Not even the bookies are sure now who is going to win the Masters. With new world No 1 Jason Day defeating Rory McIlroy one up in the semifinals before going on the beat Louis Oosthuizen 5&4 in the final of the WGC-Dell Match Play, they’ve made the Australian 13/2 joint favourite with the Ulsterman and reigning champion Jordan Spieth.
Bubba Watson and Adam Scott are 11/1 and while those odds are all perfectly logical, there are as many reasons to wonder why McIlroy is not the sole favourite as to question the fact that he’s given as good a chance as Spieth or Day..
On the plus side the Holywood star is overdue a win this year given that all the big names have triumphed at some stage since January.
On the minus side he’s still not quite firing on all cylinders.
That he’s not going up to Augusta early and hasn’t been there is seen as a sign that he’s not over anxious and a plus.
But there’s still a nagging feel that while he’s holed miles of putts since turning to left hand low at Doral, he’s still vulnerable on the greens, especially at Augusta. Another minus.
McIlroy, of course, only speaks of positives and while annoyed to let Day off the hook in the semis, he sees his game as being on an upward curve. And he’s right.
“The quality of the match with Jason was really good. I think the only mistake between us was made on the second hole when he went into the hazard,” McIlroy said. “Apart from that, there were no bogeys.
" I didn’t birdie the 12th or 13th and that’s what cost me the match. That was a really big swing in the match. Jason didn’t give me anything – he played very solid. I’m disappointed with the outcome, but I feel like I’m really happy with where my game is. There are lots of positives to take from this week.
”I feel like I've made a lot of great strides forward this week,'' McIlroy said prior to his match against Day. "I've kept saying I want to go to Augusta with a win under my belt and this is my last chance ... even if it doesn't quite go that way, I'll still walk away from here very confident going to Augusta, knowing where my game is and knowing that I'm right where I need to be with a week to go.''
As ESPN’s Bob Harig pointed out last night: "There is some doubt as to whether McIlroy’s game is where he wants it. But nobody will remember that uncertainty two weeks from now if he is wearing the green jacket.”
As for Day, the Australian has now won six of his last 13 events compared McIlroy’s six of 36 or Spieth’s six of his last 30.
Having struggled with a back injury early in the week at Austin Country Club, Day still managed to top Group 2 and dispatch Brand Snedeker and Brooks Koepka en route to the final day.
As the Europen Tour put it: "An enthralling tussle with McIlroy ensued on Sunday morning, but despite being the only player to take Day to the 18th hole, the Northern Irishman was unable to produce a closing birdie that would have extended the match.
"Two years ago Day beat Victor Dubuisson in an epic final in Arizona that ended on the 23rd hole, but this time he had a much easier ride against Oosthuizen, who could not replicate his earlier ruthless form to which Rafa Cabrera Bello had earlier fallen victim, losing 4&3.
“Cabrera Bello rallied in the afternoon to cap a memorable week by seeing off McIlroy 3&2 in the consolation match, the Spaniard ensuring a first visit to the Masters in two weeks’ time as well as the largest pay cheque of his career."
“I’m very, very pleased to be the champion again. It was an interesting week, to say the least. I wasn’t even thinking about playing on Thursday after tweaking my back on Wednesday, then getting to World Number One on Saturday and then winning on Sunday. It was a very, very strange week, but I’m glad to gut it through and get the win. All week I’ve been getting therapy before my rounds, after my rounds, in between my rounds, trying to make sure that I’m just relaxing everything that I can through my back to get that locking feeling out of my system.
“I think the morning’s round was probably one of the hardest rounds I’ve had to go through in match play format, to try to get through. Rory was difficult because from tee to green he doesn’t miss any shots. Even if he does miss one slightly, he’s always back on top of it and hitting a great shot the next time. But I think if he had holed a few more putts early on, it would have been very difficult to catch him.”
“Up against a guy like Jason, you need to play well. I played okay but nothing spectacular. I hit the shots I wanted to and I hit the ball really well, but I couldn’t buy a putt. He’s a great player. He hit some amazing iron shots and made some amazing up and downs. He’s definitely a few steps ahead of everyone else at the moment. There was never really a turning point, I feel. I was sort of playing catch-up the whole time because I didn’t really put any pressure on him by making birdies. He always had the birdie putt for the win, and he’s a great putter.
“There are a lot of positives to take away from the week though, and I’m feeling very confident for Houston next week and the Masters the week after.”
Rafa Cabrera Bello
“I’m very happy with the way I played. I had to play really good golf to beat Rory. He’s such a good player, I’m just really pleased and honoured. This morning I didn't quite have my A game on the greens, I was maybe not quite so loose and made a few mistakes. I had a couple of opportunities to fight back, but I just didn’t get the ball in the hole. But this afternoon it hasn’t been like that. I played really solid, really well from tee to green. And the putter has worked better, as well. I rolled some putts in and I think that’s what made the difference.
“I really haven’t thought much about the Masters yet – I’ve been trying to focus on the matches today – but I’m sure tonight it will start to sink in and I’ll have a big smile on my face. It’s really the reason I wanted to turn pro, watching Olazábal win the Masters, so it is going to be very special for me.”