He's still well short of 100 percent but Rory McIlroy is clearly trending in the right direction in Texas. The world No 3 beat Kevin Na at the second sudden death hole to advance to the last 16 and he's determined to keep his unbeaten streak going and take down red-hot Zach Johnson in the WGC-Dell Match Play in Texas today.
The defending champion said he was relieved to beat the sticky Na with a par at the second hole of a Group 3 playoff after they halved their 18 hole match at Austin Country Club to finish with two and a half points each.
In truth, Na was the third player in a row to hand McIlroy the match with a mistake, driving into trouble on the 20th. Whether Johnson or any of the other survivors are as forgiving — Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Jason Day, Matt Kuchar, Louis Oosthuizen and Bill Haas have been impressive — remains to be seen.
Johnson beat Shane Lowry 4 and 3 for his third win in a row in Group 14 and while McIlroy’s power and his hot putter will be tough to counter even if the tight, firm course sets up better for the reigning Open champion, Johnson is a tiger.
“This is a golf course that sets up perfectly for Zach,” McIlroy said. “It’s his sort of golf course. Very much have much a precision course and that's his game. If he can get it in play, he's going to be very tough to beat.
“I feel like I'm playing well. I've had some good battles with the team format with Zach over the years in the Ryder Cup, so tomorrow should be a good one.”
McIlroy had to battle hard to beat Na, who won the second with a par to McIlroy’s double bogey six and then birdied the fifth to go two up.
The world No 3 birdied the short seventh from eight feet and the ninth with a 68-foot bomb to get back to all square.
And while he lost the 10th to go one down again, McIlroy insisted that the longer a match goes on, the stronger he feels about his chances.
“Any time I go into the back nine, even today, I was down after 10 holes but I knew that I’d played the back nine well this week and I had done well,” he said.
“Any time the match goes the distance, I feel like I have a better chance. Thankfully, I was able to get it done again today.”
After another birdie two at the 11th levelled the match, McIlroy won the 15th in birdie to go one up but lost the 16th after a poor drive.
Na suggested picking up their short par putts at the 18th but the Ulsterman refused.
"I'm pretty confident over those and I wanted to put as much pressure on him as I could," McIlroy said. "When it's that tight on the last hole, I would rather just hole the putt. At least it gives you a little momentum going into the playoff."
“It is a sigh of relief, nice to get through and nice to be here for the weekend,” Mcilroy said after Na drove into trouble at the second and lost to a par four.
“My match play record has been pretty good over the last couple of years. It was nice to get another win and be here for the last 16. I have got a tough opponent in Zach Johnson tomorrow. I know I have to play very, very well. Just delighted to get through.”
The expected rematch between Paul Casey and Jason Day never happened with the Englishman, who like Graeme McDowell was already out of the tournament, forfeiting due to a stomach bug to send the Australian into the last 16.
McDowell, meanwhile, was down for most of the day to Thongchai Jaidee but halved in the end to finish the week with two halves and a defeat from three matches.
Elsewhere, Jordan Spieth beat Justin Thomas 3 and 2 and now faces Louis Oosthuizen with the winner taking on Dustin Johnson or Patrick Reed.
Johnson beat Kiradech Aphibarnrat in a play-off to decide the winner of Group 8 as Oosthuizen, beat Andy Sullivan 4 and 2 to win Group 16 while Reed downed Phil Mickelson 5 and 4 to win Group 9.
Patton Kizzire beat Emiliano Grillo and emerged from a group that also featured JB Holmes and Bubba Watson to set up a last 16 showdown with Ryan Moore with the winner to face Byeong-Hun An or Rafa Cabrera Bello.
The Spaniard holed a 90-foot putt to beat Kevin Kisner on Thursday, and he produced more late heroics to win his group and progress through to the last 16 for the first time.
ne down on the last to Søren Kjeldsen, he drove the green and two putted for birdie to win the hole and claim a crucial half point, setting up an all-European Tour clash with An, who halved with Rickie Fowler on day three.
An then saw off Scott Piercy in a play-off after both finished with two and a half points in Group 5, and there was also success for Oosthuizen, who beat Andy Sullivan 4 and 2 to win Group 16, and for Reed, who downed Phil Mickelson 5&4 to win Group 9.
Day meets Brandt Snedeker with the winner playing Brooks Koepka or Matt Kuchar, who ousted Justin Rose 3 and 2.
The winner of the McIlroy-Johnson match will meet Haas or Chris Kirk.