AUSTIN, Texas – As swansongs go, this is about as fitting as anyone with the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play could have hoped for.
With two of the top four seeded players, Jon Rahm and Patrick Cantlay, headed home before the quarterfinals and a finicky format, the final Match Play could have been a real dud.
Consider that this event gave the golf world Jeff Maggert, Andrew Magee, John Huston and Steve Pate for the final four in its first edition in 1999. With a monsoon of respect for all four players, they were the 24th, 50th, 27th and 61st seeded players that week, respectively, at La Costa Resort in southern California.
Matches and scoring from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship
By comparison, Sunday’s dance card at Austin Country Club is filthy with potential with world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and No. 3 Rory McIlroy headlining the semifinal bouts.
McIlroy’s play has been particularly inspiring this week thanks to a high-profile switch to a shorter shaft in his driver, which produced the week’s most-talked-about shot when he hit his drive to 4 feet on the par-4 18th hole Thursday for a walk-off victory. But if his driver is responsible for an avalanche of social media buzz, it was his putter that delivered his spot in the final four.
In a match against Xander Schauffele that included nine lead changes, McIlroy rolled in clutch putts of 8 feet (par) at No. 11, 20 feet (birdie) at No. 15 and 12 feet (birdie) at No. 18 to close out the match.
“If you would have told me that I’d make 17 birdies [in two matches] today and still get to the 18th hole twice I’m not sure I would have believed you,” McIlroy smiled.
It’s a testament to the level of play he faced that both of McIlroy’s knockout matches went the distance. In the morning bout it was Lucas Herbert, who was 6 under par and pushed the Northern Irishman with birdies at two of his final three holes. Schauffele was also 6 under and held the lead late into the match.
“It was a great match,” Schauffele said. “I felt like I definitely had the better of him. I had looks where he didn't and he made putts when I was just kind of waiting around. He played well. Made a lot of those pressure 5- to 8-footers that he needed to all day.”
Scheffler, this week’s defending champion, was just as dynamic on Saturday. He closed his morning match against J.T. Poston early with birdies at three of his final four holes and went five (birdies) of six to close out his matinée against Jason Day, 2 and 1, and advance to the semifinals for the third time in four starts at the Match Play.
“I had a really good back nine. When you get 3 down, that's what you've got to do. Very proud of that effort there on the back nine and my finish,” Scheffler said.
Scheffler, the runaway crowd favorite after having played his college golf at the University of Texas, will face Sam Burns in the final four. Although the world No. 1 should have the advantage, the last time the two went head-to-head in Texas it didn’t go Scheffler’s way.
At last year’s Charles Schwab Challenge, Burns began the final round seven shots off the lead but closed with a 65 and beat Scheffler on the first playoff hole. The two promptly attended the same wedding after that showdown and are regular practice round partners. They’re also wildly competitive both on and off the course.
“I've been taking him on my team in pickleball recently. Usually when he gets on the other team I'll beat him pretty handy in that one, so pickleball for me is not much of a challenge,” Scheffler laughed. “The match tomorrow is going to be a lot harder than me beating him in pickleball.”
McIlroy will play Cameron Young in the other semifinal, and given the randomness of match play a Rory vs. Scottie final is far from preordained. The idea that the top-seeded players are destined to play each other is very much a misnomer – much like Lake Austin, which is, in fact, not a lake at all, it’s the Colorado River.
But after five rounds the stars are clearly aligned and McIlroy, the 2015 Match Play champion, understands the significance at the final WGC-Match Play.
“Winning the Match Play is always a massive accomplishment because of what you have to go through,” McIlroy said. “Yeah, maybe a higher sense of satisfaction when you get through on Sunday night and you're able to win. I feel like it's maybe just more of an achievement mentally to do it rather than just winning a four-round stroke-play event.”