Rory McIlroy kept his hopes alive at the WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play with a 2 and 1 win over Jhonattan Vegas on day two at Austin Country Club.
After a shock defeat to Peter Uihlein on Wednesday, the four-time Major winner was playing to avoid following World Number One Dustin Johnson in making an early exit at the second of the season’s World Golf Championships.
He birdied five of his last six holes in a fightback before falling on day one and after moving up on the second against Vegas, he never trailed against the Venezuelan.
In the other Group 6 match, Brian Harman beat Uihlein 3 and 2, meaning that only Vegas’ exit is certain at the weekend.
A brilliant birdie-birdie finish handed Kiradech Aphibarnrat a one up win against Keegan Bradley and a half against the eliminated Jon Rahm – who lost one up to Chez Reavie – on Friday will hand the Thai Group 3.
I’m more relaxed because I know my game is there – Rory McIlroy
Branden Grace beat fellow European Tour Member Julian Suri 2 and 1 and while both men still have a chance of progressing, Suri will have to defeat fellow American Bubba Watson on Friday to stop him taking Group 11.
Rafa Cabrera Bello lost 3 and 1 to Charles Howell III but can still advance from Group 14 where Phil Mickelson came back from four down to beat Satoshi Kodaira one up.
A Vegas bogey handed McIlroy the second but the World Number Seven missed the green on the par three seventh to get back to all square.
Back-to-back bogeys from Vegas helped put McIlroy – who birdied the ninth – two up at the turn and he was three ahead when he took the aggressive line over the water and pitched to five feet for a birdie on the 13th. Vegas extended the contest with a birdie on the par five 16th but it was over as the next was halved in pars.
“It wasn’t as if the scoring was any different,” said McIlroy. “I didn’t make the mistakes early and let my opponent get up early. That was main difference.
“I just know that if I win tomorrow, I’m staying here a little bit longer. I’m more relaxed because I know my game is there. I have got a lot of great shots to fall back on, the good swings that I have made, putts that I have holed.”
South African Grace bogeyed the second to put Suri one up but birdied the next before handing the initiative back with a bogey on the sixth. He then won three holes in a row – with just pars on the eighth and ninth – and after putting his tee-shot n the 11th to seven feet he was three up before Suri took the next.
“I really needed to get the win today and try to put the point on the board,” said Grace. “Anything can happen tomorrow. Julian played some solid golf.
“If Bubba does what he did to me yesterday, it’s going to be a tough one to beat. Hopefully Julian can go out there and play well and I can give myself a chance with playing against Marc.”
Leishman and Watson were engaged in a nip-and-tuck contest before the two-time Masters champion won the 12th, 13th, 14th and 16th, while Harman never looked back after winning the first and second against Uihlein.
Aphibarnrat – whose last two European Tour wins have come in match play – birdied the first, third and sixth but only led by one at the turn.
I really needed to get the win today and try to put the point on the board – Branden Grace
He and Bradley kept exchanging blows but the American won the 15th and 16th to lead before Aphibarnrat put his tee-shot to six feet on the 17th and holed a nerveless 13-footer on the last.
“I’m really proud with the way I putted the last hole,” he said. “I tried to control myself, be calm and play shot-by-shot all day.
“I have been playing good golf. Such a great golf swing, really comfortable with the swing for a couple of months.”
Rahm was close to a comeback of his own as he birdied the 16th and 17th after being three down with three to play but he could only earn a half on the last.
Cabrera Bello went one up at the turn with a stunning approach to the ninth as Howell took a drop but the American won the tenth, 14th and 17th with pars while birdieing the 15th.
Mickelson was in serious trouble when he lost the first, second, sixth and seventh but he won the next three before the Japanese gave himself some breathing space on the 11th. The duo then traded the 13th and 14th before Mickelson won the last three holes, birdieing the 16th and last.