Rory McIlroy 'relishing' semi-final showdown with Jason Day at WGC-Dell Match Play
Published 27/03/2016 | 09:36
Never mind the new world No 1, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy will also be gunning for Tiger Woods in Sunday morning’s semi-final of this WGC Matchplay. If he can find a way past the formidable Australian, McIlroy will equal Woods’s championship record of 13 consecutive victories.
The 14-time major champion compiled that remarkable run from 2003-2005, when he became the first and, so far, only player to retain the title. Matchplay is notoriously volatile, so to put together such a streak is impressive indeed. And to defend this trophy and go one better than Woods would assume a proud place on McIlroy’s ever-creaking CV. But first he must see off Day.
What a showdown we have in prospect here. Day and McIlroy are the past two winners of this event and the latter could hardly contain his anticipation as he watched the former move clear of the American Brooks Koepka.
“I’d love to play Jason; I’d really relish it,” McIlroy said. “He’s playing really well, coming off that win at Bay Hill last week. I’d be really up for it. He’s No 2 in the world, I’m No 3. Yeah, I’d look forward to that a lot.”
Day was No 2 at the time, but when he shook hands with Koepka on the 16th green, in recognition of a 3 & 2 triumph, Day was assured of leapfrogging Jordan Spieth at the top of the rankings. Spieth was beaten by the South African Louis Oosthuizen 4 & 3 in the morning and the American knows that should Day record his second victory in as many weeks on Sunday then he will not arrive for his defence of the Masters as officially the “game’s best”. “To be honest, that could be a good thing for me going to Augusta,” Spieth said.
Day has yearned to return the summit since losing it back to Spieth after just four weeks last October. “It’s not so much about the No 1 ranking that really gets me, it’s more the journey and the process that it’s taken,” Day said. “I’m really happy because I’ve been busting my butt. The next step is to get into tomorrow’s final. But I know I have a tough one.”
Indeed, he does and although Day, the US PGA champion, is a worthy No 1 there can be no doubting who is golf’s premier matchplayer. McIlroy has won 22 out of his past 25 encounters in the format, which, quite frankly, is absurd.
Zach Johnson felt the full force of McIlroy’s ever-developing competitive spirit in the round of 16. Johnson had not been taken past the 15th green in his stress-free advance to the knockout stages, which included an 8 & 6 dismantling of former world No 1 Martin Kaymer. But after fluffing a chip on the first – which moved all of two yards – McIlroy slipped into his irresistible groove and was one up by the turn. A three-putt on the 10th allowed Johnson to draw level again, but then the Open champion bogeyed the 13th and 15th and gave McIlroy the winning advantage.
It was the third out of his first four games which had gone at least to the 18th. McIlroy, the most blessed of naturals, was never known for his grit, but over the years has learned how to tough it out. How has he brought this quality to his game? Well, contrary to every sports psychologist’s textbook, by becoming despondent and annoyed.
“Mentally I if I do get down on myself at any time in my matches that’s when I am I play my best, when I am at my most dangerous,” McIlroy said. “I had breakfast with Jordan this morning and said to him that I just need to get down on myself and I’m good.”
There was absolutely no need for any self-deprecation in the afternoon quarter-final. He was four under when accounting for Chris Kirk 5 & 4 on the 15th green. “That’s the best I’ve played all week,” McIlroy said, with an ominous warning to his rivals. “I feel like each and every day here I have improved.”
Whatever else McIlroy can take away from this week, he has built his confident for his tilt at becoming just the sixth player to complete the grand slam. “Even if tomorrow doesn’t quite go the way I want, I’ve still made a lot of great strides forward this week. I’ve kept saying I want to go to Augusta with a win under my belt and this is my last chance. But, whatever, I’ll still walk away knowing I’m where I need to be with a week to go. Those close matches are perfect preparation for Augusta”
In the other semi-final Oosthuizen will play Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello, who has earned himself a debut in the Masters. The pair beat Dustin Johnson and Ryan Moore respectively to complete a miserable day for the US. They started with 11 representatives in the last 16 and, incredibly, finished it without a single player to cheer on Sunday.
Somewhere, the Europe Ryder Cup captain, Darren Clarke, was laughing his blue-and-gold socks off.