Rory McIlroy facing Matchplay exit after loss to Soren Kjeldsen in Austin
WORLD number two Rory McIlroy faces an uphill battle to regain the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play title after losing to Soren Kjeldsen in their opening group match in Austin.
McIlroy looked to be on course for victory when he overturned a two-hole deficit with three birdies in a row from the 11th, only for Kjeldsen to birdie the next four holes to complete a superb 2&1 success.
And the bad news for pre-tournament favourite McIlroy was that only one player who lost their first game 12 months ago – current world number one Dustin Johnson – went on to reach the last 16.
In a high-quality contest, four of the first five holes changed hands due to birdies before Kjeldsen edged ahead at the turn thanks to McIlroy's bogey on the ninth.
Another birdie on the 10th took the 41-year-old Dane two up, but 2015 champion McIlroy got back on level terms with birdies on the 11th and 12th, the latter aided by a drive measured at 410 yards – albeit with the assistance of the wind, slope and a cart path.
McIlroy almost drove the green on the short par-four 13th to set up another birdie and move in front, but Kjeldsen birdied the 14th to get back to all square and the European pair halved the next with birdies as well.
Kjeldsen, who had never previously won a match in the tournament, then closed out the win with brilliant approaches to the 16th and 17th to leave McIlroy needing two wins – and help from elsewhere – to avoid a shock early exit.
Kjeldsen, who finished seventh in the Masters last year, told Sky Sports 4: "Obviously the odds were against me but I played great today.
"I loved this course last year so I really wanted to make the field this week. There's a nice variety of holes; there's obviously some where the long hitters can use their distance, but a lot of short ones where you need to hit wedges like I did today and it brings together the field."
Kjeldsen has joined the PGA Tour for 2017 and started the season with four straight missed cuts, but added: "I was off to a very tough start but in the last three weeks I started to get my head round it.
"Being on the European Tour for 20 years and then suddenly changing it up, coming over here, not knowing anybody and not knowing the courses it's been difficult, but it's what I wanted to do and I'm enjoying it."
In the other match in McIlroy's group, the man he beat in the 2015 final, American Gary Woodland, defeated Emiliano Grillo 3&2.
South Africa's Branden Grace had claimed the first win on day one by beating England's Andy Sullivan 4&2, with former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel thrashing Ben An 6&5.
Two-time major winner and Texas native Jordan Spieth won just one hole before losing 4&2 to Japan's Hideto Tanihara, while Masters champion Danny Willett's recent struggles continued as he lost to Korea's KT Kim by the same score.
Only one player who lost their first game 12 months ago - current world number one Dustin Johnson - went on to reach the last 16, with Johnson having no such problems this year after thrashing Webb Simpson 5&3.
England's Ross Fisher, Matt Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan suffered heavy defeats to Louis Oosthuizen, Kevin Na and Branden Grace respectively, but there were victories for Tommy Fleetwood over Zach Johnson and Paul Casey against Joost Luiten.
Scotland's Russell Knox was a 3&2 winner over American Bill Haas.
Defending champion Jason Day was in tears after withdrawing in order to be with his mother as she undergoes treatment for lung cancer.
Day was three down after six holes of his opening match against Pat Perez when he conceded and walked off the course, prompting speculation that he had suffered another injury.
However, the 29-year-old Australian then told a hastily-arranged press conference that he had found it impossible to focus on golf due to his mother Dening's battle with lung cancer.
"My back is fine, I'm 100 per cent healthy," Day said. "My mum's been here (the United States) for a while and she has lung cancer. At the start of the year she was diagnosed with 12 months to live.
"The diagnosis is much better being over here, she's going into surgery this Friday and it's really hard to even comprehend being on a golf course right now because of what's she going through.
"She had all the tests done in Australia and the docs said she was terminal and she only had 12 months to live and I'm glad I brought her over here because of it.
"It's been really hard to play golf lately this year. It's been very, very emotional as you can tell."
Day, who was 12 years old when his father died from stomach cancer, added: "I've already gone through it once with my dad and I know how it feels and it's hard enough to see another one go through it as well. As of now I'm going to try and be back there with my mum for surgery and make sure everything goes right with her.
"Emotionally it's been wearing on me for a while and I know my mum says not to let it get to me but it really has, so I just need some time away with her to make sure that everything goes well because this has been very, very tough for me.
"I'm going to do my best and try and be there the best I can for her because she is the reason that I'm playing golf today.
"I've obviously pulled out this week because of my mum going into surgery to try and get rid of this three or four centimetre mass that's in her lungs. I'm just hoping for a speedy recovery for her and we can get this behind us and she can live a long life."
Branden Grace (Rsa) bt Andy Sullivan 4 & 2
Brandt Snedeker (USA) Lost to William McGirt (USA) 2 down
Rory McIlroy Lost to Soren Kjeldsen (Den) 2 & 1
Gary Woodland (USA) bt Emiliano Grillo (Arg) 3 & 2
Paul Casey bt Joost Luiten (Ned) 2 & 1
Byeong-Hun An (Kor) Lost to Charl Schwartzel (Rsa) 6 & 5
Hideto Tanihara (Jpn) bt Jordan Spieth (USA) 4 & 2
Yuta Ikeda (Jpn) Tied to Ryan Moore (USA)
Bubba Watson (USA) bt Jhonattan Vegas (Ven) 1 up
Thomas Pieters (Bel) bt Scott Piercy (USA) 3 & 2
Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa) bt Ross Fisher 4 & 3
Brooks Koepka (USA) bt Kevin Kisner (USA) 6 & 5
Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn) Tied to Jim Furyk (USA)
Jason Dufner (USA) Tied to Patrick Reed (USA)
Alex Noren (Swe) bt Thongchai Jaidee (Tha) 3 & 2
Bernd Wiesberger (Aut) bt Francesco Molinari (Ita) 2 up
Dustin Johnson (USA) bt Webb Simpson (USA) 5 & 3
Matt Kuchar (USA) Tied to Brendan Steele (USA)
Tommy Fleetwood bt Zach Johnson (USA) 1 up
Martin Kaymer (Ger) bt Jimmy Walker (USA) 3 & 2
K.T. Kim (Kor) bt Daniel Willett 4 & 2
Russell Knox bt Bill Haas (USA) 3 & 2
Justin Thomas (USA) bt Chris Wood 2 & 1
Kevin Na (USA) bt Matthew Fitzpatrick 5 & 4
Phil Mickelson (USA) bt Si Woo Kim (Kor) 5 & 3
Daniel Berger (USA) bt J.B. Holmes (USA) 7 & 5
Pat Perez (USA) bt Jason Day (Aus) WD