A DULL DAY in the desert ended with high anticipation Saturday when Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood won their matches, setting up a semi-final showdown in the Match Play Championship.
At stake for the winner — a chance to go to No 1 in the world.
McIlroy had another surge on the back nine to put away Bae Sang-moon of South Korean, 3 and 2. Moments later, Westwood finished off Martin Laird of Scotland for a 3-and-2 victory to advance to the semifinals.
Either of them can replace Luke Donald at No 1 by winning this World Golf Championship.
“It definitely gives the match an extra bit of spice,” McIlroy said.
Hunter Mahan played the shortest quarter-final match in the 14-year history of the event by beating Matt Kuchar, 6 and 5. His semi-final match will be against Mark Wilson, gaining more respect the deeper he goes in the bracket. Wilson had an easy time in his 4-and-3 win over Peter Hanson of Sweden.
That assures an American will reach the championship match for the first time since Tiger Woods won in 2008. The semi-final matches will be played Sunday morning, following by the 18-hole championship match in the afternoon.
With a strong breeze, firmer conditions, tough hole locations and only four quarter-final matches, Saturday at Dove Mountain was lacking excitement. For the first time ever, none of the quarterfinals matches reached the 17th hole.
McIlroy and Westwood saved the day.
For starters, it’s the first time the Match Play Championship semi-finals have featured two of the top four seeds since 2004, when Woods and Davis Love III advanced. McIlroy is No 2, and Westwood is No 3.
And while they consider themselves friends, there was a testy exchange between them last summer on Twitter, and McIlroy later left the International Sports Management stable. Westwood already has been No 1 in the world, and said his priority is picking up his first WGC title. McIlroy already is a major champion, having won at Congressional last summer in the US Open, and would become at 22 the second-youngest player behind Woods to reach No 1 in the world.
“My priorities were to win major championships and win World Golf Championships because I haven’t ever won any,” Westwood said.
“I’ve been at No 1 couple of times. It would be a different way of thinking to me compared to Rory, who hasn’t been No 1. He may be thinking about it, but my main goal is to play well — or play as well as I’ve been playing — tomorrow morning and try and win that match.”
Getting to this stage has been relatively easy.
McIlroy had to go to the 18th hole in the opening round, but has had little resistance since then. He took the lead for good over Bae with a birdie on the 11th hole, then stretched his advantage when Bae chopped up the 13th hole and missed the par-4 15th green on the wrong side and had to settle for par.
Westwood had a tougher time Saturday, but not for long.
He had led in 48 of the 49 holes he played through the opening three rounds, and fell behind immediately to Laird. But starting with Laird’s bogey on the sixth, Westwood won four of the next five holes. He holed a 6-foot birdie putt to halve the 13th hole and stay 2 up, then seized command when Laird took three shots to get out of the bunker on the 14th before conceding.
An All-American semi-final is not nearly as surprising as the players in the match.
“I don’t think too many people picked me to win,” Wilson said.
He has a chance to win for the fourth time in 14 months, more than anyone on the PGA Tour in that time, but gets easily overlooked by his medium-length off the tee. Wilson makes up for that with smart play and great putting, a deadly combination in this format. Even on the par 5s he couldn’t reach at Dove Mountain, he played to the right angles and kept pressure on Hanson.
Mahan escaped the opening round in 19 holes over Zach Johnson before bulling his way through the bracket with birdies. He only needed pars against Kuchar, whose belly putter went cold on him.
Mahan, who won a WGC title at Firestone two years ago, won five holes with pars against Kuchar. He holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the ninth to go 5-up at the turn, then won the next hole when Kuchar again missed from 6 feet for par.
“Matt couldn’t find the putter today, which is rare for him, because he’s a great putter,” Mahan said. “I got lucky in that aspect. But I played solid, didn’t make any bogeys and didn’t give many holes — and kept the pressure on him. That was nice to do.”