Here is part 7 of our mystic tail of the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship. Because of the coronavirus, it was decided to move the tournament from Austin, Texas to Fiji and the Natadola Bay course. Today we look at the finals of Match Play, Tiger Woods vs Rory McIlroy.
The last couple of days has been very tough on not only our country but the world. We all miss golf and our weekly routine of tournament golf and we can only hope that we can get back to our normal routine. Personally, for me and a lot of you, this week is a favorite with the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play, which had to be canceled. It’s too bad but our country and the world have other more dramatic problems with the Coronavirus, which we all hope will run its course and we can get back to all of our normal routines.
In talking with fellow writer Gary Van Sickle, who also was saddened with the cancellation, we dreamed about any way that this great event could go on. But the reality is there are more pressing issues which make it impossible, but for Gary and I, we have a vivid imagination that came up with a whimsical tale that the Match Play could go on this week. So here is nothing more than a fun look that is completely real in our minds but in reality nothing more than a fictitious fable.
Our (fabricated ) WGC-Dell Match Play
Part 7 – The dream final, Tiger vs Rory
By Gary Van Sickle & Sal Johnson
MONDAY – MARCH 30TH
It was 5:15 a.m., an hour before sunrise in Fiji, when Rory McIlroy stepped into the area of the Intercontinental Hotel’s ballroom that had been converted into a fitness room for the Dell World Match Play players. Obviously, the PGA Tour couldn’t send its fitness van to Fiji for the week.
McIlroy arrived for his usual pre-round stretch. Tiger Woods was just putting his shirt back on after getting off the massage table. McIlroy and Woods were scheduled to be on the first tee at 8 a.m. to play the 36-hole final match.
They exchanged pleasantries but McIlroy could see from the expression on Tiger’s face that something was wrong. Before he could ask, Woods said, “I can’t go 36, Rors. The back just won’t let me. I’m OK, really, I just can’t go 36.”
McIlroy was surprised. “What happens then? I don’t want to win by a forfeit.”
Woods said the PGA Tour was already looking into it and maybe McIlroy would play Patrick Reed, the player Woods beat in the semifinal. That would be appealing for TV because many viewers remembered the wild, raucous duel McIlroy and Reed had in singles play during the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National.
A rematch with Reed had definite appeal for McIlroy, who lost that duel, 1 up. Yes, he’d like a piece of Reed. But Reed wasn’t Tiger. No one was Tiger.
“How bad is your back?” McIlroy asked. Tiger bent over and touched his toes, a little carefully, but he could do it.
“It’s not that bad,” Woods said, “but I know my back. It’ll never hold up for 36 today.”
Without thinking, McIlroy blurted out, “What about 18? Could you play 18 holes if the final was shortened?”
Woods blinked and took a few moments before answering. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I could go 18. But it’s a 36-hole final, they can’t change it.”
McIlroy said, “Sure they can. You’re Tiger.” McIlroy pulled his cell phone from his pocket. “Look, get ready to play 18,” he said. “I’m going to go talk to someone and fix this. Either you and I play 18, or I don’t play either and they’ve got no show.”
McIlroy headed into the main part of the ballroom, which was the player dining area, and found several tour officials enjoying breakfast. He told them his proposal, they all stood up, scrambled to get their phones out and hurried out of the room.
It was 6:45 and McIlroy was warming up on the range next to Woods when tour rules official Mark Russell walked over to tell them the final had, indeed, been shortened to 18 holes, and their starting time had been pushed back to 8:30 to give NBC time to prepare for the change. On top of this match, Russell had to also worry about the 18 hole tournament that was going to tee off after the Rory/Tiger had played nine holes. With the change of the finals to 18 holes, they needed the 18 hole tournament to help keep eyeballs for the NBC show.
When Russell left, McIlroy told Woods, “That’s how you get things done.”
Woods laughed and said, “You may regret this,” as he smoothed a pretty 7-iron shot that landed just past the 175-yard flagstick on the range.
McIlroy grinned and replied, “Yeah, well, play hard.”
It was another bright, lovely morning with one key difference—the wind was up. Instead the relatively gentle ocean breezes of the past few days, the wind suddenly had a persistent bite. It was blowing steadily at 15-20 mph, and occasionally gusting more. Natadola Bay was going to be a challenge.
McIlroy had the honors on the first tee. With a strong left-to-right wind, he decided to hit 2-iron off the tee, keep his ball in play and accept a longer approach shot. He found the fairway, as planned. Woods did likewise, and the chess match was on.
Woods hit a low 4-iron from 221 yards that started left before the wind pushed it back online. His ball landed short of the green, bounced on and rolled to 20 feet.
McIlroy hit a high 5-iron that got stood up in the wind and dropped in the front bunker and plugged. He splashed out to 30 feet, missed his long par try and conceded the hole after Tiger’s first putt stopped within six inches.
The second hole was into the teeth of the wind, a 434-yard par 4. Woods hit a low shot with his driver—his stinger—and found the fairway. McIlroy’s driver found the first cut in the left rough. McIlroy’s approach missed the green left, Woods hit another iron shot beneath the wind to the middle of the green. McIlroy played a mediocre pitch to ten feet, Wood lagged his putt close, McIlroy missed his par try and was quickly 2 down.
The NBC microphones overheard McIlroy joking with his caddie, Harry Diamond, on the third tee, “Maybe I should’ve played Patrick Reed instead.”
The third hole turned around and went back downwind. Woods hit a 5-wood in the fairway, McIlroy launched a towering drive that got caught in the jet stream and had ridiculous hang time. The hole played 427 yards, McIlroy was left with a 30-yard pitch. Woods wedged to 15 feet, McIlroy pitched to three and made birdie to win the hole.
They halved the oceanside par-3 fourth hole with bogeys when both players overshot the green going for a back pin placement.
The par-5 fifth, uphill with a right-to-left crosswind, turned into a battle. McIlroy’s drive turned over and the wind blew it into the thick underbrush left, likely unplayable and unfindable. Woods hit a low 2-iron again and found the fairway. McIlroy re-teed and hit a provisional ball and crushed one down the fairway’s right side. “Don’t even look for the first one,” he ordered his caddie. “Tell those marshals to quit looking.”
Woods hit a 3-wood that blew into a left greenside bunker. McIlroy laced a 3-iron shot onto the green, 30 feet. Woods’ ball stopped close enough to the bunker lip that he could only just get it on the green, leaving himself 50 feet. His first putt, back into the breeze, came up ten feet short. McIlroy powered his putt five feet past. Woods’ next try was a classic power-lip, rimming around the right edge and spurting three-and-a-half feet. A gust of wind seemed to catch McIlroy on his next stroke, and his ball stopped an inch left of the cup. He made 7. That meant Woods’ bogey putt was for the win but it, too, lipped out. They halved the hole with 7s.
McIlroy hit driver at the sixth, another par 5 with the same crosswind. He found fairway. Woods unwrapped his driver and hit into the right rough. His second shot with a 5-iron found the front bunker. McIlroy played a high 7-iron from 205 way out to the right and let the wind bring it back. He had 20 feet for eagle. Woods had a nice, uphill lie for his short bunker shot, splashed it out and watched it bounce twice, release and trickle in for his eagle. McIlroy put a little extra steam in his putt and hammered it right in the middle to halve the hole.
On the seventh tee, McIlroy’s caddie said, “You just played the last two holes in even par,” and that drew a laugh from McIlroy.
The next three holes were halved with pars. At 10, Woods hit a stinger 2-iron into the left-to-right breeze and placed it perfectly in the wide area of the landing zone short of the bunkers on either side. McIlroy hit driver and cleared the right bunker but finished in the right rough. Woods punched a low 6-iron to the green’s middle, McIlroy and his caddie had to step carefully in the rough for two minutes before they found his ball, nestled in a birds-next type of clump. He gouged a wedge down the fairway, wedged to the green, missed his par putt and lost the hole. He was 2 down.
The par-5 11th was 563 yards back into the wind with trouble down the left. Woods stuck with the 2-iron and got it in play. McIlroy pulled out the big stick and favored the right side too much, finishing in some wiry Bermuda rough. Woods laid up, McIlroy decided to go for the green with 3-wood but when he addressed the ball, the club pressed down on the grass slightly and the ball rolled back an inch.
McIlroy waved over Mark Russell, the rules official, and told him the ball moved, and it moved because of his club. Russell quickly sorted out what happened, McIlroy was assessed a one-shot penalty and Russell alerted Woods to that fact.
McIlroy then hit a 3-wood shot that flew like a torpedo toward the front left edge of the green and crawled onto the putting surface, 25 feet from the hole. Woods wedged to 20 feet. McIlroy made his putt to save par, Woods missed. The hole was halved.
At the short par-4 12th, Woods laid up with a mid-iron, McIlroy went for the green. His ball landed on a downslope of the left front bunker and ran completely over the green onto beach sand. Woods wedged to 15 feet, McIlroy used a hybrid to putt off the hard-packed sand and ran his ball onto the green to 12 feet. Woods missed his putt, McIlroy made his and cut Woods’ lead to 1 up.
They parred the next three holes but missed chances. Woods suffered a lipout on a four-foot birdie putt at 13, McIlroy missed eight- and ten-footers at 14 and 15.
Both players birdied the 16th, a narrow, intimidating-looking hole back into the wind.
McIlroy smashed a big drive down the middle at the par-5 17th. Woods hit driver, too, but yelped on his follow-through and bent over, hands on his knees.
“You OK?” McIlroy asked, concerned. “In a minute, yeah,” answered Woods, who slowly straightened up, turned his shoulders a few times to stretch and said, “Let’s go.”
Whether it was his back or just a bad swing, who knows, but Woods yanked his 5-wood second shot into the mini-jungle short and left of the green. It was probably a goner. He marked the spot he played from with a tee but didn’t hit a provisional. McIlroy, 20 yards past Woods, deposited a 7-iron on the green to 12 feet. When Woods and caddie Joe LaCava got to the area where Woods’ ball disappeared, they would’ve needed a machete to get in there to look. “You’re good,” Woods called out to McIlroy. The match was back to even.
At 18, McIlroy confidently bashed a big drive that easily flew all the fairway bunkers and left himself with a wedge shot. Woods tried to do the same but pushed his drive well right, into a deep-faced fairway bunker that left him with no apparent play to the green. Woods check the yardage on a nearby sprinkler head, checked his yardage book, then pulled a 9-iron. He opened the face at address, swing hard and hit a high shot that carried to the left side of the green, where it landed and reacted as if on a yo-yo string and zipped 15 feet to the right. He had 20 feet for birdie.
NBC’s microphones picked up McIlroy’s reaction to the shot. When he saw it hit on the green and then scoot right, he initially laughed and told his caddie, “That’s impossible!” Then, he added, “He’s going to make that putt, too.”
McIlroy hit his sand wedge 24 feet past the hole and disgustedly rapped the clubhead against his heel. “You can’t do that when you’ve got lob wedge in your hands,” McIlroy said out loud, talking to himself.
McIlroy’s putt had good pace as it broke left but it only burned the cup’s right edge and finished 18 inches beyond the hole. Woods gave him a thumbs-up signal to indicate he conceded the next putt.
While Woods stood over the ball and got ready to hit his putt, McIlroy removed his cap, ran a hand through his bushy hair and looked up, as if in preparation to congratulate the winner.
There wasn’t much doubt about the next putt. Woods turned when the ball was three feet from the hole and began walking towards McIlroy even before it dropped. He knew, McIlroy knew.
Woods put out his hand and McIlroy shook it. “I thought we weren’t supposed to do that anymore,” McIlroy said of their shake. “We’ve been tested, you’re good,” Woods said.
“Great playing, great shot at the last there,” McIlroy said. “I don’t know how you did that.”
Woods smiled. “Remember, I told you you might regret this,” he said.
McIlroy laughed. “I regret that last lob wedge shot but I don’t regret this,” he said. “It was a great day of golf. How’s your back?”
Woods wiggled his hand to indicate so-so. “We’ll see,” he said. “Thanks for the game.”
As they walked off the green, Woods kept his arm around McIlroy’s shoulder. Social distancing was a loser in this moment. But golf wasn’t.
The match was so exciting that a number of players in the Valero Texas Open play withdrew after 9 holes to watch the Rory/Tiger finish.
The excitement of the Rory-Tiger match overwhelmed things. NBC and Golf Channel seemed to forget that there was another tournament happening. When things finally died down over Tiger’s victory, the outcome of the other tournament seemed to have happened. In the fifth group out was Matt Kuchar, who was playing with Tony Finau and Gary Woodland. Remember we told you the story on how Kuchar had won the Fiji international back in 2015, so he knew a thing or two about the Natadolo Bay Golf Club. Before he teed off Matt got a phone call from his father Peter, who caddied for Kuchar in the tournament. He reminded his son of how bad he played in the first two rounds, shooting 74-72 in high winds but played great over the weekend to shot 69 in the final round for a four-shot win. Kuchar’s father reminded how important it was to play well in the beginning and the rest would fall into place. Taking his father’s advice, Matt birdied 1, 2 and 3 and made par at 4. At the uphill par 5, 5th Matt raced in a 20 footer for another birdie and after a great drive on the downhill, par 5, 6th hole hit 9 iron that almost went into the hole and stopped 3 feet away. With an eagle, he was six under. He made par on the next three holes before making another birdie at 9 to shot 29. On the back nine, he drove the 12th hole and made his second eagle of the day and then made birdies at 16 and 17. Going up 18 it seemed like he had things in the bag, he was 11 under and looking for another birdie at 18 for a 60. He missed a 10-footer and settled for a 62. Brooks Koepka who had won the previous week with a 65 was a shot better but his 64 was 2 shots back of Kuchar. Patrick Reed was 3rd tied with Tommy Fleetwood and Dustin Johnson shooting 65. At the end of the day, there was a lot of excitement with the week drawing to a close.
The next day we got the over-night ratings for the day and the numbers were astonishing. The Tiger-Rory match earned a 44.8 household rating as 32 million households watched. It was an incredible number for not only golf but for any sport. In golf history, the best rating was in the 1997 Masters that Tiger won the first time as 20 million households were watching. So the Dell Match Play ratings were double the Masters’ numbers. It wasn’t the best number in sports history, that went to the 1982 Super Bowl which was seen in over 40 million homes. But for 2020 it was unheard numbers.
Because everyone had to go home at the same time and NBC had to clean up their equipment everyone had on Tuesday one more day in Fiji. Despite everyone wanting to get home, nobody cared about staying another day in Fiji.
We all got to the airport on Wednesday and made the trip back home. We had been away for two weeks and returned to a country that was totally different. The charter planes all took off and landed in Dallas-Ft. Worth airport as government officials help us get back into the country. For most of the players and their families, along with officials and all of the NBC crew they had to get other planes to return home. This wasn’t easy as most of the airlines had made cutbacks. But for some like Tiger Woods, he had a private plane that took him and his newfound best friend Rory McIlory and his wife back home to Florida.
As for me, it was great getting back to Austin and even though I was a big hero at Dell, I couldn’t celebrate because everyone was working at home, so I returned home for if you can believe it a couple of days of downtime.
Here are the final brackets: