MARANA, Ariz. — Lee Westwood had every reason to pack light for the Match Play Championship. He never made it out of the second round in his 11 previous trips to this tournament, and he never could understand why.
Now it seems as if Westwood can do no wrong.
He has led after 48 of the 49 holes he has played through three rounds at Dove Mountain, barely breaking a sweat under the blazing sun in the high desert. And he erased more bad memories Friday with a 3-and-2 victory over Nick Watney, who had eliminated Westwood each of the last two years.
“You want to come out and get momentum as quickly as possible,” said Westwood, who birdied the opening two holes for the second straight match. “And the only way to do that is by winning holes.”
Now, Westwood is two matches away from a shot at his first World Golf Championship, and a return to No. 1 in the world.
But he’s not alone.
Rory McIlroy also can go to No. 1 in the world for the first time in his young career by winning the Match Play Championship. He also had an easy time, winning on the 17th hole over Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Westwood and McIlroy are on track to face each other Sunday morning in the semifinals. The battle for No. 1 – made possible by Luke Donald losing in the opening round – put some interest into an otherwise dull afternoon at Dove Mountain.
None of the matches went the distance until the final last one, when Bae Sang-moon missed a 6-foot putt on the 17th hole, only to finish off John Senden with a par putt from about the same distance on the 18th hole.
Two of the matches only made it to the 17th, and four of the third-round matches ended on the 15th hole.
McIlroy has struggled to block out the idea that he could go to No. 1. Instead, he’s trying to use it as an advantage.
“It’s a nice incentive,” McIlroy said. “It’s nice to have in the back of your mind. And if you’re struggling in a match and find it hard to get yourself up, or get any sort of momentum, if you think about that and you think if you can really dig deep, you still have a chance to become No. 1.”
Westwood was No. 1 a year ago, and it’s a less of a priority than to capture his first World Golf Championship. Just getting to the quarterfinals is a small achievement.
“I’m just happy to be looking for a different restaurant for Friday night,” Westwood said. “I had a little chuckle watching The Golf Channel on Wednesday morning and listening to them make all their predictions and things like that. I don’t think they got many right.”
And where did the prognosticators have Westwood?
“On the BA 289 on Thursday night,” he said, referring to his usual British Airways flight.
Westwood next plays Martin Laird, who won the battle of Scotland by taking down former British Open champion Paul Lawrie, 3 and 1.
Next up for McIlroy is Bae, the South Korean surprise in his first Match Play Championship. Bae won three times last year on the Japan Golf Tour. And while he made it through Q-School to earn a PGA Tour card, he ended last year at No. 30 in the world.
He is no stranger in global golf, as McIlroy knows all too well.
They played in the final group of the Korea Open in 2009, where McIlroy and Kim Dae-sub were tied for the 54-hole lead. Bae closed with a 67 and beat them both.
Bae had the only match that went 18 holes in one of the dullest third rounds ever at the Match Play Championship. He took a 1-up lead on the 16th hole against Senden when the Australian played a poor chip. Senden missed a 20-foot birdie putt to square the match on the 18th, and Bae completed a long two-putt par with a 5-footer.
“He’s been very impressive this week,” McIlroy said.
In other matches:
— Hunter Mahan took advantage of some mental lapses by Steve Stricker to build a big lead and held on for a 4-and-3 win. Mahan will play Matt Kuchar, a 4-and-3 winner against Martin Kaymer, a finalist last year at Dove Mountain. That assures there will be an American in the semifinals at the Match Play for the first time since 2009.
— One year after Mark Wilson was drubbed in the second round by big-hitting Bubba Watson, he overwhelmed another power player by beating Dustin Johnson for the second straight year. Johnson was too wild too often and couldn’t make putts, a bad combination in match play. Wilson will play Peter Hanson of Sweden, who dismantled Brandt Snedeker during a quiet, effective march to the quarterfinals.
“I know people keep talking about how I hit it so short that I can’t compete,” said Wilson, who has won three times on the PGA Tour in the last 14 months. “First of all, I don’t hit it very short. And secondly, it all comes down to putting. It really does. So I just don’t know how many times I have to explain it.”
Watney eliminated Tiger Woods on the 18th hole Thursday, despite a poor round of putting. His stroke didn’t get much better, and that left him little chance against Westwood.
Watney’s only hope for a shift in momentum came on the par-5 13th, when he was 10 feet away for birdie. Westwood was just short of the green in two, and his pitch hit the flag and caromed about 12 feet away. The Englishman holed his birdie putt to stay 3 up, and they halved holes the rest of the way.
“I couldn’t sit at his lunch table,” Watney said, poking fun at Kobe Bryant’s comment about the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Stricker holed a 20-foot birdie on the fifth hole that looked as if it would square the match until Mahan matched him with a birdie from 15 feet just off the green. Two holes later, Mahan took the lead. Stricker hit a driver into the desert on the 10th to lose the hole, then pulled his 3-wood into the desert on the next hole.
Stricker knew he was doomed on the par-3 12th, when he watched Mahan roll in a 55-foot birdie putt with perfect pace. Stricker stood off the green and smiled, walked over to retrieve the ball from the cup and started to hand it to Mahan. Then he stopped, and heaved the ball into the grandstand as Mahan laughed.
Watch live coverage of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Golf Channel, Saturday noon-2PM ET; Sunday 8AM-1PM ET. NBC coverage can be seen live Saturday/Sunday, 2-6PM ET.