AUSTIN, Texas: The golf was as good as it gets. Rory McIlroy made 17 birdies in the 36 holes he played Saturday. Defending champion Scottie Scheffler rallied with six birdies in his last nine holes to reach the semifinals for the third straight year.
A little luck never hurts in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. And as great as McIlroy played, he needed some of that, too.
McIlroy never led in his quarterfinals match against Xander Schauffele. They came to the 18th hole all square, and McIlroy slumped slightly when he saw his drive headed left toward the trees. Schauffele hit his shot and quickly picked up his tee.
Imagine their surprise. McIlroy came upon a golf ball behind a tree and figured it was his. Schauffele was walking behind him and was stunned when McIlroy kept going.
“He hit a worse drive than I did and he ended up fine,” Schauffele said.
He got no argument from McIlroy.
“I expected my ball to be Xander’s ball on 18 behind that tree, and I got fortunate that mine trundled down the hill and obviously made the chip shot a lot easier,” McIlroy said. “Look, you need a little bit of fortune in these things, and that was a bit of luck for me today.”
McIlroy won with a 12-foot birdie putt, the proper ending to a match that both said was a testament to the quality of golf required. Schauffele applauded all the pivotal putts McIlroy made to stay in the fight.
It was like that all over Austin Country Club. The final version of Match Play lived up to its edge-of-the-seat reputation, with wild turns of momentum until four players remained.
Sam Burns advanced by beating Patrick Cantlay in 17 holes and then overcoming an early deficit to beat Mackenzie Hughes of Canada, 3 and 2, to reach the semifinals.
Burns advances to meet Scheffler, his best friend on tour with whom he often shares a house when they’re on the road. Their last encounter was at Colonial last year, when Burns made a 45-foot birdie putt to beat Scheffler in a playoff.
Cameron Young looked as if he had an easy time, until it wasn’t. He was 3 up at the turn, missed a chance to go 4 up on the 12th and then had to go to the 18th hole before he could dispatch of Bay Hill winner Kurt Kitayama.
Scheffler, who lost in the final in his Match Play debut in 2021, now has won 10 straight matches. He was 2 down against J.T. Poston in the morning with five holes left when he birdied the 17th to square the match and won the 18th with a par.
He was 3 down against former Match Play champion Jason Day through seven holes in the quarterfinals when he battled back, taking his first lead with a birdie on the 13th and then pulling away. He closed it out with a wedge to 2 inches on the 17th.
Scheffler said he and caddie Ted Scott had a chat when Day went birdie-birdie-eagle on the front nine to go 3 up. The eagle came on a 5-wood from 282 yards to 5 feet on the par-5 sixth hole at Austin Country Club.
“Just ride out the heater,” Scheffler said. “I had to stay patient.”
Day began to struggle with allergies on the eighth hole, and then Scheffler had a heater of his own by making six birdies over their final nine holes.
McIlroy reached the quarterfinals by making nine birdies against Lucas Herbert, and it still wasn’t decided until the 18th hole.
“I got to beaten by the best player in the world probably playing the best golf of anyone in the world would today,” Herbert said. “Pushed him all the way to the end. I just didn’t feel like there was a hell of a lot more I could have done.”
Schauffele made seven birdies against McIlroy and it wasn’t enough.
“I needed to dig deep,” McIlroy said. “He’s one of the best players in the world. I knew I was going to need to produce something similar to this morning. I was 16 under for two rounds of golf. That shows the caliber you need to play out there.”
Next up for McIlroy is Young, who finished ahead of him at St. Andrews last year with a 31 on the back nine. Young has made 31 birdies and two eagles in his five matches this week. He won his group on Friday with a 5-and-3 win. He made it through Saturday morning with a 5-and-4 rout of Billy Horschel. He was on his way to another romp against Kitayama.
But he missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the 12th that would have put him 4 up. Kitayama won the next two holes with birdies. Young missed from 10 feet for birdie, 15 feet for eagle and 10 feet for birdie on the next three, all three putts burning the edge.
Ultimately, he only needed two putts from 15 feet on the 18th for the win. That was about the only easy part of his back nine.
“I don’t think I made a bogey today and I was biting my nails trying to win my match,” Young said. “I think it just shows you the quality of golf that’s played out here and how hard it is to get through even just one day like today, never mind that today was our fifth match.”
Day earlier on Saturday beat Matt Kuchar, leaving the 44-year-old American one match short of the tournament record. Kuchar leaves sharing the mark of 36 wins with Tiger Woods.
Now it’s Scheffler’s turn. Woods is the only player to win Match Play back to back. One day remains, and it feels like a long way to go.