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World number two Jon Rahm kept his hopes of winning the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play alive as Rory McIlroy produced a spectacular finish to the second day’s action in Austin.
Rahm suffered a surprise defeat to Rickie Fowler on Wednesday but bounced back to beat Keith Mitchell 4&3 on Thursday as Ryder Cup team-mates Shane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood suffered disappointing early exits.
Lowry’s defeat to Mackenzie Hughes and Fleetwood’s half with Maverick McNealy ensured neither could qualify for the knockout stages, but McIlroy made it two wins out of two in sensational style.
The world number three fell three down after six holes to an inspired Denny McCarthy, but fought back to take the lead with a birdie on the 16th and then drove the green on the par-four 18th.
McIlroy’s tee shot on the 375-yard hole finished just four feet from the pin and led to a conceded eagle which secured a two-hole win, meaning the Northern Irishman needs just a half from Friday’s match with Keegan Bradley to progress.
“I feel like 12-18 is my stretch of the golf course where I can really exert my advantage over anyone I play with the length I have,” McIlroy told Sky Sports.
“It has served me well over the last few years and thankfully did so again today.”
Rahm will face former BMW PGA Championship winner Billy Horschel in the final round of group matches and said: “Not many pairings are going to have more electricity on the course than me and Billy combined so it should be a good one.”
After his match, Rahm was asked whether he agreed with McIlroy speaking out in favour of the proposals for a shorter ball to be used in elite competitions.
“I think it sets manufacturers back quite a bit,” Rahm said. “I don’t think it’s fair to tell all these brands to have to go through the research, the development, and the testing of a brand new golf ball just for a few of us.
“I just don’t think the PGA Tour and the manufacturers are going to put up with that. I have a hard time believing it. But it’s happened before. They have changed the grooves, they keep figuring out limitations for our game, but either way whatever happens we’ll deal with it.”
McIlroy went as far as to say he could use the shorter ball on the PGA Tour even if it was not required in order to best prepare for majors, but Rahm added: “Let’s see if the majors decide to do it.
“I find it hard to believe as well that the majors would go completely against what the professional tours decide to do. And if that were the case, if that were to happen, that would set a huge divide in the game of golf that is just not good for anybody.
“I think Rory, to an extent, is right. The change benefits the better players, especially the longer players.
“I think I would be hitting it 10 to 15 yards shorter, which would put me on what I was doing in 2019, 2020, and my golf game was pretty good back then as well. So I don’t think it would be a big difference.”
Lowry, who bogeyed two of the first four holes against Hughes and found himself five down after seven, briefly threatened to make a comeback as he won the 10th with a par and then eagled the par-five 12th.
However, he promptly found water off the tee on the next and a sixth match play loss of the year – following defeats in all four matches in January’s Hero Cup – was confirmed when Hughes birdied the 15th.
Lowry faces Jordan Spieth on Friday but the destiny of group 12 is in the hands of Taylor Montgomery, who beat Spieth 2&1 and takes on Hughes in the final round of group matches.
Fleetwood birdied the 18th to avoid a second defeat of the week in a group surprisingly headed by JT Poston, the American following his victory over Fleetwood with another against Sungjae Im.
Tyrell Hatton also suffered an early exit after losing 2&1 to Australia’s Lucas Herbert.