Matt Fitzpatrick and Jon Rahm suffered opening-day defeats in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play as a buoyant Rory McIlroy turned one eye towards his latest attempt to win the Masters.
Fitzpatrick is the top seed in group 11 at Austin Country Club, but the US Open champion had no answer to a brilliant burst of scoring from opponent JJ Spaun, who cruised to a 5&3 victory.
And world number two Rahm squandered an early lead against Rickie Fowler to lose 2&1 after McIlroy had led from start to finish to beat Scott Stallings 3&1.
“Obviously this part of the season you’ve got one eye on what you’re doing now and one eye on Augusta,” said McIlroy, who had a new putter in the bag and used it effectively to make six birdies, the last one a concession on the 17th which sealed victory.
“I had to respond a couple times to what Scott did on the back nine, so it was nice to sort of feel that little bit of pressure and have to hit a shot or have to make a putt.”
Asked about reports that he had needed just 19 putts in a recent practice round at Augusta National, McIlroy said with a laugh: “Look, I had two good days.
“We played 54 holes in two days and it was good. I was really happy with where my game was. It was sort of good to see that after struggling at The Players (Championship).”
McIlroy had earlier backed the proposal from the game’s governing bodies for a shorter ball to be used in elite competition, a change which could reduce hitting distances by around 15 yards if implemented from 2026.
“It would be like me going back to my 2015 equipment and I seemed to do OK then,” McIlroy added.
“For me it’s trying to just keep the integrity of what the game was supposed to be. Obviously innovation happens, but I don’t think people imagined golf the way pros play the game right now.
“I’d love to see just a little more versatility put back into the game, and I think that’s what this change would ultimately do.”
McIlroy’s win over Stallings puts him in a strong position to reach the knockout stages, but Fitzpatrick faces an uphill task after his poor recent form continued.
Spaun’s birdies on the third and fifth, combined with Fitzpatrick’s bogey on the fourth, gave the 61st-ranked American a sizeable early lead, although Fitzpatrick hit back in style with a superb approach to the par-five sixth which led to a conceded eagle.
A par was good enough to win the eighth and reduce the gap further, only for Spaun to then birdie the 11th and 12th before holing out from 107 yards for an eagle on the 13th.
Fitzpatrick, who was 14th in the Arnold Palmer Invitational but has missed the cut in three of his last four starts, needed something special to salvage anything from the contest but could not find any heroics and quickly conceded when his birdie attempt on the 15th slid by the hole.
Spaun, who is making his debut in the event, told reporters: “I think college was the last time I played match play. It was fun though, because every shot is really intense, at least you think, because (if you) hit one bad shot, that kind of gives your competitor an opening.
“It was cool to feel more pressure from the very start of your round than normally in stroke play. I’ve been working hard on some things in my swing and it’s starting to come together. To pull it off against a guy like Matt, it’s huge for me.”
Rahm, who has won three strokeplay events this season, won two of the first three holes against Fowler but three-putted three times in quick succession on the back nine to suffer a surprise defeat.
Tyrrell Hatton also lost 3&1 to Ben Griffin and could be doubtful for the rest of the event after suffering pain in his right hand and arm after hitting a shot on the range during his warm-up.
Keegan Bradley pulled off the comeback of the day as he recovered from four down with five to play to halve his match with Denny McCarthy in McIlroy’s group.
But there were defeats for Tommy Fleetwood, Shane Lowry and Seamus Power on a bad day for the British and Irish contingent in the 64-man field.
World number one and defending champion Scottie Scheffler got off to a winning start, but made hard work of his victory over fellow American Davis Riley.
Scheffler, who was three up after five holes, contrived to lose the 14th hole to a bogey and missed from three feet to win on the 17th before holing from four times the distance on the last to get over the line.