On the opening day of the WGC Match Play Championship Rory McIlroy summoned the spirit of recovery which defines a champion.
Jason Day is now seeking something similar but in a physical rather than competitive sense, in order simply to prolong his interest in the event. And they said the switching of this competition to group stage format would trigger a lack of intrigue.
McIlroy is not only the defending champion but arrived in Austin holding a superb record, which showed only three defeats in 18 matchplay outings. At two down to Thorbjorn Olesen, the world No66, with five holes to play McIlroy was in trouble. The devil in the detail is that the Northern Irishman has routinely earned points the hard way. So it proved again. McIlroy triumphed at the last, aided by a horrible greenside shank from his Danish opponent which triggered sympathy even from the victor.
“You feel bad because he’s up basically the whole match, and to finish like that as well,” conceded the four-time major winner. “It was his to lose. I feel a little bit bad for him but I’m just happy that I snuck through with the win and looking forward to the next couple of days.”
McIlroy, though, is up and running. “Matchplay is all about just getting through,” he added. “You have to get through and get into the weekend. I’m one step towards doing that after today but I know that I’m going to have to play a bit better if I want to win my next matches.”
Day had been in deep physical distress after seeing off Graeme McDowell by 3&2. That result would have been altogether different, had a back injury not impacted on the world No2 when four holes from home and three up.
“Up until that point there was nothing,” confirmed Day’s caddie, Colin Swatton. “It was just out of the blue.” Day literally limped over the line before heading immediately for medical treatment.
With only a fortnight to go before the Masters, for which Day is among the favourites, alarm bells duly rung from Texas to his native Australia. Suddenly – and only time will tell for how long –Day’s situation has plunged firmly into the realms of the unknown.
On the 16th tee Day dropped his driver and doubled up in agony after a wild hook into a bunker. He had described that as “searing” to friends afterwards. Day explained that both sides of his back had “seized up” and he had felt pain through his legs.
Day is one of few players to have a hotline to Tiger Woods; that communication may prove beneficial once again. The 14-time major winner, after all, has become all too familiar with afflictions of the back.
Day has encountered them in the past – this triggered a withdrawal from the 2014 BMW Championship – along with injuries to his thumb, ankle and a serious bout of vertigo at last year’s US Open, rendering him far from the luckiest player on tour. The timing of this issue could barely be worse, with a legitimate question mark now hovering over whether or not the US PGA champion can return for his second Austin match – against Thongchai Jaidee – on Thursday.
The fact that tie is not scheduled until 2.20 in the afternoon offers extra scope for recuperation. Day would even have the option of skipping the Jaidee encounter but returning on Friday; a matter which would be of obvious benefit to the Thai, who would earn a day two point without striking a ball.
Late on Wednesday Day’s management insisted their client was “preparing” for a meeting with Jaidee but, given timing and context, a degree of caution from the player himself is inevitable.
Elsewhere a scrappy encounter between Sergio García and Lee Westwood eventually culminated in a single-hole win for the Spaniard. Westwood had been two up after seven.
Phil Mickelson demonstrated the value of experience by crushing Matt Fitzpatrick 5&4. Jordan Spieth got the better of Jamie Donaldson 3&2 before admitting “everything is kind of coming together” in what will serve as a warning to fellow players. Rickie Fowler slipped to a 2&1 defeat by Jason Dufner. Andy Sullivan’s recurring prominence was maintained courtesy of a win over Bernd Wiesberger by 3&2. Dustin Johnson, who does not look remotely suited to this venue, lost out to Robert Streb. Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer were among the other winners.
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