It’s something golf fans have been salivating about for years: Tiger Woods against Rory McIlroy, in a one-on-one match play showdown. Thanks to Woods’s well-documented decline, it felt like it would never happen—after all, the former GOAT hadn’t competed at a World Golf Championship match play event since 2013. To even get a chance to face McIlroy, Woods had to hole out from 82 yards against Patrick Cantley on Friday in the last match of the group stage.
But he did advance, and on a blustery Saturday at the Austin Country Club, Woods and McIlroy finally faced off, and it was everything that years of undelivered hype could have promised. Despite Woods being up three to zero after ten holes, McIlroy was able to rip off a pair of birdies on 12 and 13, pushing the lead back down to just a single hole. And it looked like the Northern Irishman had a golden chance to tie the match-up on the par-5 16th, after his drive traveled nearly 400 yards, while Woods landed in the bunker.
But then, disaster struck for McIlroy:
A risky second shot led to an out of bounds from just outside the green, and just like that, Woods was up two holes once again, with just two to play. Woods didn’t have to do much of anything special on the day, playing the type of mistake-free golf that puts the pressure on match play opponents. However, on the 17th hole, he turned back the clock with a vintage up-and-down from near the water, giving him par to clinch the match.
The win allows Woods the chance to further extend his Match Play dominance; he is the only man to win the WGC event three times, and the only to do it in back-to-back years (2003 and 2004). While his days of match play dominance happened over a decade ago, he showed on Saturday that he still can go head-to-head against the best in the world and come out victorious.
He will now face Lucas Bjerregaard on Saturday afternoon, teeing off at 2:10 p.m. EST. After 2018 saw Woods in contention for both the British Open (tied for sixth) and the PGA Championship (second)—as well as his first tournament win since 2013— a heads-up win against the fourth-ranked golfer in the world, and one that had just won the Players Championship on March 17, is the perfect tune-up for the Masters, which tee off on April 11.
Woods may never win another major in the PGA Tour, but combining his performances from last year with Saturday’s long-awaited win over the man who took up his mantle as the best golfer in the world has to give the 14-time winner confidence heading into the late spring and summer, the time of year when Woods used to be the one everyone feared on the golf course.