Cracker: Rory McIlroy was involved in an epic encounter

As a nation we have long tired of morale-boosting victories in defeat. Yet what the golfing world witnessed in the Arizona desert was truly the birth of something special. Yes, Rory McIlroy might have lost in his last-eight encounter with Australian Geoff Ogilvy on the 17th hole after an epic tussle, but nobody who bore witness to the Holywood teenager’s exploits yesterday could deny him a victory of sorts.

For the 19-year-old to arrive on American soil to compete for the first time as a professional and make such an impact was remarkable. After wins against Louis Oosthuizen, Hunter Mahon and Tiger-tamer Tim Clark, McIlroy teed it up against a top-10 golfer for the first time this week in Australian Ogilvy, ranked number eight in the world at present.

And after the fall of Tiger Woods in the second round and subsequently Phil Mickelson on Friday, sponsors turned to McIlroy’s fairytale story as their main selling point. So it was fitting that it was the Irish teenager that got proceedings underway yesterday in the lead match. He started in ideal fashion with a birdie at the second to go one up but Ogilvy, the 2006 winner and 2007 runner-up, was soon back in business.

The Australian out-drove his younger rival at the par-four fourth and his second shot from 35 yards settled within four feet of the hole. McIlroy was also on in two but three-putted for bogey as Ogilvy sank his birdie putt to bring the match all square. It was a similar story at the par-four fifth as McIlroy two-putted for par and Ogilvy birdied to go one up, a lead he still held after seven holes.

Golf is often a game of inches and McIlroy’s approach to the ninth was proof of this. Having out-drove Ogilvy, a well-struck five iron from the centre of the fairway landed pin-high, but an unfortunate bounce saw his ball run 40 yards off the right-edge of the green down an unforgiving valley. It was all the more heartbreaking as he had failed to capitalise on his opponent’s misfortunes as Ogilvy had made a meal of his approach shot.

One could be forgiven for thinking that it was the first signs of struggle from the teenager and when he only pitched to 15 feet, the pressure was definitely mounting. But with all the swagger and confidence that the locals in Tuscon have begun to love about him, he holed out for an unlikely par. Ogilvy duly missed his 10-footer for a half and the match was all square again. It was game on once more.

McIlroy, officially the longest hitter in the tournament after he blasted a drive some 370 yards on Friday, was constantly out-hitting Ogilvy from the tee. One drawback of long driving in a match-play situation is that it lets your opponent in first when taking approach shots to the green. It was a tactic which the Australian was to employ all day, but for the plan to work fully, he needed his putter on form, which wasn’t the case on the 10th where Ogilvy missed an opportunity for a win from 10 feet.

McIlroy showed a human side when a wayward drive on the 11th found the rougher elements of the Arizona desert which resulted in him taking a penalty drop. A routine birdie four for Ogilvy handed the initiative back to the Australian. The momentum was to continue for Ogilvy on the next where he holed out for birdie from 10 feet to win the hole. Suddenly, for the first time this week, McIlroy found himself two down in a match.

But great players thrive on such pressure and when Ogilvy found sand off the tee on the par-five 13th, McIlroy pounced with a superb birdie to haul himself back to one down. He was certainly living up to his box-office billing with some chilling authority under the white heat of the Arizona sun. Yet when he found sand on the driveable par-four 15th, Ogilvy took full advantage. McIlroy could only get to within 18 feet with his second and when his birdie attempt agonisingly shaved the hole, the Australian kept his composure to go two up with three left.

It was too much of a deficit for him to overcome. McIlroy blasted another massive drive down the 17th and pitched to eight feet, but his opponent was equal to the task and the Australian birdied for a fine 2&1 win and a place in the last four.

There he will play Paul Casey. After a blistering start the Englishman was always in command against Sean O’Hair. In fact the only surprise of their lopsided duel was that Casey didn’t win earlier, instead taking the match 4&3. In the other semi-final Stewart Cink takes on Ross Fisher.