Rory McIlroy may hold the current claim as golf’s top dog. But on a breezy Saturday in Austin, a certain Tiger got the better of him.
Adjust your Masters predictions accordingly.
Tiger Woods took control early and never trailed McIlroy, ultimately winning 2 and 1 to advance to the quarterfinals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
“It was big for us inside the ropes,” Woods said of the spectacle. “I know we battled pretty hard against one another. We thoroughly enjoyed it. I was fortunate enough to come out on top.”
As soon as Woods beat Patrick Cantlay on Friday to advance to the knockout rounds and set up this clash, the hype machine kicked into gear. This was the first time the two players, who have a combined 18 major championships, ever faced off in a match-play format.
The match got off to a cagey if uninspiring start, with both players parring the first four holes. Woods got his nose in front when he birdied the short par-4 5th and McIlroy, who entered as a -160 favorite to win the match, missed his eight-footer for birdie.
It was a sign of things to come, as McIlroy—whose improved putting has been a huge reason he hasn’t finished worse than T6 in a tournament this year—missed a number of shorter putts to the right.
Woods pushed his lead 2 up with another birdie at the par-5 6th, this one coming after he blistered a 265-yard 5-wood from a fairway bunker.
The advantage swelled to three when McIlroy missed a three-footer for par, and at that point, Woods appeared to have a firm grasp on matters.
But McIlroy made things interesting by winning 12 and 13 with birdies to bring himself back to just one down.
The players tied 14 and 15 with pars before the match swung on the par-5 16th, when McIlroy made a shocking mess.
McIlroy had a massive advantage after the tee shots—he piped his 395 yards down the middle, the longest tee shot on that hole all week by 24 yards, before Tiger’s ball finished half-buried, in the face of a bunker, some 87 yards behind. Woods played safely back into the fairway, then hit a long-iron into the green with his third. McIlroy had just a wedge for his second, but he fanned one short right into the bunker—his worst shot of the day. McIlroy played his third well over the green and it finished leaning against an out-of-bounds fence, so he elected to take an unplayable lie penalty and replay the shot. His fifth came up short of the green, then he conceded after his sixth didn’t go in.
That gave Woods a 2-up lead going into 17, where Woods made a surprising error of his own. Woods tried to smash a sand wedge into the par-3 green, and it landed a solid 10 yards short of the green before almost spinning back into a hazard. But he managed to get his chip to about 13 feet below the hole, and he sunk the par effort to seal the victory.
Woods, who is a three-time winner of the WGC Match Play but is making his first start since the tournament moved to Austin Country Club, will face 27-year-old Lucas Bjerregaard of Denmark in the quarters. Bjerregaard, the tournament’s No. 50 seed, advanced to the final eight with a 3 and 2 win over Henrik Stenson.
“This match means … I’m playing this afternoon,” Woods said, declining to make any wide-ranging statements about what the victory signifies. “Looking forward to getting out this afternoon and playing. Gotta refocus and get ready.”
The victory over McIlroy—who leads the FedEx Cup and won the Players Championship in his last start prior to this week—will be a confidence-booster for Woods, who is making his final start before the Masters begins April 11.