The most meaningful outcome from the penultimate day of the WGC-Dell Match Play? Take your pick.
In his Texas backyard, Jordan Spieth succumbed to last-16 elimination. Rory McIlroy’s progress to the semi-finals leaves him tantalisingly close to the victory that would serve as perfect Masters preparation. And then, there was the small matter of Jason Day’s march to the last four ensuring he will again be the world No1 when the rankings are released on Monday.
It does not end there; McIlroy and Day will square off on Sunday morning, in the most alluring two-ball not only of this but plenty other seasons. Day won this event in 2014, only to be succeeded by McIlroy last year in San Francisco.
McIlroy, who continues to putt with a free-flowing confidence, finds himself within touching distance of history. The world No3’s unbeaten run of 12 matches in this tournament takes him to within one of the record set by Tiger Woods. No player other than Woods, who did it eight times, has successfully defended a WGC title.
Here is another pertinent statistic, though: McIlroy has played 88 holes, compared with 69 for Day.
“I feel like each and every day I’ve improved a little bit,” said McIlroy after his 4&3 quarter-final victory over Chris Kirk. “I made six or seven birdies out there this afternoon. I made a couple of mistakes and gave a couple of holes away, but for the most part I was very pleased with how I played. I’ve got to the final day in this tournament three times and I’ve never had to play in a consolation match. So hopefully it’s the same case tomorrow.
“Even if tomorrow doesn’t quite go the way I want it to, I feel like I’ve still made a lot of great strides forward. I’ve kept saying I want to go to Augusta with a win under my belt and this is my last chance.
“I’ve obviously got a great chance to do that. But I think 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.”
McIlroy’s elongated week continued with a single-hole success over Zach Johnson on Saturday morning. Spieth exited at that stage, Louis Oosthuizen defeating the two-times major champion 4&2. For Spieth, it was simply a bad day at the office.
“I really just felt very uncomfortable over the ball,” Spieth said. “I was off from when I hit my first 10 shots on the range. The ball was slicing, which is very odd.
“I’m not exactly sure what happened, I still don’t really know. It could have been something as simple as ball position or alignment. I tried to figure it out for the entire range session, but I just couldn’t grab a shot that I knew I could go to the course with.”
More intriguing still was Spieth’s response to the potential loss of world No1 status, as was to transpire a matter of hours later. “To be honest, it could be a good thing for me going into the Masters,” said the 22-year-old.
Day’s Austin outing has proved somewhat unorthodox. The Australian started it with what appeared to be a serious back problem, later benefited from the illness of Paul Casey and finds himself in the final four. Day saw off Brandt Snedeker in the last 16 before a quarter-final success over Brooks Koepka 3&2. It seems laughable now that only a fortnight ago, Day’s form and Masters prospects were being questioned.
“It’s not so much about the No1 rank that really gets me excited. It’s more so the journey and the process that it’s taken,” Day said. “To get to the top of your sport takes a long time and so for me it’s that delayed gratification I’m really thankful for and very happy for because I have been busting my butt and doing the right things.”
Others are benefiting from keeping out of the limelight. Someone may also profit from the level of energy McIlroy and Day will inevitably take out on each other by the time it comes to the final.
Oosthuizen, a major winner yet commonly underappreciated because of a low-key personality, impressively took out Dustin Johnson after Spieth. Oosthuizen’s semi-final is against Rafael Cabrera-Bello, who celebrated his maiden qualification for the Masters with a 2&1 last-eight win over Ryan Moore.
From the position of 11 out of the last 16 players, the United States has no representation remaining. Darren Clarke may look on and smile.
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