Rory McIlroy rarely has played so well and had so little to show for it.
No matter what happens Friday in the Dell Technologies Match Play, McIlroy won’t be around for the weekend. That’s not unusual for this event. Four times when Match Play was single elimination, he didn’t make it out of the second round.
But this week was as strange as it gets for the No. 2 player in the world.
He played 17 holes on Wednesday, most of them good. McIlroy was 4-under par and would have beaten most players in the opening round, except that Soren Kjeldsen closed with four straight birdies, the last one a pitching wedge that landed 2 inches from the cup on one of the toughest little par 3s in Texas. No shame there.
“Overall, I can’t be disappointed,” he said. And that’s when his week took an unexpected turn.
Gary Woodland had to withdraw Thursday because of what was described only as a personal family matter with no other details. McIlroy faced Woodland in the championship match when he won the Match Play in 2015 at Harding Park. That meant McIlroy won a match he didn’t even play.
And then without hitting another shot, his tournament was over. Kjeldsen defeated Emiliano Grillo to go 2-0 in group play, and because Kjeldsen was to face Woodland in the final day of round robin, he was assured of winning his match.
McIlroy plays what amounts to a practice round on Friday.
For someone who has played 14 matches over the last two years, this was the last thing McIlroy needed before going to the Masters. After his match Friday against Grillo, the four-time major champion will have played just 14 rounds in 2017.
He lost in a playoff at the South African Open with an injured rib that turned out to be more serious than he realized. It was a hairline fracture, and it sidelined McIlroy for seven weeks. McIlroy returned at the Mexico Championship, where he was assured of playing four rounds, and he had the 36-hole lead until a 70-71 weekend gave him a tie for seventh. A week ago at Bay Hill, he made a late charge until a bogey on the final hole. McIlroy tied for fourth.
The biggest decision he faced Friday was not whether to go for the green over the water on the par-4 13th. It was whether he should enter the Houston Open next week and try to get in some more meaningful golf ahead of the Masters.
He’ll have to decide after Friday’s match.
It might not be the worst decision. If he wants to get to Augusta for early practice, he’ll have all weekend. And it’s worth nothing that McIlroy played the week before he won three of his four majors _ the Scottish Open ahead of his 2014 victory at Royal Liverpool, and the Bridgestone Invitational the week before the PGA Championship he won in 2012 at Kiawah Island and in 2014 at Valhalla.
He played the Memorial two weeks before his record victory in the 2011 U.S. Open.
McIlroy is getting the most attention because he has so much at stake _ a chance to become only the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
But when it comes to Match Play, he wasn’t alone in his misery.
Alex Noren also got a free pass into the round of 16 at Austin Country Club. He easily defeated Thongchai Jaidee in the first round and Bernd Wiesberger in the second round. Next up was Francesco Molinari, and Noren failed to win, he would have gone into a sudden-death playoff against the winner of the third-round match between Thongchai and Wiesberger.
But then Molinari withdrew with a wrist injury.
Just like that, Noren won the group and Thongchai and Wiesberger had a Friday match with nothing riding on the outcome.
These are the vagaries of Match Play, even in a round-robin format designed to keep the 64-man field around for at least three days. The idea was to keep it interesting until the last day of group play, though there is nothing particularly interesting for four matches where the winner ends up losing _ the others are McIlroy and Grillo, Byeong Hun An against Joost Luiten, Shane Lowry against Kevin Chappell.
Those eight are among 21 players who will play Friday with no chance to move on.
There is bound to be criticism of the format. The answer has always been to play better.
What wound up hurting McIlroy is he didn’t get to play at all.