World’s best prepare to send the WGC-Match Play off right Sunday at Austin CC
AUSTIN, Texas – As swan songs say, this is about as fitting as anyone could have hoped with the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
With two of the top four seeded players, Jon Rahm and Patrick Cantlay, going home before the quarterfinals and a tricky format, the final matchplay could have been a real dud.
Remember that this event gave the golf world Jeff Maggert, Andrew Magee, John Huston and Steve Pate for the last four when it was first held in 1999. With a monsoon of respect for all four players, they were 24thth50th27th and 61St seeded players this week at the La Costa Resort in Southern California.
In comparison, Sunday’s dance card at the Austin Country Club is packed with potential, with world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and No. 3 Rory McIlroy leading the semifinal bouts.
McIlroy’s game was particularly inspiring this week, thanks to a high-profile switch to a shorter shaft in his driver, which produced the week’s most talked about shot when he hit his drive at 4ft on the par 4 18th Hole Thursday for a walk-off win. But if his driver is responsible for an avalanche of social media buzz, it was his putter that delivered his place in the last four.
In a match against Xander Schauffele that included nine lead changes, McIlroy rolled in clutch putts from 8 ft (par) to No. 11, 20 ft (birdie) to No. 15, and 12 ft (birdie) to No. 18 to finish the match.
“If you had told me I would make 17 birdies [in two matches] today and come until the 18thth Get twice I’m not sure I would have believed you,” McIlroy smiled.
It’s a testament to the level of play he faced that both of McIlroy’s knockout games went the distance. In the morning it was Lucas Herbert, who was 6 under par and edged out the Northern Irishman with birdies on two of his last three holes. Schauffele was also 6 under and held the lead late into the match.
“It was a great game,” said Schauffele. “I felt like I was definitely better than him. I had looks where he didn’t and he was making putts when I just waited around. He played well. He’s made a lot of these 5- to 8-foot printers that he needed all day.
Scheffler, this week’s defending champion, was just as dynamic on Saturday. He ended his morning game against JT Poston early with birdies on three of his last four holes and played five (birdys) from six to end his matinée against Jason Day, 2 and 1, and advanced to the semifinals for a third time in four starts at match play
“I had a really good back nine. If you have 3 below you must do this. I’m very proud of this performance there in the second nine and of my finish,” said Scheffler.
Scheffler, the nutty crowd pleaser after playing his college golf at the University of Texas, meets Sam Burns in the Final Four. Although the world number 1 should have the advantage, the last duel between the two in Texas did not go to Scheffler.
In last year’s Charles Schwab Challenge, Burns started the final round seven shots clear but closed on a 65, beating Scheffler on the first playoff hole. The two immediately attended the same wedding after this showdown and are regular practice round partners. They are fiercely competitive both on and off the pitch.
“I recently added him to my pickleball team. I usually beat him pretty well there when he gets on the other team, so pickleball isn’t much of a challenge for me,” Scheffler laughed. “The match tomorrow will be a lot harder than if I beat him at pickleball.”
McIlroy will face Cameron Young in the other semifinal and given the randomness of the matchplay, a final between Rory and Scottie is far from predetermined. The notion that the top seeded players are destined to play each other is quite a misnomer – much like Lake Austin, which is actually not a lake at all but the Colorado River.
But after five rounds, the stars are clearly aligned and McIlroy, the 2015 Matchplay Champion, understands the importance of the final WGC matchplay.
“Winning match play is always a massive achievement because you have to go through everything,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, maybe a greater sense of satisfaction to come through and win on Sunday night. I feel like maybe doing it is more of a mental feat than just winning a four-round stroke play event.”