Game on. Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy will go head-to-head in the semi-finals of the Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson tomorrow – and the reward for the winner at the end of the day could be the world number one spot.
Westwood reached the last four with a polished error-free 4&2 victory over Scot Martin Laird minutes after 22-year-old McIlroy, capable of golf most people only dream about, beat Korean Bae Sang-moon on the same green.
The two Ryder Cup team-mates – stablemates too until McIlroy made what Westwood called a “bizarre decision” to leave the camp last October – both need to take the title to oust Luke Donald at the top of the rankings.
Americans Hunter Mahan and Mark Wilson meet in the other semi-final, Mahan demolishing compatriot Matt Kuchar 6&5 and Wilson maintaining his record of not needing to play the last two holes yet by seeing off Swede Peter Hanson 4&3.
It was at this event last year that Westwood lost the number one spot to German Martin Kaymer.
He grabbed it back with two wins in Asia in April, but has been behind Donald ever since losing a play-off to him in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth a month later.
Never previously beyond the second round at the Match Play in 11 previous appearances, the 38-year-old from Worksop has been superbly impressive in knocking out Nicolas Colsaerts, Robert Karlsson, Nick Watney and then Laird.
The Arizona-based Glaswegian became the first player to take the lead against Westwood when he rolled in a six-foot birdie putt on the first.
But Laird, who came into the week ranked 40th, bogeyed the sixth, seventh, ninth and 10th – all with bogeys after missing the greens – to be in deep trouble at three down.
Westwood handed one back by three-putting the long next after finding the green in two, but Laird’s three attempts to get out of a bunker on the 14th gave him a mountain to climb and Westwood was in no mood to let him back in.
McIlroy began in style with a birdie, but was in the lake at the third and with eight to play was again all square.
It was then that he showed his class, making birdies at the 11th and 13th - both par fives – and another on the driveable 15th when he chipped to two feet.
“For the most part I felt I played pretty well,” said the US Open champion.
“I hit a couple of loose drives, but apart from that I thought it was some of my best golf of the week.
“You really have to try to control your ball flight and pick your spots on the greens.”
Kuchar, third in the event last year, was a shadow of the player who had knocked out fourth seed Kaymer the day before. He three-putted twice and had four bogeys as he turned five down, then went over the green and dropped another stroke on the next.
Mahan added to his opponent’s misery by halving the long eighth in birdie fours and then rolling in an 18-footer for another birdie at the next.
Kuchar did birdie the 11th and 13th, both par fives, but so did Mahan and that was that.
Hanson fell behind for the first time all week when he bogeyed the first, but there was never more than one in it until the European Ryder Cup player went into the desert scrub for the second successive hole on the long 11th and ran up a bogey six.
He was then in two bunkers at the 13th and despite rescuing a par five it was not good enough to save him from losing another hole – and the end was not far away.
Mahan admitted he was surprised at how poorly Kuchar played given “the level of game he has”, while the short-hitting Wilson commented: “They talk about it being a bomber’s course, but you have to hit it straight too.”
That point was proved by the last two winners – Ian Poulter and Donald are by no means big-hitters – and Wilson had had only six bogeys in four games.
Donald won without playing the final hole. Westwood could do the same, but Wilson has not gone beyond the 16th yet.