SAN FRANCISCO – Day 3 at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play featured a game so contentious that two players squared off mano-a-mano style in what was by any measure an undercard bout.
While Rory McIlroy and Billy Horschel, playing the day’s most high-profile elimination match, contained their blows to golf shots, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez, playing a virtually meaningless match after starting the week 0-2, had a blow-up in the 18th fairway following a disagreement over a ruling.
The PGA Tour wanted to spice up the Match Play this year, adding three days of round-robin group play, but this all seemed a tad much.
McIlroy won Friday’s title bout, rallying from 3 down with three holes to play with a trio of closing birdies, to secure his spot in Saturday’s Sweet 16, but many of the other top-seeded players from each of the 16 groups were not as fortunate.
Seven of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking were headed home on Friday - a list that includes No. 2 Jordan Spieth and No. 3 Henrik Stenson - and just five of the top-seeded players from each group advanced to the knockout rounds.
“It's match play, 18-hole match play,” said McIlroy, who will play Hideki Matsuyama in Round 4 after needing 20 holes to beat Horschel. “I don't think there's any other sport in the world where you get the top 64 guys and the margins are so fine, are so small. Over 18 holes, especially in this field, anyone can beat anyone.”
Just ask Spieth, who in his first two rounds at Harding Park hadn’t been pushed past the 16th hole. The Masters champion forged an early lead over Lee Westwood on Day 3 but lost momentum when the Englishman chipped in for par at the 16th hole and rolled in a 15-footer for birdie at the 17th hole on his way to a 2-up victory.
“Jordan in my opinion is the best player in the world at the moment,” said Westwood, who will play fellow Englishman Danny Willett on Saturday. “It was nice being the underdog for a change. It’s nice to sort of come into the Match Play and be the underdog.”
Only three players – J.B. Holmes, Tommy Fleetwood and Branden Grace – advanced out of group play after losing their Day 1 matches, and Grace had arguably the most difficult journey to the Sweet 16.
After beating Charley Hoffman, 2 and 1, on Friday the South African had to play a sudden-death playoff against Zach Johnson and Hoffman to advance.
“I knew it was going to be a grind after I finished,” said Grace, who will play Fleetwood on Saturday. “You stick with it, try to stay with the same momentum, stay patient and take the opportunities when they came.”
Patience was not exactly on display for Bradley and Jimenez, who had been mathematically eliminated from the knockout rounds. Clinging to a 1-up lead coming down the 18th hole, the Spaniard questioned a drop Bradley was taking and told the American’s caddie to “shut up,” which escalated an already heated conversation.
“It was just a heat-of-the-moment thing,” Bradley said. “It was disappointing. I’m pretty bummed out about it. I had a ruling and he felt like he needed to intervene and was inappropriate to me and my caddie.”