MARANA, Ariz. – The world No. 1 was eliminated in the opening round.
Tiger Woods followed Luke Donald home in Thursday’s second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
These are noteworthy movements this week, tectonic plates continuing to shift beneath the game.
With Donald off to such a sluggish start this season, with Woods’ erratic play showing he is still not ready to mount a dominating run, you can feel the possibility of another major change in golf’s landscape.
You can feel it beneath Rory McIlroy’s footsteps at Dove Mountain this week.
With Woods still out of the way, with Donald gone this weekend, there is a clear path to the top of the game for McIlroy, to the top of the world rankings.
It’s all there for McIlroy, right now, this weekend.
McIlroy could seize the No. 1 ranking Sunday with a victory. He’s No. 2 now, and if he wins the Accenture Match Play Championship, he will become the 16th player to ascend to No. 1.
At 22, if McIlroy pulls this off, it’s a jolt to the sport, energizing confirmation that the game’s young new breed has taken over.
“Everyone keeps telling me, so it’s hard to put out of my mind,” McIlroy said of the opportunity. “It’s a little bit extra motivation this week, knowing that if I can get through four more matches, I could go to the top of the world rankings, which would obviously be a huge moment for my career.”
Of course, the path to No. 1 this weekend comes with stiff challenges, including one from Lee Westwood, the world’s No. 3 player. Westwood is still alive in this thing, and he is the only other player left on Dove Mountain who can also claim the No. 1 ranking with a victory in the championship match.
Westwood is in the same side of the brackets as McIlroy. If they both win their next two matches, they’ll meet in the semifinals. The possibility world No. 4 Martin Kaymer will be waiting for one of them in the finals is very much in the works. This assumes much, but it’s all possible.
McIlroy defeated Anders Hansen 3 and 2 on Thursday. He will meet Miguel Angel Jimenez in the third round Friday. Jimenez just knocked off Keegan Bradley, who brought outstanding form to the desert this week.
“I’m pretty confident,” McIlroy said of his form. “I’m confident I can hang in there. I hit a few loose shots [today], but to play the way I have the first two days and get through two matches, it gives me a little bit of confidence.”
Westwood looked strong Thursday, defeating Robert Karlsson 3-and-2.
“The further you get, and the more you play, the more confident you become, and the more you get used to playing the golf course, the shots around the greens and the speeds of the greens,” Westwood said.
Surprisingly, this marks the first time in 12 Accenture Match Play Championships that Westwood has advanced to the third round. He will meet Nick Watney.
“It’s uncharted territory for me tomorrow,” Westwood said. “But it’s something I’m looking forward to. I’m pretty good in match play as the record suggests in other match play events. I feel the way I’m playing, I’ll be tough to beat.”
With McIlroy and Westwood, confidence is high, and they’ll need it to take the ultimate prize over the next three days.
Watch live coverage of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Golf Channel, Friday 2-6PM ET; Saturday noon-2PM ET; Sunday 8AM-1PM ET. NBC coverage can be seen live Saturday/Sunday, 2-6PM ET.