A Saturday showdown with Rory McIlroy has the added carrot of a possible spot at The Masters after Lucas Herbert roared into the knockout stage of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Texas.
Herbert and the resurgent Jason Day both completed 3-0 sweeps in the group stage at Austin Country Club to move into the Round of 16 where Herbert will face McIlroy and two-time Match Play champ Day will face 2013 champion Matt Kuchar, whose win on Friday equalled Tiger Woods’ record of 36 wins in the event.
Although unable to advance from his group, Cam Davis took his record to 2-1 for the week with a 1 up win over Aaron Wise, Min Woo Lee went down 2&1 to JJ Spaun, Adam Scott lost to Presidents Cup teammate Adam Hadwin 3&2 and Kiwi Ryan Fox won by concession after Will Zalatoris withdrew due to illness.
As he had done in his previous two matches, Herbert took control of his match against Ben Griffin early and was never headed.
He won the opening hole with a birdie and was 4 up through eight holes before Griffin began eating into the deficit.
An eagle at the par-5 16th ensured that Herbert would at least secure the half-point he needed to advance, a birdie from 18 feet at the par-3 17th putting the seal on a 3&1 win.
It sets up a mouth-watering match with McIlroy in the first round of the knockout phase, Herbert his unfailingly honest self in assessing his chances.
“If he turns up with his A game I think I’m in a lot of trouble,” said Herbert, who has enhanced his chances of pushing into the top 50 in the world ranking by moving out of the group stage.
“I don’t think anyone in the world beats Rory if he turns up with his A game tomorrow. I don’t care whether it’s me or a 15 handicapper down the road or Jon Rahm. He’s just that good.
“But if he doesn’t, I’m looking for the fight. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fun challenge all the way.”
Herbert’s undefeated run in the group stage is even more remarkable given the end to his tournament 12 months ago and his recent performance at THE PLAYERS.
He missed a two-foot putt in the playoff with Japan’s Takumi Kanaya to miss out on the knockout phase last year and recently shot 82-85 at TPC Sawgrass as he battled a neck injury.
It meant that he arrived at Austin unsure what to expect.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised at the start of the week if you’d told me I lost all three matches,” he admitted.
“Didn’t have a lot of confidence obviously with that result (at THE PLAYERS). To go and play the way I did and I feel like I’m the person I was two months ago again with the confidence in my game again… Just kind of ready to tackle these bigger events and step into the spotlight rather than stepping away from it.”
Ranked 112th at the start of the year, Day has well and truly stepped into the spotlight again with his string of strong results on the PGA TOUR.
The former world No.1 started this week 37th in the world and accounted for two-time major champion Collin Morikawa 4&3 to preserve his unbeaten record in the group stage.
Day birdied three of his first four to move out to an early 2 up advantage.
Day’s bonus 58-footer for birdie at the 10th forced Morikawa to make from 10 feet to stay 2 down but birdies at 11 and 12 saw the Queenslander extend his advantage to four as he seeks to add to his Austin triumph of seven years ago.
As he continues his ascendancy in the world rankings, Day revealed that he has a greater understanding of what it takes to get to the top echelon of professional golf.
“When I got to No.1 in the world back in ‘15, I enjoyed the journey getting there, but when I got there, I didn’t know how I got there,” said Day.
“That’s interesting to say because I had a team of people around me that would just take care of everything. They just kept the horse running, and I was just like, OK, I’m going to run in a straight line.
“You hear guys saying they’re taking ownership of their game. I never really understood that until the last two years. To really kind of understand how my body’s working, where things need to be body-wise and balance-wise, for me to be able to swing the club a certain way is important.”
In his round three match against Aaron Wise, Davis birdied No.13 to tie the match, where it would remain until the last hole, where the 2017 Australian Open champ drained a 12-footer for birdie to win.
Unfortunately for Davis, Xander Schauffele had already defeated Tom Hoge to go undefeated and punch his ticket to the Round of 16.
Debutant Spaun moved past Lee courtesy of a fourth consecutive birdie on the par-3 17th while Scott fell behind Hadwin on the opening hole and never got back to square, going down 3&2 to end his tournament with a 1-2 record.
Richard Green and Rod Pampling are in a tie for third after the opening round of The Galleri Classic on the PGA TOUR Champions, Travis Smyth’s tie for eighth is the pick of the Aussies through two rounds of the World City Championship in Hong Kong, Robyn Choi is inside the top 10 early in Round 1 of the Epson Tour’s IOA Championship and Brett Drewitt is tied for 13th at the Korn Ferry Tour’s Club Car Championship.
WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play
Round 3 results
Lucas Herbert def Ben Griffin 3&1
Jason Day def Collin Morikawa 4&3
Cam Davis def Aaron Wise 1 up
Ryan Fox (NZ) def Will Zalatoris by concession
Min Woo Lee lost to JJ Spaun 2&1
Adam Scott lost to Adam Hadwin 3&2
Round of 16 draw
11.57pm Jason Day v Matt Kuchar
12.30am Lucas Herbert v Rory McIlroy