Plenty of positives for Rory McIlroy despite hurt of defeat in thrilling duel
Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30
When your opponent has taken 23 putts in his round and you have only been denied on the 18th green, it must be easy to take away the positives. That was certainly the case for Rory McIlroy at the WGC Match Play Championship as his mission to wipe out Tiger Woods' record came up agonisingly short.
Going into next week's Masters, McIlroy believes he is peaking at the exactly right time, despite being unable to defend his title at the Austin Country Club and despite his consecutive winning run in this event halting at 12 - one shy of Woods' mark.
McIlroy left Texas a loser, but feeling like a soon-to-be winner; and perhaps in the Major he craves most in his attempt to become the sixth player in history to win the career Grand Slam.
And anyway, Jason Day is not the worst player to have been beaten by. Even before this high-quality semi-final, the Australian was already assured of leapfrogging Jordan Spieth into the world No 1 position when the rankings are released today.
And as, if to prove the point why he is the game's best, he proceeded to annihilate McIlroy on and around the greens.
The grandstands around the 18th witnessed the microcosm of the match.
Day was seemingly in an impossible place to enact an up-and-down, while McIlroy was just off the putting surface.
Advantage the Ulsterman - just as it had been on the 11th, when McIlroy was in tight after his tee-shot and Day had screwed his tee-shot.
Yet in that instance Day had holed his par putt and McIlroy, with all that pressure unique to matchplay, had dribbled past his try for the birdie and the hole.
Guess what? On that 18th, Day chipped as close as anyone could to hole - only 12 feet away - and holed for the match.
McIlroy could do no more than shake his head. On a tight, difficult layout he had not made a bogey, but had still found himself defeated.
He has never successfully defended a title and the despondency was obvious.
"Obviously you lose, and it's not very nice and I'm going to be a little bit p****d off," he said.
"But I have to regroup. I'm not angry with my game at all; I'm just angry I didn't do more in the match and convert my chances when I could have.
"I'm disappointed with the outcome, but I feel like where my game is I'm happy with that."
"I thought it was a good quality match. If I have to look back on it there were a couple of opportunities around the third and fourth where I did not convert and then not birdieing 12 or 13 was the real downfall.
"Losing 12 and 13, I think the catalyst for that was that shift in momentum on 11 and I never really recovered.
"To go two down, I knew I had an uphill battle on my hands and Jason was not giving me anything.
"I made a couple of birdies in the last five holes but it just was not good enough. I feel like I played well, did not make a bogey out there and I did not hand him anything, but obviously disappointed I am not in the final."
McIlroy revealed that he will not visit Augusta in the next week but instead practise at his home in south Florida.
He will fly to Georgia next Sunday to begin his preparations for his tilt at joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Woods in completing the full set and having the career Grand Slam to his name.
The problem is, McIlroy had put great stock into going into the Masters with a win under his belt, but in true optimistic golfer style he is swatting away the deficit in his trophy room.
"I was saying coming into this week that, no matter if I play three, six or seven rounds, playing matchplay and feeling like you are in contention every time you step on the first tee is a great feeling and something you can't replicate in practice," he said.
"The week has been very positive overall. I wish I would have been able to get one more win under my belt, but I am very happy with my game going into Augusta."
Day's progression to the final - where he played Louis Oosthuizen, after the South African had beaten Spain's Rafael Cabrero Bello 4&3 in the other semi-final - was remarkable in that the Australian had almost pulled out with a back injury on Thursday.
And the very least he was to take away from the event, which he won in 2014, was the fact he had reclaimed the No 1 position from Spieth.
Day had held the tag for just four weeks five months ago and have yearned to have it back.
"It's not so much about the No 1 ranking that really gets me, it's more so the journey and the process that it's taken," he said. "I'm really happy because I've been busting my butt."
(© Daily Telegraph, London)