WASHINGTON: An amazing tee shot by Rory McIlroy led the world number three to join top-ranked defending champion Scottie Scheffler and second-ranked Jon Rahm in capturing clutch victories from Thursday's second group matches at the WGC Match Play Championship.
McIlroy made an epic drive with a stunning 375-yard blast at the 18th hole, landing the ball within four feet of the hole for a tap-in eagle that clinched a 2-up triumph over US 48th seed Denny McCarthy.
"It was good," McIlroy said. "I didn't think I could get it on the green."
Scheffler and McIlroy remained unbeaten while Rahm bounced back from an opening loss at Austin (Texas) Country Club, where 16 winners from four-man groups will advance to weekend knockout rounds.
Four-time major winner McIlroy, the 2015 Match Play champion from Northern Ireland, did not lead McCarthy until the par-5 16th hole, when McIlroy had a tap-in birdie and the American missed a seven-foot birdie putt to put McIlroy 1 up.
Then came McIlroy's clinching tee shot, which was airborne for 349 yards, nearly 70 yards longer than the average PGA Tour carry, before rolling up to the cup for a tap-in.
"I just played really well, played really solid," McIlroy said. "Didn't make a bogey and made some birdies when I needed to and thankfully was able to win."
Also in McIlroy's group, US 20th seed Keegan Bradley won his first WGC match in 11 years, ripping compatriot Scott Stallings 6&5.
McIlroy need only tie Bradley on Friday to advance.
Reigning Masters champion Scheffler, who won the Players Championship earlier this month, downed Swedish 38th seed Alex Noren 5&4 after only edging US 54th seed Davis Riley 1 up in a Wednesday opener.
"I just went out and played solid, no bogeys, and made some key putts," said Scheffler, who lost the first hole but won six, seven and the first four holes on the back nine with birdies.
"I just kind of kept the pressure on him and hit really good shots."
On Friday, Scheffler faces South Korean 17th seed Tom Kim, who lost 1 up to Riley.
"To be able to win my match and get through the group would be nice," Scheffler said. "What I'll be focused on tomorrow is getting off to a good start."
Rahm, a three-time PGA winner this year, bounced back from an opening loss to Rickie Fowler by beating US 39th seed Keith Mitchell 4&3.
The Spaniard made five birdies and a 14-foot eagle putt at the par-5 12th while never trailing to keep his title hopes alive.
"Not many mistakes tee to green," Rahm said. "Made a few birdie putts and got a comfortable lead."
Rahm needs a Friday victory over 2021 WGC Match Play champion Billy Horschel to have a chance to advance.
"Not many pairings are going to have more electricity on the course than me and Billy," Rahm said. "I'm going to have to get the win."
Horschel beat Fowler 3&2 after an opening draw with Mitchell.
"Happy to be able to control my destiny tomorrow," Horschel said.
US fourth seed Patrick Cantlay beat South Korea's Lee Kyoung-hoon 4&2 and faces countryman Brian Harman on Friday for a last-16 berth while US fifth seed Max Homa reached 2-0 by beating 2019 Match Play champion and 2022 runner-up Kevin Kisner 3&2.
'Sunday every round'
US seventh seed Will Zalatoris was eliminated with a 5&3 loss to US 37th seed Harris English and Norway's eighth-seeded Viktor Hovland was ousted with a 4&3 loss to South Korean 34th seed Kim Si-woo.
Chris Kirk sank a nine-foot birdie putt to win 18 and tie 2013 Match Play winner Matt Kuchar, keeping the 44-year-old from matching the event record 36 match wins of Tiger Woods.
Australian 32nd seed Jason Day, the 2014 and 2016 Match Play champion, beat France's Victor Perez 2&1 and will play US ninth seed Collin Morikawa for a last-16 berth.
"It feels like you're playing Sunday every round," Day said. "You know he's going to be around all day... I'm excited for the challenge." -- AFP
WGC Match-Play Championship scores
Scottie Scheffler (USA) bt Alex Noren (SWE) 5&4
Davis Riley (USA) bt Tom Kim (KOR) 1 up
Jon Rahm (ESP) bt Keith Mitchell (USA) 4&3
Billy Horschel (USA) bt Rickie Fowler (USA) 3&2
Rory McIlroy (NIR) bt Denny McCarthy (USA) 2 up
Keegan Bradley (USA) bt Scott Stallings (USA) 6&5
Patrick Cantlay (USA) bt Lee Kyoung-hoon (KOR) 4&2
Brian Harman (USA) bt Nick Taylor (CAN) 3&2
Max Homa (USA) bt Kevin Kisner (USA) 3&2
Justin Suh (USA) bt Hideki Matsuyama (JPN) 3&1
Xander Schauffele (USA) bt Aaron Wise (USA) 2&1
Cam Davis (AUS) bt Tom Hoge (USA) 3&1
Harris English (USA) bt Will Zalatoris (USA) 5&3
Andrew Putnam (USA) bt Ryan Fox (NZL) 2&1
Kim Si-woo (KOR) bt Viktor Hovland (NOR) 4&3
Chris Kirk (USA) and Matt Kuchar (USA) tied
Collin Morikawa (USA) and Adam Svensson (CAN) tied
Jason Day (AUS) bt Victor Perez (FRA) 2&1
Tony Finau (USA) bt Adrian Meronk (POL) 4&3
Kurt Kitayama (USA) bt Christiaan Bezuidenhout (RSA) 2&1
Matt Fitzpatrick (ENG) bt Min Woo Lee (AUS) 2&1
JJ Spaun (USA) bt Sahith Theegala (USA) 5&4
Taylor Montgomery (USA) bt Jordan Spieth (USA) 2&1
Mackenzie Hughes (CAN) bt Shane Lowry (IRL) 4&3
Sam Burns (USA) bt Adam Scott (AUS) 1 up
Seamus Power (IRL) bt Adam Hadwin (CAN) 1 up
Lucas Herbert (AUS) bt Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 2&1
Russell Henley (USA) bt Ben Griffin (USA) 5&4
Cameron Young (USA) bt Corey Conners (CAN) 1 up
Davis Thompson (USA) bt Sepp Straka (AUT) 4&3
JT Poston (USA) bt Im Sung-jae (KOR) 1 up
Maverick McNealy (USA) and Tommy Fleetwood (ENG) tied