Rory McIlroy could have won his Round of 16 match with Lucas Herbert at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play on 17. But after a bomb from the 27-year-old Aussie on 17 forced McIlroy to make his own seven-foot birdie look, the pair headed to the last at Austin Country Club with McIlroy holding just a 1 Up lead.
That was despite eight birdies through 17 holes from the World No. 3, seemingly some of his best play all year.
Herbert made six of his own throughout the morning session and never backed down.
That is, until 18.
With the honor after three birdies in the last five holes, Herbert pulled iron on the tee of the 367-yard par-4. You’ll recall, about 44 hours earlier, McIlroy hit one of the great drives in his career on the finishing hole, flying his drive on the green and leaving just three feet for an eagle.
After the NBC broadcast replayed the swing from Friday, it cut to Herbert, hitting an iron.
Given the situation, and the almost certainty McIlroy would attempt a repeat, Herbert’s decision was questionable at best. He’s not the bomber McIlroy is but still averages more than 300 yards off the tee on Tour this season.
His layup found the right fairway bunker at the top of the hill on the short par-4.
It wasn’t the first time Herbert laid up on the hole this week. In his only other match to make it that far, he pulled an iron left on Wednesday in his first-round match against Russell Henley. He made par from the left rough to hold on for a 1 Up win.
This time he was trailing.
“If you’re going to lay up and miss the fairway, you’re going to kick yourself,” Analyst Paul Azinger said on the broadcast. “The chances of making a birdie are far less right now—”
Azinger was cut off. The crowd started cheering as McIlroy removed the headcover from his driver.
“Rory is going to crush this,” Azinger said. “Rory knows the analytics. The closer he can get to the green, the better chance he has at making a birdie.”
Even into the wind, McIlroy did crush it. He hit a bullet, carrying to the slope and then rolling out another 56 yards before coming to rest in the short rough just left of the green after traveling 351 yards.
“This match is as good as over,” Azinger opined.
The 12-time Tour winner was right. The best Herbert could do from the bunker was 28 feet above the flag. McIlroy played his pitch to three feet and eventually was conceded the birdie when Herbert’s try came up short.
He wasn’t asked about the decision after the match.
“I’ve got nothing but just pride for the way I played,” Herbert said. “Pushed him all the way to the end. I just didn’t feel like there was a hell of a lot more I could have done.”