WASHINGTON – Tiger Woods defeated Rory McIlroy 2&1 in a dramatic showdown on Saturday, grabbing an early lead and never trailing to reach the quarter-finals of the WGC Match Play Championship.
In McIlroy’s first match-play battle with boyhood idol Woods, the Northern Ireland star couldn’t muster a birdie over his first 11 holes and endured a 16th-hole disaster to fall in the feature morning match before roaring crowds at Austin (Texas) Country Club.
“It was big for us inside the ropes too,” Woods said. “It was fun for us. We battled hard against each other. I was fortunate to come out on top.”
Woods, a 14-time major champion, booked an afternoon quarter-final against Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard, who ousted Sweden’s Henrik Stenson 3&2.
Wind and rain struck on the back nine but Woods weathered the storm to stay in contention for his fourth WGC Match Play crown and first since 2008.
“We had some interesting conditions,” Woods said. “The wind changed. I played pretty consistent the entire day. I didn’t give him any holes and Rory didn't make any putts. It was a tough day all around and I’m happy to advance.”
Woods sank a tense 7-foot par putt at 15 to keep a 1-up lead but was buried under a bunker lip off the tee at the par-5 16th and looked set to lose the hole.
But McIlroy was undone after a mammoth 395-yard tee shot. He found right rough, then with one foot in sand chipped over the green against a boundary marker. He rechipped only to find a bunker, then blasted to two feet and surrendered the hole.
Woods missed the green at the par-3 17th but holed a 13-foot par putt to halve the hole and win the match.
McIlroy, the 2015 champion, and Stenson, the 2007 winner, each went unbeaten in group play, which trimmed the field of 64 to 16 for weekend knockout matches, with a record eight Europeans reaching the last 16.
Former world number one Woods, two wins shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 US PGA wins, had not been in the event since 2013 and hadn’t made the last eight in 11 years.
But the 43-year-old American showed his skills in the format have not waned despite a winless Ryder Cup effort last year in France.
McIlroy, a four-time major winner who can complete a Career Grand Slam in two weeks by winnings the Masters, could have jumped to world number one by winning the title after a Players Championship win two weeks ago.
Woods took a 1-up edge with a birdie at the par-4 fifth hole, blasting his tee shot into greenside rough then chipping to four feet and making the putt.
At the par-5 sixth, Woods chipped from the fairway to three feet and sank his birdie putt for a 2-up edge.
McIlroy, who dropped only three holes in three group-stage matches, lipped out on a 3-foot par putt to lose the 10th hole and fall 3-down.
But his search for a weekend birdie ended at the par-5 12th as his approach landed two feet from the cup, and McIlroy added another from five feet at 13 to pull within 1-down, setting up the final drama.
Reigning British Open champion Francesco Molinari, Europe’s Ryder Cup hero in beating the US team last year in France, eliminated English 10th seed Paul Casey 5&4.
The seventh-seeded Italian will next face America’s Kevin Na, who upset English second seed Justin Rose 2-up, foiling his bid to claim the world number one spot.
Na squared the match from 2-down, saw Rose restore the lead, then birdied three holes in a row for a 1-up lead after 14. Rose had a shot at 15 blown into the grandstands by a wind gust and Na parred the hole to go 2-up.
Rose birdied the par-5 16th but Na birdied 18 for the win.
South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen beat Australia’s seed Marc Leishman 2&1 to reach a last-eight date with Kevin Kisner of the United States.
Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open winner, sank a 23-foot birdie putt to halve the par-3 17th for the victory.
Kisner, last year’s runner-up, birdied four of the first five holes in routing China’s Li Haotong 6&5.
US 23rd seed Matt Kuchar beat English 35th seed Tyrrell Hatton 4&3 to reach a quarter-final against Spanish 26th seed Sergio Garcia, who beat South African Branden Grace 1-up.