MARANA, Ariz. — Rory McIlroy was walking down the stairs toward the driving range when he passed Lee Westwood and gave him the same message he had delivered earlier Saturday in the Match Play Championship.
“See you in the morning,” McIlroy said with a big smile. “Just like I told you.”
In 14 years of this fickle tournament, there has never been a semifinal match so compelling.
McIlroy had another surge on the back nine to put away Bae Sang-moon, 3 and 2. Moments later, Westwood finished off Martin Laird by the same margin, setting up a showdown today with more at stake than just a spot in the championship match.
If either McIlroy or Westwood goes on to win the Match Play Championship, they would go to No. 1 in the world.
“I think with both of us being up there in the world, and both of us with the possibility of going to No. 1, it gives the match definitely an extra little bit of spice,” McIlroy said.
The duel was not lacking spice in the first place.
They were stablemates at International Sports Management until some testy exchanges last year.
Shortly after McIlroy shot 80 in the final round of the Masters to blow a four-shot lead, Westwood got under his skin by saying the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland “has a pull hook in his bag under pressure.” But it was McIlroy who was the first to win a major, setting records at Congressional on his way to an eight-shot win in the U.S. Open.
Later in the year, when McIlroy left Chubby Chandler at ISM, Westwood tweeted that it was a bizarre move. McIlroy quickly un-followed Westwood and Chandler on Twitter.
Both players say their relationship is no different than with other golfers. They don’t spend as much time together, understandable because they no longer have the same manager.
“There’s nothing strained about the relationship between the two of us. It’s still the same as it was,” Westwood said. “Rory said to me before I went out, ’See you tomorrow morning.’ And then today again there, he said, ’See, told you.’ That’s the trouble with kids nowadays. They think they’re always right, don’t they?”
A dull day in the desert ended with high anticipation for the final day.
The championship match is at high noon. The McIlroy-Westwood duel gets under way as the sun begins to climb over the high desert.
“I think it’s the match that most people wanted, and definitely the match that I wanted,” McIlroy said.
The other semifinal match Sunday morning features Hunter Mahan and Mark Wilson, assuring an American will make it to the final for the first time since Tiger Woods won in 2008.
Mahan played the shortest quarterfinal match in the 14-year history of the event by beating Matt Kuchar, 6 and 5. Wilson, gaining more respect the deeper he goes in the bracket, had an easy time in his 4-and-3 win over Peter Hanson of Sweden.
The 18-hole championship match will start about an hour after the semifinals.
With a strong breeze, firmer conditions, tough hole locations and only four quarterfinal matches, Saturday at Dove Mountain was lacking excitement. For the first time ever, none of the quarterfinals matches reached the 17th hole.
McIlroy and Westwood saved the day.
For starters, it’s the first time the Match Play Championship semifinals have featured two of the top four seeds since 2004, when Woods and Davis Love III advanced. McIlroy is No. 2, and Westwood is No. 3.
Plus, there’s that small matter of No. 1 in the world.
Westwood already has been No. 1 in the world, and said his priority is picking up his first WGC title. McIlroy already is a major champion, and would become the second-youngest player behind Woods to reach No. 1 in the world.
“My priorities were to win major championships and win World Golf Championships because I haven’t ever won any,” Westwood said. “I’ve been at No. 1 couple of times. It would be a different way of thinking to me compared to Rory, who hasn’t been No. 1. He may be thinking about it, but my main goal is to play well — or play as well as I’ve been playing — tomorrow morning and try and win that match.”
Getting to this stage has been relatively easy.
McIlroy had to go to the 18th hole in the opening round, but has had little resistance since then. He took the lead for good over Bae with a birdie on the 11th hole, then stretched his advantage when Bae chopped up the 13th hole and missed the par-4 15th green on the wrong side and had to settle for par.
Westwood had a tougher time Saturday, but not for long.
He had led in 48 of the 49 holes he played through the opening three rounds, and fell behind immediately to Laird. But starting with Laird’s bogey on the sixth, Westwood won four of the next five holes. He holed a 6-foot birdie putt to halve the 13th hole and stay 2 up, then seized command when Laird took three shots to get out of the bunker on the 14th before conceding.
An All-American semifinal is not nearly as surprising as the players in the match.
“I don’t think too many people picked me to win,” Wilson said.
He has a chance to win for the fourth time in 14 months, more than anyone on the PGA Tour in that time, but gets overlooked due to his medium-length off the tee. Wilson makes up for that with smart play and great putting, a deadly combination in this format. Even on the par 5s he couldn’t reach at Dove Mountain, he played to the right angles and kept pressure on Hanson.
Mahan escaped the opening round in 19 holes over Zach Johnson before bulling his way through the bracket with birdies. He only needed pars against Kuchar, whose belly putter went cold on him.
Mahan, who won a WGC title at Firestone two years ago, won five holes with pars against Kuchar. He holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the ninth to go 5-up at the turn, then won the next hole when Kuchar again missed from 6 feet for par.
“Matt couldn’t find the putter today, which is rare for him, because he’s a great putter,” Mahan said. “I got lucky in that aspect. But I played solid, didn’t make any bogeys and didn’t give many holes — and kept the pressure on him. That was nice to do.”