RORY McILROY walked slap bang into the realities of 18-hole matchplay golf when he faced Kevin Na in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship yesterday.
McIlroy was four down after just six holes of his first tournament as a fully paid-up member of the PGA Tour, in the United States. He could scarcely have had a ruder awakening had he stumbled into one of the cactus plants or cholla bushes that dot the edges of the fairways of the Dove Mountain course in the desert outside Tucson.
But he recovered to beat the South Korean-born American by one hole, saving his reputation with the sort of dazzling finish that spectators love to watch. McIlroy had slowly been working his way back into the match since the 8th, which he eagled.
A birdie at the 15th helped his cause and another at the 16th got him back to all square. The 17th was halved, but McIlroy birdied the last for victory and the reward of a match against Oliver Wilson, who beat Miguel Angel Jimenez, of Spain.
Graeme McDowell adopted a very realistic view of matchplay in the days leading up to this tournament. "I was really, really puzzled about my form," he said. "It doesn't matter how well you play in the first round, or in any round come to that, if somebody plays better you're going to go home."
The Irishman might now think it wise to be careful what you say, because it may come true. When he met Luke Donald in the first round, McDowell played well but was beaten because Donald played better. "Every time I'd smell a sniff of a chance he would make a great putt," McDowell said. "I had a couple of chances on the front nine when he was out of position and had 15 and 20-footers for par.
"But basically he just putted me out of it. It's tough to argue with. I played some good golf and I can't complain about that. There are going to be plenty of guys who play better than me this week and lose.
"In my experience this tournament is a very bittersweet one. I seem to run into guys who are birdie machines. Zach Johnson made eight or nine against me last year and I think Luke made nine today. Let's face it, these guys are good. It's as simple as that."