Rory McIlroy may have missed out on ringside seats for the big fight in Las Vegas, but the world number one made amends by giving himself an early birthday present with victory in the WGC-Cadillac Match Play in San Francisco.
McIlroy, who turns 26 on Monday, defeated Gary Woodland 4&2 in the final at Harding Park, his third win of the day after completing victory over Paul Casey in the quarter-finals and producing a brilliant finish to get the better of Jim Furyk in the last four.
The four-time major winner made a scrappy start to the final before a hat-trick of birdies from the fifth took him four up at the turn and seemingly certain to win his second World Golf Championship title after victory in the Bridgestone Invitational last year.
However, after both players birdied the 10th, McIlroy bogeyed the 11th by failing to get up and down from a greenside bunker and Woodland reduced his deficit further thanks to driving the green on the short par-four 12th and two-putting for birdie.
World number 52 Woodland looked like winning another hole after McIlroy bogeyed the 13th, only to miss from two feet for par after a superb recovery from a greenside bunker.
And that proved to be the pivotal moment in the contest as Woodland then three-putted the 14th and made a mess of the 16th to give McIlroy the title.
“I’m really proud of myself with how I showed a lot of character early in the tournament coming back from some deficits,” McIlroy said in an interview broadcast on Sky Sports.
“I played really solid golf. I have got on a nice little run in match play. I got a lot of confidence from the way I played against Rickie (Fowler) in the Ryder Cup last year (winning 5&4) and just followed it on through into this.
“Obviously I am delighted, a second World Golf Championship and first win in the States this year and so I could not be happier.”
Sheffield’s Danny Willett, who lost to Woodland in the semi-finals, secured third place after beating Furyk 3&2 in the consolation match.
McIlroy had earlier recovered from one down with two holes to play in his semi-final with Furyk, holing from three feet for birdie on the 17th and 40 feet across the 18th green for a spectacular eagle.
“I wish I didn’t have to finish like that all the time,” McIlroy joked, a reference to coming from two down after 16 to beat Billy Horschel in his final group game and one down after 17 to see off Casey in their delayed quarter-final.
Casey had three-putted the 17th on Saturday evening and both players missed chances to win in the three extra holes possible before it became too dark to continue.
Play resumed at 6:45am local time on Sunday and McIlroy two-putted from around 90 feet on the par-five first for a winning birdie after Casey was unable to get up and down from heavy rough after his three-wood approach ran through the green.
Casey revealed he had been ill overnight but refused to use it as an excuse, telling Sky Sports 4: “The place it affected me most was actually looking down on the chip, I felt nauseous looking down. But I have nothing to complain about, I had an opportunity yesterday and did not shut the door.
“It’s unfortunate but in seasons as long as ours there are moments through the year when you get sick. I’m a big fan of ‘beware the injured or sick golfer’ and I probably hit the best two shots on the first I have all week.
“My expectations were low but they did not stop me from trying. I am not going to put the par down to anything other than I should have hit the green in two or finished it yesterday.”
The late finish on Saturday meant McIlroy had to watch the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao on television in the media centre at Harding Park rather than in Las Vegas.
“Honestly I am sort of glad I did not make it because it was sort of an anti-climax and Mayweather did what he usually does and danced around the ring and outpointed him,” McIlroy said.
In the first semi-final, Willett had been two up after four against Woodland but saw his opponent birdie the sixth, seventh, 12th and 16th to move into the final.
“We were three under par and played some solid golf, just missed a couple at the wrong time and he made a couple of nice ones at the end,” said Willett, who bogeyed the eighth and also three-putted the 14th having birdied the 13th to get back to one down.
“It’s been a really long, tough week and we have to take away the positives, that it’s Sunday in a World Golf Championship and we are here competing.”