Rory McIlroy scores nine birdies to reach quarter-finals of WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Texas

‘I got beaten by the best player in the world’ says defeated Lucas Herbert as Holywood star finds putting touch

Rory McIlroy plays his shot from the eighth tee during a round of 16 at the Dell Technologies Match Play Championship golf tournament in Austin, Texas

Brian Keogh

Rory McIlroy took another step towards peaking for the Masters when he putted brilliantly and made nine birdies in a 2-up win over Lucas Herbert to clinch a quarter-final clash with Xander Schauffele in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin.

The third seed went bogey-free for the third day running and birdied the first, second, fifth, seventh and ninth to turn 2-up before using the blade superbly to hold off the combative Australian down the stretch.

Herbert birdied the 10th from 27 feet to cut the deficit to one hole but bogeyed the par-five 12th to fall two holes behind again.

He did not give up, however, and forced McIlroy to produced is very best stuff on the green to close out the match on the 18th.

"It felt great," McIlroy said of his putting after being forced to hole a series of clutch putts.

"If you look at the stats over the last three days, Lucas probably played some of the best golf of everyone, so I knew I was in for a tough game.

"I got off to a really good start, but every time I hit it in close, he'd answer me with a birdie.

"It was one of those games where it was really back and forth. On that back nine, I had to hole some nice putts coming in there to keep my nose in front, and this 18th hole has been good to me over the week. It would be nice not to have to play it.

"But yeah, another great drive up here and was able to two-putt. Obviously, very excited."

While he was two down with six holes to play, Herbert clawed back a hole again with a birdie at the drivable 13th after McIlroy missed a three-footer in a rare mistake on the greens.

But McIlroy responded to every challenge and finished with three straight birdies to move in the last eight.

The Holywood star had to make a five-footer to halve the 16th in birdies and remain one up, then rolled in a seven-footer for a two at the 17th after Herbert had posed the question by holing a outrageous 30-footer across the green that did a 360-degree loop around the rim of the cup before dropping.

At the 18th, Herbert drove into a fairway bunker and shook hands after he failed from 28 feet for birdie with McIlroy less than three feet away in two after a 350-yard drive broke the back of the hole.

Asked how close he felt to his A-game, McIlroy admitted he's “pretty close" after some struggles on the greens in recent months.

"Yeah, it was pretty close," McIlroy said. "Again, nine birdies, no bogeys. I needed every one of those birdies to beat Lucas. He played great, as well.

"I feel like as the week has went on, I've gotten more confident and started to get my eye in with the putter, as well.

"Holed some nice putts coming down the stretch to just keep my nose in front, and it was nice to close it out there on 18, and excited to get through."

Herbert made seven birdies in an excellent performance but admitted he got beaten by the game’s top player.

"Yeah, I got beaten by the best player in the world, probably playing the best golf of anyone in the world today,” Herbert said.

"You know, I've got nothing but just pride for the way I played. Pushed him all the way to the end. I just didn't feel like there was a hell of a lot more I could have done. I played really, really nicely."

World number one Scottie Scheffler had to dig even deeper than McIlroy to keep his title defence on track with a 1-up win over JT Poston.

The Masters champion was two down with four holes to play but birdied the 15th, 16th and 17th to square the match before Poston bogeyed the last.

On the DP World Tour, Tom McKibbin struggled to a third-round 75 to find himself second last on three-under-par heading into the final round of the Jonsson Workwear Open in South Africa.

Germany's Alexander Knappe shot a seven-under 65 to lead by a shot from Sweden's Joakim Largergren (63), Germany's Nick Bachem (69), South Africa's Hennie Du Plessis (65) and Malaysia's Gavin Green (67) on 17-under at The Club at Steyn City in Johannesburg.

There was better news for the Irish on the Challenge Tour, where Royal Dublin's Niall Kearney shot a six-under 66 to move up to tied sixth with a round to go in the Duncan Taylor Black Bull Challenge in Bangalore.

The Dubliner (35) made eight birdies before dropping late shots at the 16th and 18th to trail Italy's Lorenzo Scalise by just four strokes on 11-under.

Scalise shot a seven-under 65 to lead by two strokes from Sweden's Rikard Karlberg, Englishman Ashley Chesters, Spain's Victor Pastor and Indian Om Prakash Chouhan on 15-under

Portmarnock's Conor Purcell is tied 25th on seven-under after a 70 with Ballymena's Dermot McElroy a shot further back after a 69.

Castle amateur Robert Moran shot 75 to find himself tied 61st on one-under.