Sunday 11 December 2016

Rory McIlroy survives play-off but admits toughest tests are still to come

Published 25/03/2016 | 22:06

Rory McIlroy advanced to the last 16 on Friday
Rory McIlroy advanced to the last 16 on Friday

Rory McIlroy admitted his title defence will get progressively tougher after surviving a sudden-death play-off to reach the knockout stages of the WGC-Dell Match Play on Friday.

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McIlroy, who has never successfully defended a tournament in his professional career, defeated American Kevin Na on the second extra hole of their winner-takes-all contest to advance to the last 16 at Austin Country Club.

The world number three fo ught back from two down after five holes and only edged in front for the first time in the match with a birdie on the 15th.

However, McIlroy drove into the water on the 16th and Na won the hole with a birdie four, with neither player then able to secure victory in regulation or on the first extra hole.

Na then hooked his tee shot on the second into a hazard, and a par from McIlroy was enough to secure a meeting with Open champion Zach Johnson, who had earlier defeated Shane Lowry to complete a perfect 3-0 record in group 14.

Johnson, who thrashed Martin Kaymer 8&6 on Thursday, has not been taken beyond the 15th hole at any point this week and played the final three holes on his own for practice after defeating Lowry 4&3.

"I had to dig pretty deep," McIlroy told Sky Sports. "Kevin is a very good competitor and he was not really giving me much out there. I holed a few long putts to keep it together when I needed to.

"I had a couple of chances to maybe close the match out on the last and the first extra hole but for the most part I felt I played pretty well. I responded to some of his good shots with good shots myself and that gives me confidence going into the weekend.

"But it does not get any easier. This is a course that really sets up well for Zach. It's a precision type of course and if he gets the ball in play he will be very hard to beat.

"I feel like my match-play game is pretty good and no matter what he does I am going to have to respond to it."

The play-off between McIlroy and Na followed one between South Africa's Branden Grace and American Chris Kirk, who had to wait more than two hours for the first tee to clear after Grace thrashed Scotland's Russell Knox 5&4 and Kirk defeated David Lingmerth 3&2.

A par on the first extra hole was then enough for Kirk to advance to face compatriot Bill Haas, who birdied the 17th and 18th to defeat in-form Australian Adam Scott.

Jason Day had been the first player into the last 16 after his final group two opponent Paul Casey was forced to withdraw from their contest after six holes due to a stomach virus.

That gave Day his third victory of the week and welcome time to rest following the back injury he suffered during his opening victory over Graeme McDowell, although the world number two had shrugged off doubts about his participation by beating Thongchai Jaidee 5&3 on Thursday.

"Unfortunately Paul has some stomach virus, I overheard him say he has lost eight pounds since he has had it and that drains the energy out of you," Day told Sky Sports.

"My back is getting better each and every day. This is a blessing in disguise where I can get some more treatment again, have the rest of the day off and then maybe have 36 holes on each day this weekend."

Day will face Brandt Snedeker in the last 16 after Snedeker defeated Charl Schwartzel 5&3, while Matt Kuchar advanced to take on Brooks Koepka thanks to a 3&2 win over former US Open champion Justin Rose.

In the top half of the draw, world number one Jordan Spieth will face former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen in the last 16 after the pair enjoyed victories over Justin Thomas and Andy Sullivan respectively, with Ben An facing Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Ryan Moore taking on fellow American Patton Kizzire.

The most eagerly-anticipated match of day three turned into a damp squib when Patrick Reed thrashed Phil Mickelson 5&4, although Mickelson at least salvaged some pride having been seven down after 10 holes.

Reed will take on Dustin Johnson in the last 16 after Johnson defeated Jimmy Walker 2&1 before beating Kiradech Aphibarnrat on the first hole of a play-off.

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