Sudden death holds no fears for McIlroy as bid stays alive
Holder advances to last 16 after edging out American on the second extra hole
RORY MCILROY survived a suddendeath play-off to keep his hopes of a second successive WGC-Dell Match Play title alive in Texas.
On a day when Scotsman Russell Knox was ousted from the event after a 5&4 defeat to South Africa’s Branden Grace, McIlroy, who has never successfully defended a tournament in his professional career, defeated American Kevin Na on the second extra hole of their winner-takes-all contest to advance to the last 16 at Austin Country Club.
The world No 3 found himself two down after a double bogey on the second and a Na birdie on the fifth, but bounced back with a birdie on the seventh and then holed from 65 feet on the ninth to get back on level terms.
Na reclaimed the lead with a birdie on the 10th but McIlroy’s new putting technique again paid dividends as he holed from 30 feet on the next, before edging in front for the first time on the 15th.
However, McIlroy drove into the water on the 16th and Na won the hole with a birdie four, with neither player then able to secure victory in regulation or on the first extra hole.
Na then hooked his tee shot on the second into a hazard, and a par from McIlroy was enough to secure a meeting with Open champion Zach Johnson, who had earlier defeated Shane Lowry 4&3 to complete a perfect 3-0 record in group 14.
“I had to dig pretty deep,” McIlroy said. “Kevin is a very good competitor and he was not really giving me much out there. I holed a few long putts to keep it together when I needed to.
“I had a couple of chances to maybe close the match out on the last and the first extra hole but for the most part I felt I played pretty well. I responded to some of his good shots with good shots myself and that gives me confidence going into the weekend.
“But it does not get any easier. This is a course that really sets up well for Zach. It’s a precision type of course and if he gets the ball in play he will be very hard to beat.
“I feel like my match-play game is pretty good and no matter what he does I am going to have to respond to it.”
The play-off between McIlroy and Na followed one between Grace and American Chris Kirk, who had to wait more than two hours for the first tee to clear after Grace eased past Knox and Kirk defeated David Lingmerth 3&2.
A par on the first extra hole was then enough for Kirk to advance to face compatriot Bill Haas, who birdied the 17th and 18th to defeat in-form Australian Adam Scott.
Inverness exile Knox had gone into the final day of group matches at the top of his table, following a halved match with Lingmerth and a 2&1 victory over Kirk, but his hopes of a last 16 berth were denied by a purposeful Grace.
Grace, the world No 12, was approximately three-under for the holes played whereas Knox was threeover on a testing day when he could only muster one birdie and didn’t win a single hole.
The defeat leaves Knox heading home to Jacksonville Beach in Florida to prepare for his upcoming Masters debut, having decided to skip next week’s PGA Tour event, the Shell Houston Open.
Elsewhere, Jason Day had been the first player into the last 16 after his final group two opponent Paul Casey was forced to withdraw from their contest after six holes due to a stomach virus.
That gave Day his third victory of the week and welcome time to rest following the back injury he suffered during his opening victory over Graeme McDowell, although the world number two had shrugged off doubts about his participation by beating Thongchai Jaidee 5&3 on Thursday.
“Unfortunately Paul has some stomach virus and I overheard him say he has lost eight pounds since he has had it and that drains the energy out of you,” Day told Sky Sports.
“My back is getting better each and every day. This is a blessing in disguise where I can get some more treatment again, have the rest of the day off and then maybe have 36 holes on each day this weekend.”
Day will face Brandt Snedeker in the last 16 after Snedeker defeated Charl Schwartzel 5&3, while Matt Kuchar advanced to take on Brooks Koepka thanks to a 3&2 win over former US Open champion Justin Rose.
MARCHING ON: Rory McIlroy edged out Kevin Na at the WGC Dell Matchplay Championship.