Match Play gives Rory McIlroy timely chance to find form
In this shoe-horned season, compressed into a shrunken space to accommodate the Olympics in August and Ryder Cup a month later, the second World Golf Championship event of the year, the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, pops up just three weeks after the first and only a fortnight before the Masters.
New sponsors Dell would have wanted room to breathe for a tournament that has struggled for traction despite it being the only none strokeplay event on tour, a build-up of sorts to highlight the stellar cast and the unique nature of the contest.
But for some among the world’s elite struggling for form it represents a welcome shift from routine and, in the case of defending champion Rory McIlroy, an opportunity to reboot after another confusing week where his best was sublime and his worst catastrophic.
McIlroy has twice blown winning opportunities in the States this year: on debut at Riviera in February and earlier this month at Doral, where he failed to convert a three-shot lead on the final day.
The Holywood man arrived at Bay Hill last week full of confidence, believing the Arnold Palmer Invitational would be third time lucky. He proceeded to hook his opening tee shot way left and scrambled to the first of two 75s.
Thankfully, there was also a 67 and, on the final day, a 65 to suggest if he can get his head on the right way around he might again be the man to beat this week.
“Up and down, it’s been the story of my week, and of my year, really,” McIlroy said after his final round at Bay Hill. “I’ve played great golf and not great golf. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.
“It’s just something I need to work on going into the Match Play, these high scores. I know it’s nothing to do with my game, really. It’s nothing to do with me technically. It’s more mental.
“I’m beating myself up over mistakes I’m making on the course and then I’m not letting myself get over it, so that it lingers there for the next few holes.”
McIlroy must get past group rivals Kevin Na, Smylie Kaufman and Thorbjorn Olesen in that order to make the knockout stages at the weekend, but he is not thinking about that.
“I don’t think you can,” he said. “I have to focus on my first three matches. If I can navigate my way through them, then I’ll start to look at who my potential opponents will be for the weekend. You have to play the player in front of you.
“It’s like a sprint. You don’t really have time to find a rhythm – you need birdies from the get-go. I’m looking forward to it. My record in match play is pretty good since I turned pro, so (I’m) excited to get going.”
The players are drawn in 16 groups of four, playing each member of the group over the opening three days.
The group winners progress to the last 16 on Saturday morning. The quarter-finals are staged on Saturday afternoon, with the semi-finals and finals on Sunday.
World No 1 Jordan Spieth’s group includes Ryder Cup foes Jamie Donaldson and Victor Dubuisson, while Paul Casey and Graeme McDowell share a pod with world No 2 Jason Day and Thongchai Jaidee.
English trio Chris Wood, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan must see off Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen in their respective groups, while Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia square off.
Match Play Championship, Live, Sky Sports 4, 6.00pm