• WGC-Match Play Championship

Early exit for McIlroy but McDowell rallies

February 21, 2014
Rory McIlroy succumbed on the first extra hole when he hit an errant second shot that led to a double-bogey © Getty Images

The walk to the parking lot was one filled with resignation, but not despair. Unlike a year ago when Rory McIlroy departed Dove Mountain with a million questions about his game, on Thursday there existed an air of confidence, even in defeat.

McIlroy fought back from two holes down to Harris English at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship but ultimately succumbed on the first extra hole when the Northern Irishman hit an errant second shot that led to a double-bogey.

It was not the way McIlroy wanted the day to conclude, but there's no shame in losing to English, one of the top young American players who has two PGA Tour victories to his name in the past nine months.

"I'm very comfortable with my game," said McIlroy, 24, who made six birdies. "I don't feel in any way disappointed leaving early, because I feel like my game is there. I'm looking forward to the next couple of weeks."

McIlroy's struggles from a year ago are well documented. He came to this tournament off a missed cut a month earlier in Abu Dhabi. All of a sudden, he had just three competitive rounds to his game two months into the year. Then he went to the Honda Classic and withdrew midway through the second round, leading to the first major criticism of his career.

That subject will undoubtedly be broached next week at PGA National, but McIlroy has done more than enough in recent months to help quell those memories. He had two top-10 finishes in the Middle East, a decent showing here despite the second-day defeat, and now it's on to two events in Florida with the Masters not far away.

"I knew it was going to be a battle coming in," said the 24-year-old English. "Rory is an unbelievable player and has seemed to have found his game the last couple of months. I knew going into it I was going to have to bring my A-game and put a lot of pressure on him to end up taking the victory.

"I was two up with five to play, and then turned out I was one down with two to play. It was a little wake-up call."

English converted a clutch 20-footer for birdie at the 17th to square the match, then won when McIlroy had his difficulties on the 19th hole.

Although they are separated a good bit in terms of acclaim, English and McIlroy do share a common bond. They, along with Patrick Reed, are the only players on the PGA Tour under age 25 with multiple victories. Reed lost in extra holes to George Coetzee on Thursday.

Jordan Spieth could join them this week or just about any week. The 20-year-old who has one tour victory knocked off 43-year-old Dane Thomas Bjorn to advance to a match up against defending champion Matt Kuchar.

Spieth and English are among seven players - the others are Rickie Fowler, Victor Dubuisson, Jason Day, George Coetzee and Webb Simpson - among the final 16 in the tournament who are 27 or younger.

Graeme McDowell came back from three down with three to play to defeat Gary Woodland © Getty Images

It would have been eight had former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell not rallied for the second straight day. On Wednesday, he came back from three down with three to play to defeat Gary Woodland.

On Thursday, McDowell again appeared in big trouble, as he was two down with four to play to Hideki Matsuyama and still was one down with two holes left. But McDowell birdied the 17th hole, then won the 18th when Matsuyama made bogey.

"Why do it the easy way when the hard way will do?" McDowell said. "I feel very fortunate again today. I've certainly expended all my energy and emotions the last couple of days. But thankfully, it's early in the season and I've plenty left in the tank."

His reward? A Friday showdown with Hunter Mahan.

"I think we played together in a reasonably high-profile match there a few years ago," McDowell quipped, referring to their final pairing at the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales, where he prevailed to clinch the winning point for Europe. "There's a decent chance he might be out for a shade of revenge tomorrow, who knows. It's been a long time. A lot of water under the bridge since 2010."

When Ernie Els knocked off reigning US Open champion Justin Rose in extra holes on the final match left on the course on Thursday, all of the No.1 seeds from the tournament were eliminated after just two days.

Zach Johnson was bounced on Thursday, and No.1 overall seed Henrik Stenson succumbed to Louis Oosthuizen 4&3. McIlroy was the other No.1 seed.

But it's really no surprise. The overall No.1 seed has not advanced past the second round of this tournament since 2008, and the storylines are typically filled with upstarts and upsets.

Four matches went to extra holes, including the 22-hole affair between Jason Day and Billy Horschel that ended with a Day birdie on the fourth hole.

So the tournament has a good mixture of youth and experience among the final 16 players. Forty-somethings Els and Jim Furyk are still standing, as are four other major champions - Jason Dufner, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and McDowell.

Sergio Garcia has advanced to Day 3 and will take on Rickie Fowler, who has gotten past tough opponents in Ian Poulter and Jimmie Walker.

And then there is English, who is unlikely to be fazed going up against Furyk after taking down McIlroy.

"It was an awesome match," English said. "This is kind of what you play for, and to both be playing pretty well and then grinding it out."

This article originally appeared on ESPN.com

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