Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler. Mike Mulholland
It was the match most golf fans wanted to see, it was just slotted in a different position. Rather than watching World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler square off against World No. 3 Rory McIlroy in the championship match of the last WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play on Sunday at Austin Country Club, the golf world saw the heavyweights in the consolation match doing battle for a bronze medal.
It’s better than not having the match at all.
While third place is not anything that Scheffler and McIlroy particularly care about, winning the match is better than losing it. Here in Texas, the last time both will hit a competitive golf shot until Thursday at the Masters, neither man played his best golf of the week. McIlroy birdied Nos. 3, 4 and 5 to jump 3 up and never trailed, winning 2 and 1.
In the waning moments of the morning semi-finals it seemed destined that this match would be of the championship variety. McIlroy was 2 up against Cameron Young after 15 holes and ended up losing on the first playoff hole. Although Scheffler was 3 down after three holes against eventual champion Sam Burns, he rebounded to take a 2-up lead after 12 holes and squandered that, losing on the 21st hole.
After a brief lunch break, McIlroy and Scheffler went off first in the most star-studded consolation match in the history of this event, which is not on the PGA Tour schedule after this year. Overall, Scheffler made five birdies and a bogey, while McIlroy made an eagle, five birdies and two bogeys. Again, fine play, but not their best.
“We were trading a few bogeys here and there, it was a bit of a pillow fight in the middle of the round,” McIlroy said, “then we traded some birdies at the end.”
When McIlroy made eagle from 18 feet on the par-5 12th he jumped to 2 up. Scheffler made birdie on the next hole to cut into the deficit but McIlroy made another birdie on 14 from 20 feet. They traded birdies over the next two holes, but when they both made par on the par-3 17th the match, the long week and the long day mercifully were over.
“This afternoon, I just had some trouble focusing,” Scheffler said. “I like to show up and do my best, but it was definitely a challenge this afternoon. It was a weird feeling playing for third place. But at the end of the day, you got to show up and hit the shots.”
There’s a bit of history between these two already as McIlroy erased a six-shot lead during the final round of the Tour Championship last year to snatch the FedEx Cup from Scheffler. The two also were paired together two weeks ago at the Players Championship, where Scheffler went on to win convincingly and McIlroy missed the cut by three shots.
Next up? The Masters, where both will be among the pre-tournament favourites. Scheffler is the defending champion, and McIlroy is desperately searching for the last piece of a career Grand Slam. Although Scheffler lost to McIlroy this week he remains No. 1 in the world and will enter the year’s first major with two victories this year. McIlroy will jump Jon Rahm to No. 2 in the world and although he hasn’t won a PGA Tour event, he did win in Dubai earlier this year and had near misses at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Match Play. He also switched putters earlier this week — going to a Scotty Cameron by Titleist blade — and put in a shorter shaft on his driver, hoping to reduce the chances of a two-way miss. He wanted a few rounds of competition with the new tweaks so there would be no doubts in two weeks.
“I feel a lot better about things compared to this time a couple weeks ago, after the Players Championship” McIlroy said. “All eyes on Augusta and making sure the game is ready.”