AUSTIN, Texas — Rory McIlroy had talked earlier in the week about how he had been to the semifinals twice in this WGC-Dell Match Play and twice he had gone to the last game.
Consolation matches, he said, didn’t sound so enticing.
Well, he’ll find out first-hand how deflating they are because Jason Day made a clutch, 13-foot par-saving putt on Austin Country Club’s 18th hole Sunday to edge McIlroy, 1 up, and advance to the final against Louis Oosthuizen.
Earlier, Oosthuizen beat Rafa Cabrera-Bello, 4 and 3.
This was a battle befitting their closeness in the world ranking, with Day coming into the week at No. 2 and McIlroy No. 3. (Come Monday morning, Day will be ranked No. 1, regardless of how he fares against Oosthuizen.) Through 11 holes, each man played better when he got behind.
Day won the first hole, but McIlroy squared it at the second.
McIlroy won the sixth, but Day got it back at the seventh.
McIlroy won the eighth, but Day won the 10th.
Back-and-forth. Left jab, right hook. One gave, the other took.
Only Day’s ugly double bogey at the par-4 second had blemished the play, which was tidy, and the competitiveness, which was worth the watch. Oh, there were a few 8-foot putts that McIlroy would love to have over, but there’s not enough time in the world for golfers of his level to replay all of those.
McIlroy was 3 under for 11, Day 1 under.
At the 586-yard, par-5 12th, though, Day asserted himself first. Reaching the green with a 245-second shot that skirted water on the left, the Aussie breathed a sigh of relief when his ball nestled onto the putting surface. Two rolls from 39 feet put him 1 up. Then at the short, par-4 13th, both players covered all 284 yards with their drives over water to the back of the green, but whereas McIlroy fluffed his chip shot, Day got it up-and-down to go 2 up.
If McIlroy showed a tint of exasperation, it wasn’t so much that he was 2 down. He had been 2 down through 13 back on Day 1, too. No, this was for squandering a birdie chance on a 284-yard par 4, and as a testament to the opponent. On Wednesday he rallied to beat Thorbjorn Olesen; Day proved to be a bigger challenge.
McIlroy did cut back into the deficit with a birdie at the next hole, but he finally ran out of back-nine magic. In his three group games, McIlroy had trailed for 23 holes, led for just 12, and he always seemed to be teetering on the edge of defeat.
That time, he was pushed over, a tribute to Day’s strength.
At the par-5 16th, both reached the back of the green in two, and both made birdie. At the par-3 17th, Day safely two-putted for par from long distance, while McIlroy hit the lip with an 18-footer.
Saturday morning, McIlroy had answered a challenge thrown down by Zach Johnson. Knocking down a 20-foot birdie roll at the 18th, Johnson had a chance to square the game, but McIlroy showed his mettle by stuffing his approach to 4 feet and making the putt to win.
This time, McIlroy watched as his opponent stole the show on No. 18. Each man was wide right with his tee shot, and each man missed the green with his approach. Day pitched to 12 feet, and McIlroy trickled a putt out of gnarly grass off the fringe to 6 feet.
McIlroy never got a chance to putt, because Day — having played 5-under golf after the second — was center cut with his game-winning putt.