a little bit younger and a little more emotional, so it was pretty heated.
"I don't think tomorrow will be quite so much like that, but still you need to win or you go home. So it’s an important game.”
Horschel also played down 2007 but he played up last year’s Tour Championship duel which denied McIlroy the FedEx Cup.
“Me and Rory have a great relationship now,” Horschel said. “No tension between us at all. A lot of people want to look at the Walker Cup and say, you know, there's going to be something going on. But, you know, there’s something that's more recent, the TOUR Championship, FedExCup.
"If he wins the Tour Championship and wins the FedExCup that's probably one of the top five greatest seasons of all time. And I was the roadblock. I stopped him from that. If anything, he's going to come out with a little bit more, not that he needs it, but a little more fuel to maybe redeem himself from that.”
McIlroy knows he will have to be at his best to see off Horschel, who beat Dufner 3&2.
He holed a 35 foot birdie putt from off the green at the first against Snedeker to edge in front and birdied the eighth to go two up before losing his first hole of the week, the ninth, to a Snedeker birdie
A par ar the 10th restored his two hole advantage and while Snedeker birdied the 11th and 12th to briefly restore parity, McIlroy converted from 15 feet on the 15th and five feet at the last to set-up a showdown with Horschel, whose 3 and 2 win over Dufner was also his second victory in as many days.
The other mouth-watering tie of day three at TPC Harding Park will see Westwood take on Masters champion J Spieth for a place in the last 16, with both players having won their first two group matches.
Spieth single putted 10 greens in a row to come back from two down after two (and three) to beat Matt Every 4 and 3.
Still two down after five, Spieth birdied the sixth (16 ft), seventh (18ft), eighth (22ft), ninth (16ft) to turn one up. He then chipped dead to halve the 10th, birdied the 11th (14ft) and 12th (7ft) to go three up, single putted from two feet for par at the 13th and from 17 feet for par at the 14th to remain three up before closing out what he said was the best putting day of his life with a nine footer for birdie at the 15th.
Not that Westwood seemed worried about the prospect of facing Spieth today.
“Jordan is playing really well at the moment but match play is a funny thing, especially over 18 holes - it can be anybody’s,” Westwood said after a one up win over Mikko Ilonen. “I played really well today and was five or six under par, so it was a good quality match and I just ground away.
"I'm really looking forward to this match tomorrow - it will be one of the matches of the day and I think that's what everybody wants. I'm looking forward to it. Jordan is playing really well so hopefully we can make a few birdies.”
Only e Fowler and John Senden have secured their places in the last 16 with a match to spare with many of Friday’s final group matches throwing up the possibilities of sudden-death play-off to decide who moves into the final stages of the tournament.
There will also be a number of straight head-to-head matches – McIlroy v Horschel, Spieth v Westwood, Bubba Watson v Louis Oosthuizen and Gary Woodland v Webb Simpson – to determine group winners.
There are two groups where all four players have a chance to progress depending on results, including the all European group of Sergio Garcia, Jamie Donaldson, Bernd Weisberger and Tommy Fleetwood. The other group contains Jim Furyk, Martin Kaymer, Thongchai Jaidee and George Coetzee.
Sadly for McDowell and Lowry, their matches with Fowler and English mean nothing.
Fowler’s comeback win over Lowry ensured he would go through on his head to head result against Lowry, even if he loses to McDowell and Lowry beats English to leave them 2-1.
One down after two, Lowry birdied the third and fourth to go one up and remained in front until Fowler started holing putts from all corner of Harding Park on the back nine.
It was Lowry who matched Fowler from 20 feet to stay one up after 11. But while he also birdied the 12th to go two up and looked to be sewing up his last 16 spot a day early, the young American got out of jail with his putter.
It started with a three putt bogey from 31 feet at the 13th that reduced his lead to just one hole. He then bogeyed the 14th to go back to all square, watched Fowler halve the 15th in birdie from 16 feet and the 16th and 17th for par from 18 feet and 31 feet respectively.
Lowry then played the 18th poorly and didn’t see the fairway before finidn greenside sand in three. A tap in par five was never going to be enough after Fowler had found the green in two. And while he made hard work of it, leaving himself a six footer for the win, the popped it.
“I feel bad for doing that to him,” Fowler admitted. “I’d rather hit good shots and make normal birdies… but it was nice to finally make some putts.”