Positive news for Rory McIlroy resonates both in a glance to the past and prospects for the near future.
Last year he qualified for the knockout stages of the WGC Match Play Championship courtesy of a 20th-hole victory over Billy Horschel. The Northern Irishman was ultimately to claim the title. At the Austin Country Club on Friday McIlroy did the very tournament a favour by eliminating Kevin Na, again on the 20th hole.
If that analysis appears harsh, it should be pointed out that Na takes pace of play to new levels and for entirely the wrong reasons. There might not have been enough daylight hours remaining to complete this tournament in due time had Na seen off the four-time major winner. Scandalously it took until the 16th hole of this keenly contested match for Na to be jostled along by officials.
A more endearing image is of McIlroy’s putting. With the Masters firmly in view, problems on the greens which were so apparent during the early part of the Florida swing are in the midst of being condemned to the realms of distant memory. McIlroy holed out from 68ft on the 9th in the defeat of Na but it has been his ability to convert consistently from shorter range that has been most noteworthy here.
“I keep saying there’s a reason that I switched putting grip,” McIlroy said. “The putting feels really good. Obviously I knocked in a couple of long ones out there. It’s very solid and I’m really happy with that. It’s a great asset to have in matchplay. Obviously it’s a great asset going to Augusta.
“I think that has to do with the change I’ve made. I’ve started to work a little bit harder on it, as well. Putting has started to become fun again. When you see putts drop and you’re holing putts on the course, I’m looking forward to getting on to the putting green and doing my drills because I can see improvement. Any time you see that, it gives you encouragement to keep doing it.”
As has become an Austin trend, McIlroy toiled in the early stages. Victory arrived after Na snapped his tee shot left – and lost – at the 2nd, a position from whence he could not recover. Next up for McIlroy is Zach Johnson, who should be regarded as among the favourites to win this, the second WGC of 2016.
“This is a golf course that sets up so well for Zach,” McIlroy acknowledged. “It’s a real precision type of golf course. If Zach gets it in the fairway, he’s going to have as good a chance as anyone around here.
“I’m going to have to play really well tomorrow and respond to some of the things he does because most likely I’ll be playing second into most of the greens. It really depends on how I respond to the good shots he hits. Hopefully I can make some good ones. I think it will be a really good match.”
Jason Day started this tournament in a state of physical panic, following the recurrence of a disc problem in his back. On day three he benefited from the ailments of Paul Casey. The Englishman conceded the pair’s match after six holes, having failed to recover from the stomach upset that had troubled him since Tuesday. Casey had been eliminated even before taking to the 1st tee, with Day an unblemished qualifier for the last 16.
“I am very weak,” Casey said. “I haven’t eaten in two days. I haven’t felt right all week, from day one.
“My wife came down with something last week and I picked up the same thing. She was laughing at me at first because she didn’t feel good and then it kind of led to the diarrhoea. So when I described my symptoms at the beginning of the week, she goes, ‘Just wait, you’ll have diarrhoea in a minute.’ She was right.
“It was originally just a bit of a bug where I battled through it. Not feeling particularly well, under the weather. It panned out into something and right now, it’s just killing me.
“I really enjoyed the golf course. I think it’s a great venue. I think it suits me. All in all, that’s disappointing because I don’t like to not have a chance when it’s a place you really enjoy playing. And today I thought I was going to give Jason a run for his money as well.”
Friday’s most stunning result was in favour of Patrick Reed, who crushed Phil Mickelson 5&4. Andy Sullivan led Louis Oosthuizen at one stage and thereby had the prospect of a Saturday tussle with Jordan Spieth but stumbled thereafter, falling to a 4&2 defeat. Oosthuizen and McIlroy are the only players to reach the last 16 two years in a row.
Justin Rose’s defeat by Matt Kuchar confirmed his exit before the business end of the tournament. Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia were amongthe others bound for early flights home.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010