AUSTIN, Texas — Rory McIlroy hasn’t walked off the course this early in 10 years at the Dell Technologies Match Play.
Ian Poulter had a lot to do with that. He hit two pivotal shots to pull away and applied enough pressure on the other holes that McIlroy had to be a lot sharper than he was Wednesday at Austin Country Club.
The result was a 6-and-5 victory, McIlroy’s worst loss in this World Golf Championship since Ben Crane defeated him, 8 and 7, in the second round in 2011 at Dove Mountain in Arizona.
Poulter never lost the lead after a 6-foot birdie putt on the opening hole, though he was losing momentum. After going 3 up through five holes when McIlroy hit a tee shot into a swimming pool, McIlroy won two of the next three holes, the latter with an approach to 3 feet for birdie.
That was as close as he got. Poulter hit a 7-iron to 8 feet to a dangerous pin at the back left of the ninth green for birdie, and he won every hole until it ended on the 13th. The knockout was a 4-iron from 257 yards that Poulter hit to 8 feet for an eagle that McIlroy — 84 yards past him off the tee — wound up conceding.
Poulter said the score only made it look like an easy day of work.
“You’re playing Rory, and it was apparent when you’re 1 up after being 3 up that this is not going to be an easy match,” Poulter said. “I wanted to keep the foot down because it’s too easy to let him back in the game like he did, and then he takes control of the match.”
McIlroy three-putted from 12 feet to lose one hole. Most bizarre was his drive on the 370-yard fifth hole that bounced over a fence and into a pool. He found water on a hole that doesn’t have a water hazard.
Most troubling was the number of times McIlroy had wedge in his hand and couldn’t get it close enough to either put pressure on Poulter or match his birdie attempts.
The end was fitting. He drove over the water and beyond the green on the 288-yard 13th hole. Poulter was off the green in 2 shots, and McIlroy’s eagle chip raced down the green, over the edge and into the water.
He declined to speak to the media after his round, not unusual in this most personal format. McIlroy chose not to hold a news conference before the tournament. He still hasn’t publicly commented on bringing noted English swing coach Pete Cowen into his stable, or the role he will play, or how this affects longtime coach Michael Bannon.
McIlroy is not out of the tournament. In group play, he still has two more matches against Lanto Griffin on Thursday and Cameron Smith on Friday. He would have to win them both and have Poulter lose a match to have a chance to win his group and to advance to the weekend.
For starters, this wasn’t the game he wanted to see in his final event before the Masters. McIlroy hasn’t won since the HSBC Champions in Shanghai in the fall of 2019. He is coming off a 79 in the opening round at The Players Championship, where he missed the cut. He spoke two weeks ago about getting sucked into chasing speed and distance like Bryson DeChambeau.
“I think there’s a couple of areas of his game which I’m sure he wants to kind of firm up a little bit and obviously he missed a couple of tee shots left,” Poulter said. “But it’s Rory. It doesn’t take a lot for Rory to spark up pretty quickly. I just felt that I had done a pretty decent job of putting him under pressure. I made it difficult for him.”