RORY McILROY pulled a brilliant victory from the jaws of defeat when the WGC-Accenture World Match Play Championship began in Tucson yesterday.
Four down to American Kevin Na early on and still two behind with only four holes remaining, the 20-year-old fourth seed eagled the next and won on the final green as his little-known opponent, ranked 61st in the world, felt the heat.
Out, though, went three-time major winner Pádraig Harrington, who surprisingly lost three and one to Indian Jeev Milkha Singh, while Graeme McDowell lost 2&1 to Luke Donald.
McIlroy’s win was just the sort of thing that would have hugely impressed Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie, who earlier this week said: “I want to see guys who show guts and determination, guys who are maybe two or three down with four or five holes to play but who battle back to win.”
The young Irishman, already a near-certainty for a debut against the Americans in October, reached the quarter-finals last year and is this week playing his first event as a member of the US Tour.
McIlroy said: “I definitely didn’t make it easy for myself. I got off to a very slow start. I think I hung in well, but was pretty fortunate to get through and I’ll need to play better if I want to progress into the latter stages.”
He next faces Wilson and added: “Ollie’s a great competitor, a Ryder Cup player and he’s going to be very tough.”
McIlroy is already the only Irishman left in the event as it moves down to the last 32, McDowell having gone down 2&1 to an in-form Luke Donald.
McDowell commented: “The last two years I’ve run into a buzz-saw. Last year Zach Johnson made eight or nine birdies and Luke just putted the eyes out of it. Every time I smelt a chance he made a putt.
“It does not matter how well you play in this. If someone plays better you go home.”
Donald, who was unavailable for the 2008 Ryder Cup after undergoing surgery on his wrist, was runner-up on the US Tour’s Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles two weeks ago and looks back to near his best.
McDowell, two down after seven, birdied the next three holes, but did not win any of them. Donald sank efforts from 16 feet for halves and then went three ahead when his opponent bogeyed the long 13th.
After putt of over 15 feet kept Donald in the driving seat two holes later and although he lost the short 16th and was in trouble on the next McDowell bogeyed as well, his missed nine-footer meaning he had to shake hands.
Now in danger of dropping out of the world’s top 50 – a potentially huge blow to his hopes of a second Ryder Cup cap – McDowell was not the first European out of the event, though.
There was a superb fightback from Ian Poulter as well. He went from two up to two down against former Open champion Justin Leonard, but won on the 19th.
Paul Casey, last year’s runner-up to Australian Geoff Ogilvy, had a thumping 5&4 success over Canadian Stephen Ames, but that was far from the biggest victory of the day.
Ames’s fellow countryman Mike Weir thrashed big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros 8&6 – he birdied nine of the first 10 holes – while Ogilvy began his defence with a 7&5 trouncing of Alex Noren.
It was not a good day for the Swedes. As well as Noren, Peter Hanson lost to Australian Robert Allenby and former winner Henrik Stenson withdrew after one hole against American Ben Crane because of flu-like symptoms.
Stenson said: “It’s ’flu or a virus or something like that. I started feeling bad on Monday, but although I was a little bit better this morning as soon as I tried to hit balls it was an out-of-body experience”.
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