It took a stroke of late brilliance for Rory McIlroy to seal a second round 3&2 victory against little-known South African, Justin Harding at the WGC – Dell Technologies Match-Play in Austin, Texas.
McIlroy was never behind in his match against the 33-year old Harding who was far from shy in taking his long-handled putter right to his Holywood golfing rival in bright but windy conditions over their 16 holes on the Austin Country Club course.
McIlroy won a scrappy encounter that remarkably included the brilliance of two eagles and four birdies, with the 29-year old Ulsterman also posting four bogeys, with his dropped shots matched on the same holes with bogeys by his Cape Town opponent.
The World No. 4 ranked McIlroy’s second straight win means he now needs a half at worst on Friday against England’s Matt Fitzpatrick to advance to Saturday’s last 16 in the Euro 9.1m event.
“It was a tough match and I had to play well to beat Justin,” said McIlroy.“I had to make a few birdies over the front nine just to hang in there and we both made a couple of mistakes on 13 and 14, but to finish the way I did on 15 and 16 was very nice.
“It’s the first time I have met Justin and knowing what he’s achieved in recent weeks, including winning in Qatar, I knew it was not going to be an easy match.
“I went out there focussing on playing solid golf and that usually takes care of most of it, as it did today so looking forward now to tomorrow and my match against Matt (Fitzpatrick).”
McIlroy held up his end of a potential Saturday showdown with Tiger but Woods’ 2&1 loss to fellow American, Brandt Snedeker means he needs to now defeat Patrick Cantlay to also advance to the last 16.
If Woods wins and McIlroy gets his half or better, then it will mean a Woods-v-McIlroy Saturday showdown for a place in the quarter-finals. But both will need to improve if they’re to get to Sunday’s final along the banks of the Colorado River.
Woods did pull off the ‘gardening’ shot of his 23-year pro career in getting down on both knees to play his right-hand wedge left-handed from under a bush at the back of the 10th hole before brilliantly saving par.
For a second day running, McIlroy stole the initiative with a birdie at the first but only after a wild drive right off the tee. He managed to find the green and two-putted while Harding took three to find the green and two-putted for a bogey ‘5’.
It was even for the next seven holes with both players managing to birdie the par-3 fourth when McIlroy realised his match would be no ‘walk in the park’ when Harding holed a 14-footer with McIlroy squaring the hole in sinking a 10-footer.
They halved the par-5 sixth in birdie as well before walking off with bogey 5’s at the eighth, where Harding let McIlroy off the hook in three-putting from some 35-feet.
Harding was not backing off, blasting a 339-yard drive down the ninth a full 22-yards longer than McIlroy’s, and after the Ulsterman landed his second to 13-feet and missed his birdie, Harding made sure of the 11-footer for his.
The duo halved both 10 and 11 before McIlroy ‘bombed’ a massive 425-yard drive down the par-5 12th and then found the green just six-feet from the flag and got back to 1up in holing his putt for an eagle ‘3’.McIlroy was then two-feet from finding the water guarding the green after a poor chip shot from the right of the 13th green but got away with a bogey ‘5’, with Harding letting him off the hook when three-putting from 22-feet also for bogey.
There were bogey 5s for both on 14 before the four-time Major winner McIlroy finally shone through, going to 2up in holing a 12-footer for birdie on 15.
McIlroy then snatched a second eagle ‘3’ in his match by sending a soaring 270-yard second shot uphill at the par-5 16th to 10-feet behind the flag ahead of rolling in the match-winning putt, with his rival posting a par.
All-up, it means two wins, two points and now five matches from a second straight PGA Tour triumph for McIlroy and a second match-play crown.