McCabe: Coetzee's PGA Tour debut impressive

Rory McIlroy, right, greets George Coetzee after McIlroy won their first-round match, 2 up.

Rory McIlroy, right, greets George Coetzee after McIlroy won their first-round match, 2 up.

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MARANA, Ariz. – No one traveled a greater distance than George Coetzee did to tee it up in this Accenture Match Play Championship.

That he came within a swing or two of going even further put a fitting cap on a first day filled with improbable wins in a tournament that is clearly impossible to predict.

Crazy that Coetzee in his first-ever World Golf Championship and his first-ever PGA Tour tournament in America nearly sent second-seeded Rory McIlroy packing. Even crazier to consider that McIlroy could be the World No. 1 come Sunday, because on this wild opener, he barely had enough to beat Coetzee, who is ranked 66th.

Then again, neither McIlroy nor Coetzee were getting hung up in the logistics; the day’s last match had gone to the bitter end, a 2-up win for the Northern Irishman, and they were still decompressing.

“It’s always nice to get past the first one,” rationalized McIlroy, who’ll face Anders Hansen in Thursday’s second round. “Every match here is tough. (Coetzee) is a great competitor and very, very solid. You just have to try and get through.”

Disappointed that he was, Coetzee did concede that by standing on the 18th tee with a chance to force extra holes against McIlroy, he felt that the day was a positive.

“The way I was playing, I think I handled (the pressure) pretty well,” said the burly 25-year-old from South Africa. “It was obviously a bit of nerves, but in the end it’s a good experience and I hope to take a lot from it.”

He darn well came close to taking everything out of McIlroy’s bid to win this WGC and vault to No. 1. When he birdied the par-3 sixth from 17 feet, Coetzee was 1 up and he remained there with a string of four straight pars.

Then, what he called the downfall. “I gave him a couple of holes,” the South African said of the par-5 11th when he drove it left into the desert and then sprayed it right into more desert, then of the par-3 12th where he made bogey.

Suddenly, McIlroy had an opening. Now 1 up, McIlroy made his first birdie of the day at the par-5 13th, then another at the par-4 14th to go 3 up.

It would prove to be an insurmountable deficit, though Coetzee wasn’t done fighting. More and more fans had drifted back from watching Ernie Els whip Luke Donald and when Rickie Fowler got edged by David Toms, fans from that match gravitated to the McIlroy match against . . . well, no one seemed to know who Coetzee was, but the kid from South Africa merely smiled.

He was having fun, even while losing.

“If I could come here (to America) every second week for one week, I’ll be quite happy,” he said.

When Coetzee won both the par-3 16th and par-4 17th with pars - the latter on a brilliant up-and-down up and over a bunker right of the green - tremors of excitement carried a huge gallery to the 18th tee. McIlroy hit a horrible drive, catching too much turf and popping it up a mere 240 yards. It left him 225 into a diabolical 18th green that might have more humps, bumps, and moguls than Alberto Tomba ever faced in competition.

McIlroy delivered nicely, landing his shot over a bunker, perhaps 45 feet left and above the hole.

Next, Coetzee, who had just 161 yards in, but with the ball slightly below his feet, he flared his approach badly. It came to rest 70 feet above the hole and necessitated a massive left-to-right break.

Disappointed as he was about the shot, Coetzee said it was an example of his day.

“I didn’t have much control of the ball all day, so I was just trying to get it somewhere on the green.”

Years ago, Coetzee played some Canadian PGA Tour events in the U.S. and before that he was at the University of San Diego for a semester. But this? Well, this truly felt like his first time in the American spotlight and he nearly pulled off something special, only when he three-putted for bogey at 18, hats were removed, handshakes exchanged, and the upset was by the boards.

But no regrets. Coetzee had been thrilled to draw McIlroy and proud of what he almost accomplished.

“If you want to win, you’ve got to beat the best. I think it’s better to play against guys like him; he makes you concentrate harder. It’s nice to be the underdog now and then.”

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