Rory McIlroy had every reason to love the long ball Thursday.
Taken to the 18th hole in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, McIlroy unleashed the shot of the tournament. He smashed a drive on the 375-yard closing hole so magnificently that it pitched on the green and rolled out to just inside 4 feet.
That all but clinched his 2-up victory over Denny McCarthy as McIlroy led a parade of top seeds into the final round of group play at Austin Country Club.
“It was good,” McIlroy said with a smile, which was like saying Michelangelo did a good job on the Sistine Chapel.
He capped a rally from 3 down through six holes. McIlroy didn’t take his first lead in the match until another power show — a big drive into the wind on the par-5 16th to set up a two-putt birdie from 18 feet.
Defending champion Scottie Scheffler, who had to make a 12-footer on the last hole to win his first match, had seven birdies in a nine-hole stretch in the middle of his match against Alex Noren for a 5-and-4 victory.
Patrick Cantlay (4), Max Homa (5) and Xander Schauffele (6) also won their matches as four of the top six seeds took a 2-0 record into Friday in a bid to win their group and advance to the knockout stage on the weekend.
The exception was Jon Rahm, who recovered from his opening round loss by driving the green on the par-4 fifth on his way to a 4-and-3 victory over Keith Mitchell. That means Rahm winning his group is in his hands, as Rickie Fowler lost his match.
It capped another blustery day of momentum shifts and uncertain outcomes, typical of this format that is being played for the last time.
Matt Kuchar was on the cusp of tying Tiger Woods’ tournament record of 36 wins, but then he missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the last hole and had to settle for a halve with Chris Kirk.
Cameron Young never led in his match against Corey Conners — they halved 14 of the first 15 holes — until the rising American star made eagle on the par-5 16th, holed a 12-foot birdie on the 17th to take his first lead and then made a wild scramble for par to win.
“Obviously it’s windy and difficult today but there’s enough holes you should still make four, five or six birdies. It’s just keeping myself patient knowing that those are probably coming,” Young said. “I would have liked them to be a little bit earlier, but I’ll take them right where they were.”
The McIlroy drive was the topper, though.
“I was imagining the driver was going to land into the upslope and sort of stay 10, 20 yards short,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t imagine I could fly it on the green.”
As for where it rates, McIlroy laughed.
“I was 1 up and there’s certainly a lot of other ways to make birdie on that hole without having to do that,” he said. “But yeah, it was a great swing and it was great time to do it.”
It came during a week in which McIlroy said to “No Laying Up” that he favored the USGA and R&A proposal to roll back the distance golf balls travel for elite competition. The governing bodies chose not to address the driver.
“I think you’re gonna see people with more well-rounded games succeed easier than what the game has become, which is a bit bomb-and-gouge over these last few years,” he said.
This was more bomb-and-putt, and it was a beauty.
The shot was similar to Robert MacIntyre driving the 18th green at Austin Country Club two years ago when he needed to win the final hole to win his group, and it knocked out top-seeded Dustin Johnson.
McIlroy’s work is not done, and none of the top seeds can be assured to advancing even without having lost a match.
Two players can speak from experience. Cantlay two years ago was 2-0 when he lost on the third day and then faced a sudden-death playoff against Brian Harman — whom he had beaten on the first day — and lost with a three-putt on the second extra hole.
Lucas Herbert was in the same position last year when he lost to Takumi Kanaya and then faced him in a playoff, four-putting the first green.
This is no time to get comfortable.
“Comfort is the devil in golf,” Herbert said. “As much as it is a great position to be 2-0, I got work to do tomorrow.”
Twenty players face the worst day because they have been eliminated, a group that includes Will Zalatoris, the No. 7 seed, and eighth-seeded Viktor Hovland.
Jordan Spieth will need some help. A crowd favorite in Austin, where he played for the Longhorns for three semesters, Spieth was 1 up over PGA Tour rookie Taylor Montgomery when he drove into the water and lost the 13th, went long of the 14th green and missed a short par putt and Montgomery made a 10-foot birdie on the 15th to seize control.
Montgomery won on the 17th hole to go 2-0. Spieth would need to beat Shane Lowry and have Mackenzie Hughes beat Montgomery to have a chance.
Montgomery never fared well in match play when he was at UNLV, though he did just fine in plenty of money games at Shadow Creek with a few high rollers.
With side bets, he recalled having a few putts worth $10,000 or $15,000. He didn’t miss.
“That was a good thing, too, because that was everything in my bank account,” he said.
As for Keegan Bradley, he had a 6-and-5 win which was noteworthy for a couple of reasons. It was his first win in Match Play since 2012 — what followed were nine losses and seven halves — and he only needs to win Friday to win his group.
Next up is McIlroy, who beat Bradley in the Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012 when Europe pulled off a stunning comeback. McIlroy nearly missed his tee time that day because he said he forgot Chicago was in the Central time zone. So is Austin.
“Listen, I know I got a really tough match. It’s Rory McIlroy,” Bradley said “But I’m playing well, too, so I’m going to go out there and try to win the match.”