Rory McIlroy beat Jhonattan Vegas 2&1 to keep his hopes of back to back tournament wins alive in WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship in Texas.
After losing to Peter Uihlein at Austin Country Club on Wednesday, the world number seven’s destiny is now back in his own hands and he avoids the dubious fate of playing out a meaningless dead rubber today.
Left-hander Brian Harman, who halved with Vegas on day one, did McIlroy a favour by beating Uihlein 3 & 2 in the other match in the group.
If McIlroy beats Harman today, he is guaranteed a playoff at worst and might even win the group and go straight into Saturday’s knockout phase for the last 16, depending on how Uihlein fares against Vegas.
“I need to win tomorrow, and that will at least get me into a playoff to try to get through, obviously depending on how Peter and Jhonny’s match goes,” said McIlroy, who is looking forward to downing tools early next week before heading to Augusta to practice.
"At least it's brought things back into my own hands, which is nice. I didn't want to have to rely on that."
One up after two, he lost the seventh to a par but won the eighth in regulation figures, then birdied the ninth to turn two up.
"It doesn't matter who you are, if you get out ahead early in the format, over 18 holes it just puts pressure on your opponent," said McIlroy, who was flat against Uihlein early in his opening match and was five down after 11.
"It forces them to try to go after a few more pins, be more aggressive with their putts. Johnny had to try and be aggressive for the last few holes out there. I just kept hitting good shots and giving myself chances. That was enough."
After making a key putt at the 11th to stay two up, he extended his lead to three holes with a birdie at the 13th, lost the par-five 16th to birdie but closed out the match at the short 17th by drilling a six-footer home for par.
While he refused to blame fatigue and Sunday’s dramatic win for his defeat to Uihlein, he admitted he needs a rest as he's playing his sixth event in seven weeks.
"I will probably play a good 54 to 72 holes at Augusta on Wednesday and Thursday next week. If I do get deep in this tournament, I'll probably put the clubs away, Monday, Tuesday next week, just have a couple of full rest days. Actually, I know I've got a few house things that Erica has organized on Tuesday, so definitely have the clubs away then."
McIlroy's return to the winner's circle at Bay Hill was a reminder that he's always close to hitting top form, no matter how poorly he appears to be playing.
"I have done it before," he said of his turnaround from missing the cut in Tampa to winning the following week. "I have done it before where it's looked as if I was far away and I wasn't really.
"The spring of 2012, I missed four out of five cuts going into The Open Championship in the summer. I think I finished 60th at The Open. Then I finished fifth at Akron. I went on and won a second major, I won two FedExCup events, played well in the Ryder Cup.
"Again, I think with the way I play, and how I am as a person, I'm never too far away either side. I'm never too far away from playing great.
"On the flip side, I'm never too far away from struggling. It's more of a mindset thing and that's been the pattern of my career over the past ten years. I'm conscious that -- it's always great because I have the belief in myself that I'm able to flip it around very quickly.
"On the flip side, I know that I have to work just as hard to keep it that way. The game can so easily go the other way."
McIlroy might still be alive in Austin but defending champion and world number one Dustin Johnson cannot qualify for the last 16 after his 4 and 3 defeat to Canadian Adam Hadwin, posing questions about the round-robin format.
McIlroy could benefit from it this year but he knows it's going to be tough for Johnson to be motivated against Kevin Kisner.
"I definitely agree with that," said McIlroy, who had to play a meaningless match on Friday last year, halving with Emiliano Grillo, who'd lost both matches.
"Knowing that you are playing a match that you might get two more FedEx points and $20,000 or whatever it is. It's tough. It's hard. You try to go out with the mindset that I'm going to maybe try things or if you are working on your golf swing, it's a good round to take advantage of trying different things, bits and pieces.
"That's the tough part about it. There's going to be guys going out there tomorrow that would really just want to be on a plane tonight going home."
They certainly don't include McIlroy or Harman, who knows he's up against it.
"Obviously, Rory is an incredible player," Harman said. "What he did last week was really impressive. I have to play really well to keep up with him."
Elsewhere, US Ryder Cup foursomes partners Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed will face off for a place in the knockout stage while Ian Poulter, who needs to reach the last eight to qualify for the Masters, beat Daniel Berger 2 and 1 to remain on course.
"I absolutely hate losing with a passion," said Poulter, who will progress if he beats Kevin Chappell. "In fact it makes me want to vomit."
The Spieth-Reed match is one of the most eagerly awaited given their Ryder Cup partnership and Reed's fury at not getting a free drop at Bay Hill last week when he told fans, '"I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys."
"Hopefully, I get done early and I can watch it," McIlroy said. "Penalty drops everywhere!"
The banter has already started between the Americans. When asked his strength as a match player, he joked: "I don't know, my back still hurts from the last Ryder Cup!"
Meanwhile, Golfweek reports that the Florida Swing will be restored next year with the WGC-Mexico Championship moving date so there will be four events in the Sunshine State in March.
Here is the possible new-look Florida Swing and run-up to Augusta in 2019:
- February 28-March 3: Honda Classic
- March 7-10: Arnold Palmer Invitational
- March 14-17: The Players Championship
- March 21-24: Valspar Championship
- March 28-31: WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play
- April 4-7: Valero Texas Open
- April 11-14: The Masters
Dunne and Power start well
At the PGA Tour's Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic, Greystones' Paul Dunne is tied for 10th after hitting all 18 greens en route to an immaculate, five-under 67.
He's tied for 10th, just four shots behind American Brice Garnett, who shot a nine-under 63 to lead by a stroke from compatriot Corey Conners with Seamus Power tied 16th after a 68 and Graeme McDowell joint 36th after a 70.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (37) posted a roller coaster 77, turning in level par before dropping five shots in a four-hole stretch on the back nine.
He matched England's Brian Davis, Robert Gamez and Keith Clearwater and beat former PGA Tour winners DA Points and Guy Boros by one to share 127th in the 132-strong field.
"I hit a lot of good shots and ended up a couple times in some poor spots," Romo said. "We had it going for a little bit. We were close."
On the Challenge Tour, five-time European Tour winner Michael Hoey made seven birdies in a five-under 66 to lie just one stroke behind England's Max Orrin and Scot Ross Kellett in the €500,000 Barclays Kenya Open.
The Ballymoney man (39) knows that a win in the season-opening event would put his three-quarters of the way towards earning one of 15 European Tour cards awarded to the leading money winners at the end of the season.
Kellett (30) made two eagles and four birdies in a 65 to set the pace on six-under at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Golf Club before England’s Orrin (23), joined him at the top after a seven-birdie round.
Hoey is tied for third with seven-time Sunshine Tour winner Jaco Ahlers and Sweden’s Simon Forsstrom.
But it was more of a struggle for the rest of the Irish with Team Ireland's Gary Hurley and Cormac Sharvin 53rd after level-par 71s.
Mount Juliet’s Gavin Moynihan is 71st after a one-over 72 with Derry's Ruaidhri McGee 108th after a 74.