SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Rory McIlroy had to work harder than ever to win the Match Play Championship.
No one ever had to play seven matches in five days, and McIlroy won them all in the new round-robin format. He had to beat three players on the same day, a first in the 17 years of this tournament. And three times, he stood on the 17th tee trailing.
McIlroy didn’t need a comeback in the final Sunday afternoon. He won four straight holes on the front nine against an errant Gary Woodland, survived a brief scare and wound up with a 4-and-2 victory for his second World Golf Championship.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” McIlroy said.
Three weeks after Jordan Spieth won the Masters and emerged as the most likely rival, McIlroy reminded the world of his No. 1 ranking.
He became the first No. 1 seed since Tiger Woods in 2008 to win the most unpredictable event in golf and collect his 10th PGA Tour title. He joined Woods (29) and Jack Nicklaus (17) as the only players with at least 10 PGA Tour victories at age 25 or younger.
McIlroy turns 26 on Monday.
“Every time I have a win, I keep hearing those guys’ names come up,” McIlroy said. “It’s great to be mentioned with the likes of Tiger and Jack, the two greatest players that I think have every played this game. I’m on my journey. I’ll see where I get to.”
It was quite a journey at TPC Harding Park, especially on Sunday.
McIlroy had to start at 6:45 a.m. to complete his quarterfinal match against Paul Casey. Without hitting a putt on the practice green (only on the chipping green, which didn’t have the same speed), he put perfect pace on a 60-foot eagle putt from the fringe for a short birdie that Casey couldn’t match in losing in 22 holes.
In the semifinals against hard-nosed Jim Furyk, McIlroy was 1 down when he closed birdie-birdie-eagle for a 1-up victory. He squared the match with a 7-iron to 4 feet and closed out Furyk with a 45-foot eagle putt across the 18th green.
No such theatrics were needed against Woodland.
After a scrappy start by both — two holes were halved with bogeys — Woodland began missing fairways and McIlroy took advantage. He won four straight holes, three of them with birdies, to build a 4-up lead. That was the margin until McIlroy began making a few mistakes of his own.
He made bogey on No. 11 with a poor bunker shot. He failed to make birdie on the reachable par-4 12th with a wild tee shot. And his indifferent chip left of the 13th green led to another bogey. Woodland had a 4-foot par putt to reach 1 down with plenty of golf course left.
Woodland ran it over the right edge, and momentum shifted squarely back to McIlroy.
“My putt drops on 13 and it’s a different ball game,” Woodland said. “But I missed that one. And he was like a shark. Smelled blood, and it was game over quickly.”
McIlroy won the 14th with a par when Woodland three-putted, leaving his long birdie attempt woefully short. And he closed out the match when Woodland blasted out of a bunker and over the 16th green, missing the next shot and removing his cap to concede the match.
“You’ve got to get lucky in match play,” Woodland said. “If you have your bad round, you’ve got to hope the guy you’re playing with has a bad round, as well. I was fortunate to get away with a bad round on Wednesday against Jimmy (Walker). But when you’re playing the No. 1 player in the world, you can’t have a bad round. You’ve got to go out and play pretty good golf. And I just didn’t do it today.”
McIlroy had his share of fortune.
He was 2 down with two holes to play and on the verge of elimination when McIlroy rallied against Billy Horschel to win in 20 holes. Casey was 1 up with two holes to play when he hit a poor chip that led to bogey on the 17th and McIlroy won in 22 holes.
His strongest play was in the semifinals against Furyk, who put enormous pressure on McIlroy over the closing holes by hitting four straight approach shots close.
“I give him credit,” Furyk said. “On 16, great up-and-down, and then birdie at 17 and eagle on 18. I tip my hat to him.”
Woodland faced an early deficit to Danny Willett of England in the semifinals until he turned it around for a 3-and-2 victory. Going into the championship match, Woodland had trailed on only 11 of the 101 holes he had played all week.
Against McIlroy, he never led.
In the consolation match, Willett beat Furyk on the 16th hole and picked up $646,000, which will go a long way toward PGA Tour membership if he wants it.
The Match Play Championship featured a new format this year to keep more top players in the field for at least three days. McIlroy was 3-0 in the round-robin format, and wound up winning all seven matches to pick up the $1.57 million prize.
Woodland earned $930,000 for finishing second.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.