Rory McIlroy flunked his semi-final test against Cam Young, but the other showdown had all the eyes.
There’s an old cliché that 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in sports; it originated with European football, you hear it all the time in reference to ice hockey, and it even has its own Wikipedia page. The idea is that the extra cushion leads to complacency, and whether that’s right, we have absolutely seen enough at this year’s WGC-Dell Match Play to come up with our own golf variation:
“Being 2-up on Scottie Scheffler is the most dangerous lead in golf.”
Early on the back nine in Sunday’s semi-final round, Sam Burns seemed to be learning that lesson the hard way. As of last night, Scheffler was the first person in the history of the event to make three straight semi-finals, and the crazy thing is, the man has only played this thing three times. There’s something even wilder, though — in his last four matches, he’s come back from at least a 2-down deficit every time.
It started with his final group-stage match Friday against Tom Kim, when he lost the first two holes to the Presidents Cup breakout star. That didn’t last long; by the fifth hole, Scheffler was 1-up, and remained steady to win 3 and 2. Next, in the Round of 16 on Saturday, he was actually two holes behind JT Poston on the back nine, and looked to be in real trouble standing on the 15th tee 2 down. That’s when he reeled off three straight birdies to tie the match, then won on 18 when Poston made bogey. That afternoon, in the quarter-finals, Jason Day came out guns blazing and took a 3-up lead on Scheffler after six holes. Yet again, Scheffler withstood the body blows and surged after the turn, eventually closing Day out with a near-ace on 17.
Which brings us to Sunday morning and the semi-final with Burns. You’ll never guess what happened …
… OK, you guessed it. Burns won the first three holes, seemed to have Scheffler running scared, and then watched the World No. 1 reel off four birdies in a stretch of five holes. This comeback was somehow even more swift and sudden than the others, and by the 12th hole, Scheffler was already 2 up.
That’s the moment when Burns decided he wasn’t going to be the latest chapter in the Scheffler comeback narrative … or if he was, he wasn’t going to make it easy. On 13, the short par 4 at Austin Country Club that tends to transform matches, he buried his nine-foot birdie putt to steal a hole back. On 15, his irons starting to catch fire, he hit his approach to five feet for yet another birdie and a tied match.
Meanwhile, Scheffler had begun to leave his approach shots short, and wasn’t able to convert a string of long putts. Burns achieved the full re-reversal on 17, the par 3, when Burns gave Scheffler a taste of his own medicine by hitting a near-ace.
What a shot from @SamBurns66 🔥
He’s now 1-up with one to play @DellMatchPlay. pic.twitter.com/WJ1rvHpQOQ
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 26, 2023
His birdie conceded, Scheffler yet again missed a long putt. Burns had one hole to survive, and after both men hit terrific drives to the valley just ahead of the 18th green, Burns had a birdie attempt to win the match … and missed. Scheffler, of course, made birdie to extend the match, and after the two tied the first playoff hole, Scheffler’s lay-up stopped five feet from the hole. Burns missed a longer birdie, but Scheffler shockingly missed his as well that would have seen through to a third straight final. Burns secured victory on the 21st hole of the match with a tremendous shot out of the bunker on the 14th hole and then holing this birdie putt:
.@SamBurns66 for the win 😤
After 21 holes, Burns defeats Scheffler and will face Cameron Young in the championship @DellMatchPlay. pic.twitter.com/AWZIDIoj49
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 26, 2023
It looked for all the world like Scheffler was pulling a Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope — his opponent comes out swinging, Scheffler bobs and weaves, gets hit once in a while, but never critically, and at a certain point when his opponent seems to have punched himself out, that’s when the onslaught begins—but Burns took the incredible resilience that defines the World No. 1, and somehow outmatched him.
As it turns out, we are going to get the dream final of Scheffler v Rory McIlroy, but it’s going to be in the third-place match. Burns, along with Cameron Young, endured the biggest punches from one of the great match play talents, and survived to make the final.