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22 Jan 2020, Edition - 1653, Wednesday

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Sports

Dustin Johnson falls by the Match Play wayside but Rory McIlroy stays alive

theguardian.com

• World No 1 loses 4&3 to Adam Hadwin and misses knockout stage

• Timely wins for Northern Irishman, Fleetwood and Poulter

Dustin Johnson may take solace from the fact this year’s pre-Masters slip was not of the physical variety.

A year after Johnson, already with a WGC title secured, appeared unbeatable when cantering to success at another – the 2017 Match Play – he was unceremoniously bundled out of the Austin event after two defeats in as many days. Johnson had appeared at Augusta as the red hot favourite in 2017 but did not hit a shot in anger after tumbling down stairs at his rental home. Perhaps this, now an inevitably less fevered build-up, will suit him.

Adam Hadwin, who started this week as the world’s 42nd ranked player, joined Bernd Wiesberger in seeing off Johnson. Hadwin’s success was by 4&3. Further ominous context for Johnson resonated in Wiesberger, who saw off the defending champion 3&1 on Wednesday, falling to a 5&4 loss at the hands of Kevin Kisner.

A troublesome Thursday for Johnson was in stark contrast to that enjoyed by Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman responded in ideal fashion to an opening round defeat by Peter Uihlein by seeing off Jhonattan Vegas 2&1. McIlroy’s aspirations of reaching the knockout phase were further boosted by Uihlein’s 3&2 loss to Brian Harman. If McIlroy beats Harman on Friday he will be afforded at least a sudden death play-off for the last 16.

“At least that sort of brought things back into my own hands, which is nice,” McIlroy said. “That’s the beauty of this group play. Some years it works in your favour, like this year, and some years it doesn’t, like last. I played a match on Friday that was basically meaningless. It’s nice to still have something to play for.

“I came out of the gates a little flat yesterday but I felt better today. I’m happy I got the win, and I’ve got a lot to play for. I’ve always loved the Match Play. I like the format, whether it’s the group stages, whether it’s pure knock-out. I’ve always enjoyed it.”

Ian Poulter’s dream of reaching Augusta remains alive. The Englishman needs a quarter-final place here to book a Masters place; that scenario edged a step closer when he defeated Daniel Berger 2&1. Tommy Fleetwood, who lost to Poulter on day one, trounced Kevin Chappell 7&6.

“My record is pretty good in matchplay, so I see that as helpful to me in this format, but I also have a target on my back as well,” Poulter said. “Guys like Daniel Berger are going out there wanting to kick my backside and I know that before I go out on the golf course.

“That in itself is more motivating. I know how they are feeling, so obviously I need to up my game, up the ante, and make sure I get in front then stay there.”

Friday’s galleries will inevitably be drawn towards the meeting of the USA Ryder Cup team-mates Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, with each player looking to progress to the last 16. Spieth was a 4&2 winner over Li Haotong on Thursdaywhile Reed edged out the 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel by a hole.

“It’s going to be fun,” said Reed. “Any time I get to play with Jordan, whether it’s as a team-mate or against him, it’s always a good day at the golf course.”

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