The matchplay format never has respected reputations, not even those that have only just been restored. So it proved for Rory McIlroy here on Wednesday as he crashed to an unexpected defeat to the world No 63 three days after looking unbeatable at the Arnold Palmer invitational.
It is definitely not time for the Irishman to panic, however. The WGC Dell Matchplay is a famously volatile event and if McIlroy needed any reminder of that he only needed to look at Dustin Johnson, the world No 1 and defending champion, who was beaten 3&1 by Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger. The mano-a-mano game can make fools of the very best of them.
As it turned out, McIlroy fared commendably to keep the scoreline against the American Peter Uilhein to 2&1 because when he fell five behind with seven remaining it appeared it could be humiliating. Up until that pint, the world No 7 had appeared as if he was suffering a huge hangover from his Bay Hill heroics as he allowed this opponent to forge a commanding advantage.
But McIlroy, whose win on Sunday was his first in 18 months, reeled off five birdies in succession to threaten an astonishing comeback before Uilhein finished it off on the 17th. “I made him earn it at least,”
McIlroy said. “I just came away a little flat and Pete played pretty well. I made a run at him at the end, but it was a little too late.”
He still has a chance because three years ago the organisers changed the tournament from a straight knockout from the off to guard against heavyweights such as McIlroy and Johnson heading out of the gates on Wednesday.
The 2015 champion will probably have to beat Jhonattan Vegas, today, and Brian Harman to top his group and advance to the weekend knockout stages. But if he fails, he will be far from mortified despite the Masters looming in two weeks’ time.
Strokeplay at Augusta is about as far removed from this as one could imagine and his birdie burst on the back nine was mere confirmation McIlroy is in good form.
As is Tyrrell Hatton. The Englishman followed up his third place at last month’s WGC Mexico Championship with a 3&2 victory over France’s Alex Levy and exorcised a few demons in the process.
Last year, Hatton was on the brink of going through to the second round when he stood over an eight-footer in a three-man play-off. But he missed and, in his frustration, accidentally nudged his ball. The world No 16 then compounded that error by not replacing the ball and earned himself a two-shot penalty, which meant a swift and infuriating exit.
“It was a hard lesson,” Hatton recalled. “It was the start of my bad run and so it clearly bothered me for a while afterwards.”
There was also a 3&2 win for Ian Poulter over yet another Englishman in Tommy Fleetwood. Poulter needs to advance at least to the quarter-finals if he is going to leap into the world’s top 50 and so qualify for the Masters.