A handful of family members and a few sporadic stragglers followed Jhonattan Vegas during his first match of this year’s World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play on Wednesday.
Thursday was different.
The gallery following Vegas’ match lined the ropes and spread four to five people deep at times. But most of those observers weren’t scurrying from hole to hole to get a glimpse of the former Texas Longhorn — they roared for Rory McIlroy instead.
As Vegas hiked from the third green to the fourth tee at Austin Country Club, some local supporters stayed true to their roots as they threw up their horns and bellowed “Hook ‘em!” in his direction.
Others simply let him walk by, their eyes fixed on the No. 7 golfer in the world. McIlroy held a 1-up advantage over Vegas at the time, and his fans encouraged him to extend it.
“Yeah, Rory!” boomed one of his followers.
“C’mon, ‘Rors’!” shouted another.
Vegas played his college golf at Texas from 2004-07 and graduated from the University with a degree in kinesiology, but McIlroy was clearly the crowd favorite.
“I don’t even know who Jhonattan Vegas is,” a voice from the gallery said after the players hit their tee shots on No. 4. “I only follow (Jordan) Spieth and McIlroy.”
Diehard Longhorn fans are surely fine with the former but maybe not with the latter. With both the odds and the crowd weighing against him, Vegas didn’t necessarily thrive in an underdog role. He fell 1 down early and dropped to 3 down when McIlroy made birdie on the 13th hole.
Still, Vegas had a chance to garner momentum at the 14th by sinking a 20-foot birdie, but his putt lipped out. Wednesday, fans screamed “Hook ‘em!” from the hospitality tent behind the 14th green. Thursday, they hollered “Alllright, Rory!” as last week’s champion at the Arnold Palmer Invitational walked to the 15th tee with a chance to win the match. Vegas hung tough at 15, matching McIlroy’s par and pushing the match to the par-5 16th.
He wouldn’t let it end there, either.
McIlroy outdrove Vegas by 50 yards on the hole, but Vegas left himself in a better spot after the two played their second shots. McIlroy’s approach from less than 200 yards flared to the right while Vegas’ from 250 yards settled just short of the green. He hit a brilliant pitch from there to birdie the hole and send the match to the par-3 17th.
Vegas’ tee shot found the putting surface, 20 feet short of the pin. Once again, he failed to roll it in and was forced to rely on McIlroy to make bogey from just off the back of the green to push the match to the limit.
Not a chance.
The Northern Ireland native blew his chip shot six and a half feet past the hole, but he calmly knocked it in from there to earn a hard-fought 2 and 1 victory over Vegas. McIlroy struggled a day prior, losing 2 & 1 to Peter Uihlein. McIlroy didn’t make a birdie until the 12th hole, but he was already 5 down at that point and needed a miracle to escape unscathed. He pushed, but it didn’t happen.
On Thursday, the former world No. 1 regained his form and won a match that was never truly in doubt. He said winning late in the day at Bay Hill on Sunday and then having to turn around and play more tournament golf in Austin on Wednesday took a toll on him. Unsurprisingly to himself, he regrouped a day later against Vegas.
“I'm never too far away (on) either side,” McIlroy said. “I'm never too far away from playing great. On the flip side, I'm never too far away from struggling. It's more of a mindset thing, and that's been the pattern of my career over the past ten years. I'm conscious of that — it's always great because I have the belief in myself that I'm able to flip it around very quickly.”
Unfortunately for Vegas, it’s officially too late to flip it around like McIlroy did. Vegas sits at the bottom of the group standings with half a point. Brian Harman, who halved with Vegas on Wednesday, leads with 1.5 points. McIlroy and Uihlein have one point apiece, which means Vegas has been eliminated.
Harman controls his own destiny to a weekend match, while a win for McIlroy either guarantees him that fortune or puts him in a playoff with Uihlein if Uihlein beats Vegas. Either way, McIlroy said he’s happy to be playing in a Friday match with high stakes — unlike last year.
“That’s the beauty of this group play,” McIlroy said. “Some years it works in your favor, 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 tomorrow.”
Vegas, meanwhile, has nothing to play for but the Texas fans in his gallery who will flash their ‘hook ‘em’ hand signs and cheer him on — win, lose or draw.