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Match Play, McIlroy have unfinished business

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SAN FRANCISCO – In sports terms it’s best to consider the WGC-Cadillac Match Play firmly entrenched in a transition year. You know, like the Chicago Cubs every season for, say the past century.

An unpopular new format, a Sunday field that wouldn’t move the needle in Reno, Nev., and the misfortune of competing for eyeballs on arguably the most crowded weekend sports calendar this year with the Kentucky Derby, the Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao fight, NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs and NFL draft.

It’s telling that the most exciting thing that’s happened this week at Harding Park involved two players (Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez) who had no chance of advancing to Saturday and were in desperate need of a timeout.

The gray gloom that has gripped Harding Park for two days was a fitting metaphor for an event mired in transition and virtually bereft, at least when play was called on Saturday because of darkness, of the kind of marquee one would expect at a World Golf Championship.

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The ultimate fate of this WGC-Match Play hangs in the balance early Sunday when world No. 1 Rory McIlroy will set out at 6:45 a.m. (PT) to complete his heated quarterfinal match against Paul Casey.

Otherwise, the standard will fall to Jim Furyk at fifth in the Official World Golf Ranking to carry the marquee, which – with all respect to the ageless and endearing champion – is not exactly a riveting answer to Mayweather/Pacquiao.

Match play is fickle and even without McIlroy this would not be the lowest-ranked Final Four in event history. That honor belongs to the 2006 edition when Nos. 23, 41, 52 and 59 squared off on Sunday.

Still, when the world No. 1 bounced his approach shot off an empty grandstand adjacent to the 14th green on the 19th hole of the match, in near darkness it was a fitting metaphor for an event that continues to be mired in an identity crisis and in desperate need of some buzz.

“You know, it's been like that before,” said Gary Woodland, who at 52nd in the world is the lowest-ranked player to advance to Sunday. “I remember being at the World Cup in 2011 and people saying, you know, America didn't have the best team there. That fuels me, that's fine. That's one of the best weeks I've ever played that week, too.”

Woodland may well breathe life into the WGC-Match Play thanks to a fearless game that has forged an impressive path through the field.

Just once in five matches has he been challenged, a 19-hole victory on Day 1 against Jimmy Walker, and on Saturday he never saw the 18th hole, rolling through the Australian contingent of Marc Leishman, 2 and 1, and John Senden, 2 and 1.

Early Sunday he will face Danny Willett, a little-known Englishman who has battled back from a back injury and may well become a household name on both sides of the Atlantic, but just not this week.

This week depends on McIlroy, who was sloppy from the outset in his match against Casey. He missed the fairway left at No. 1, the green right at No. 2, the green left at No. 4. He did hit the sixth green. Unfortunately, he was playing the par-5 fifth hole at the time.

It was a tough 1-2 combination for McIlroy to endure. Not only is he in danger of being bounced from the Match Play, he was also unable to attend the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight.

“That's fine. I have to do it. It's the position I'm in and I'll be here at 6:45 in the morning,” McIlroy said. “I'll try and come out fast and win that hole and try to advance to the last four.”

Even Furyk, who ended a 100-event winless streak with his victory last month at the RBC Heritage, conceded that the new-look Match Play, which included round-robin group play for the first three days, needed some work.

“I think there can be tweaks, but I like the format better than in the past,” Furyk said. “That's a little bit of a homer thing, too, because I've never made it this far.”

The Match Play transitions to a new venue, Austin (Texas) Country Club, and a new spot on the calendar, late March, next year and there appears to be a strong desire to assure success.

“We’ll talk to the players, we’ll probably get some fan input, we’ll talk to our television partners, we’ll evaluate the telecast and it will be all part of the setup for Austin because Austin is a different kind of golf course,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said this week. “We want to have a good start to that run in Austin.”

There will be a winner on Sunday. He may even be named Rory, which would be an undeniable boost for an event that has felt like a bust all week. But even that doesn’t change the fact that this is very a much a transition year for the Match Play.