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Rory McIlroy extends win streak at Match Play event

By Steve Habel, The Sports Xchange   |   March 26, 2016 at 12:42 AM
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AUSTIN, Texas -- This match-play thing is something Rory McIlroy likes, a lot, and he is sure good at it. So good, in fact, that it's almost like he toys with his opponents, keeping them around until the end instead of winning his matches with early flurries.

Defending champion McIlroy stretched his win streak at the World Golf Championship-Dell Match Play to 10 straight matches over the past two years, but he made it interesting again with a two-hole sudden-death playoff victory on Friday over Kevin Na in the final day of group play competition at the Austin Country Club.

McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, won all seven of his matches in this event in last year's win at Harding Park, and has won his first three this year, a run that is just three wins shy of Tiger Woods' record of 13 straight (2003-05).

McIlroy will play Zach Johnson on Saturday morning after Johnson continued his dominating run through this event with a 4-and-3 win over Ireland's Shane Lowry.

"It is a sigh of relief, nice to get through and nice to be here for the weekend," McIlroy said about advancing. "My match-play record has been pretty good over the last couple of years. I have a tough opponent in Zach tomorrow. I know I have to play very, very well."

McIlroy was in danger of being 2-down after Na's approach on the par-4 ninth hole stopped just 15 feet from the hole, and McIlroy followed with a shot that ended up 68 feet away and across a mound on the demanding green. But McIlroy, who is No. 3 in the world rankings, confidently rolled his putt into the cup and Na's nervous attempt never made it to the hole, producing a two-shot swing and evening the match.

After Na won the 10th hole, McIlroy again used his flatstick to pull even, this time rolling in a 32-foot putt on the par-3 11th.

McIlroy took his first lead of the match with a birdie on the 15th hole after hitting his approach on the par 4 to within four feet. He gave back the advantage on the par-5 16th when he had to take a penalty stroke after his drive and Na birdied from just 19 inches. The two both parred the par-3 17th.

Na's drive with a 3-wood on the 18th flew into the trees left of the fairway but bounced out, leaving him 134 yards from the hole. McIlroy took a more aggressive plan and ripped a driver 328 yards to just 45 yards short of the green. Both players missed lengthy birdie putts and settled for pars, which pushed them into a playoff that McIlroy won on the second hole.

"Any time the match goes the distance, I feel like I have a better chance," McIlroy said. "Thankfully, I was able to get it done again today."

Johnson stayed on the course to play the 16th, 17th and 18th holes because he has not played those holes this week in competition. Johnson beat Marcus Fraser 4 and 3 on Wednesday and Martin Kaymer 8 and 6 on Thursday.

"I'm confident in the lines I'm taking and I'm confident in the shots I'm hitting," Johnson said. "I'm certainly pretty confident on the greens as a whole. This is a course that favors placement over length so you don't have to have a 300-yard carry. You don't have to just swing for the fences. The fairways are tight, and I'm hitting my driver well."

World No. 1 and hometown favorite Jordan Spieth advanced as expected with a 3-and-2 victory over boyhood friend Justin Thomas. Spieth shot 5-under on the front nine in building a 4-up lead and never looked back even though he lost the 10th and 15th holes to Thomas.

He finished off the match with an eagle on the par-5 16th and will play Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa in the round of 16 on Saturday morning.

"I woke up this morning with some nerves, knowing that no matter what Justin was going to be a tough opponent," Spieth said. "I knew I pretty much had to win or tie this match. Even after playing so great the first two days, it still felt like it was a win or go home, you don't want to rely on a playoff."

Bill Haas beat Australia's Adam Scott 1-up with a birdie on the final hole to finish his 3-0 run through group play. Haas will play Chris Kirk, who won a playoff against Brendan Grace of South Africa to advance.

The first player to officially earn a spot in the single-elimination round of 16 was Jason Day of Australia, the world's second-ranked player, who advanced with a perfect 3-0 record in group play after England's Paul Casey conceded their third-round match on the sixth hole because of illness. Day will play Brandt Snedeker, a 5-and-3 winner over Charl Schwartzel of South Africa.

The short stint on the course gave Day a chance to rest his back, which he tweaked during his first round match on Wednesday.

"It's definitely a good thing for me to be able to get some more rest and try and rest my back and get some good therapy going," Day said. "If I can make it all the way through Sunday that means I'm playing 72 holes on the weekend, which is a lot of golf."

Others to advance to the round of 16 were: Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson, Byeong-Hun An of South Korea, Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain, Ryan Moore, Patton Kizzire, Matt Kuchar and Brooks Koepka.

Reed will play Johnson, An will square off versus Bello, Moore will battle Kizzire and Kuchar will face Koepka.

Winners will move onto the quarterfinals Saturday afternoon while losers will be eliminated.

NOTES: The top four seeds were a combined 7-0-1 through the first two days of play. ...With a win, Jordan Spieth would join Rory McIlroy (2015) and Tiger Woods as the third player to win the Dell Match Play as a No. 1 seed. Woods won the tournament three times (2008, 2004 and 2003) as the top seed. ... Zach Johnson's 8-and-6 victory over Martin Kaymer on Thursday tied the tournament record for the fourth-largest margin of victory in an 18-hole match. Johnson played only 27 holes through two matches. ... The largest margin of victory at the Dell Match Play was by Woods, who beat Canada's Stephen Ames 9 and 8 in 2006.

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