Rory McIlroy remains on collision course with Scottie Scheffler after thrilling finish
The PGA Tour could well get the final they deserve here on Sunday for their numbskulled decision to take the WGC Match Play off the 2024 schedule. Nothing would expose their foolishness in dumping this wonderful event better than Scottie Scheffler versus Rory McIlroy.
It would be the final to end all finals in so many respects. World No 1 versus world No 3 less than two weeks before the former defends his Masters title and the latter tries for the Green Jacket that would complete the grand slam?
The sponsors must be asking themselves 'why are we having to walk away?' While the Austin public should be yelling to the officials 'why are you taking this away?'. In truth, this championship can already lay justifiable claim to being the best Match Play since it was inaugurated in 1999.
Of course, in this beautifully volatile format anything can happen and Scheffler has to find a path past countryman Sam Burns and McIlroy past Cameron Young and such is the quality of those two young Americans that it is eminently possible for Scheffler to be taking on McIlroy in the consolation game on Sunday afternoon.
But, regardless, so much for the mano-a-mano version not being suitable because of the alleged propensity to send all the superstars home early.
On a gripping Saturday at Austin Country Club, McIlroy was taken to the 18th in both his morning last-16 tussle, in which he saw off Australian Lucas Herbert 2up, and then in an excruciatingly tense quarter-final against Xander Shauffele.
It is a good job McIlroy likes this closing par four. On Thursday, golfing folklore already has him hitting his drive on the 375-yard par four to three feet. He did not manage those heroics on Saturday, but he did make two birdies. He happens to be four-under for the last three times he has played it.
“That hole has been friendly to me all week,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully, I can play a bit better tomorrow, so I don’t need to play it again.”
There was a little fist-pump when he holed the 12-footer to take down Schauffele. It was the first time he had been up on the world No 7 all day, having trailed him by two after seven holes.
McIlroy stayed patient but also remained aggressive and in an enthralling back nine that featured the pair chucking birdies at each other, he was able to emulate his singles win over the same opponent in the Ryder Cup two years ago.
Could this performance at Austin Country Club yet have an effect on the biennial dust-up in Rome in September? Well, McIlroy gallantly stopped what would have been an All-American last four for the first time in 22 years and you can be sure that Zach Johnson, the US captain, would have revelled in that scenario.
Luke Donald, the Europe captain, has plenty for which to thank his neighbour, McIlroy. The 33-year-old was the only European to qualify for the last 16, which established this as the worst collective display in the 24-year existence of this championship.
McIlroy has carried the blue-and-gold honour on his own and done so with an incredible unbeaten run of form.
Of course, scores to par do not matter in match play - the trick is to beat the opponent not the scorecard - but as an indication of his remarkable play, this nominal 62 and 65 makes McIlroy 32-under for the 87 holes he had played.
He has suffered just two bogeys all week, with his blemish on the 12th against Schauffele being his first in 72 holes (aka a full strokeplay tournament). If nothing else - and it should be noted there is a £3 million cheque for the winner - he has afforded himself a huge boost to his Augusta challenge.
McIlroy appears almost unrecognisable to the golfer who missed the cut at The Players two weeks ago and who left Sawgrass muttering about his woeful driving and his awful putting.
A new shaft on the driver has returned McIlroy to that big-hitting, sweet-swinging swashbuckler and the new putter has also been a boon. As well as that grandstand finish, he converted a 20-footer up the slope on the 15th, with Schauffele in close.
In every facet of his game, he is operating with freedom and confidence and his stride is bouncing with that trademark swagger.
"Both ends of the bag are working pretty well, and the stuff in the middle is not too bad, either," he said.