Russell Knox bowed out of the WGC-Dell Match Play in Texas after getting the tough test he’d predicted against Branden Grace in the final batch of round-robin matches.
Sitting at the top of the group with one-and-a-half points from the opening two games, a win would have guaranteed the Scot a last-16 spot on his debut in the event at Austin Country Club.
But it didn’t augur well when Knox, the sole Scot in the elite 64-man field, found himself having to hole testing par putts from 10 feet and six feet at the second and third respectively for halves in the first match out on day three against the South African.
The 30-year-old, who became the first Scottish player to claim a WGC title with his victory in the HSBC Champions in Shanghai last November, lost three holes in a row from the fifth, added to his predicament by finding water at the short 12th before succumbing 5&4.
Grace, the world No 12, was approximately three-under for the holes played whereas Knox was three-over on a day when he could only muster one birdie and didn’t win a single hole.
The defeat leaves Knox heading home to Jacksonville Beach in Florida to prepare for his upcoming Masters debut, having decided to skip next week’s PGA Tour event, the Shell Houston Open. The Invernesian is hoping to play one of his practice rounds at Augusta National with 1988 winner Sandy Lyle, the only other Scot in the field for the event’s 80th staging.
“Wanna play a practice round up there Sandy?” wrote Knox in a message to Lyle on Twitter using “champ” as the hashtag. “Love for another Scot to show me around.”
After having to wait two-and-a-half hours for the first tee to clear, Grace lost a play-off to American Chris Kirk, whose only defeat, ironically, came at the hands of Knox, for the right to progress to the last 16.
Rory McIlroy, the defending champion, also found himself involved in a sudden-death shoot-out after ending up tied with American Kevin Na after finishing all square following 18 holes in their group decider.
McIlroy, who needed to show resilience for the third day running to avoid defeat after finding himself behind again, triumphed at the second extra hole after Na pulled his tee shot into a hazard. “I had to dig pretty deep,” admitted McIlroy as he savoured a tenth successive win in the event. “For the most part I felt I played pretty good and holed a few long putts.”
World No 2 Jason Day was the first player into the knock-out stage before quickly being joined by Open champion Zach Johnson - McIlroy’s opponent this morning - as they both finished with three wins out of three. Day, the 2014 winner and fresh from victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational last weekend, enjoyed the welcome bonus of getting to put his feet up early after opponent Paul Casey was forced to withdraw from their contest after six holes due to a stomach virus.
Having hammered Martin Kaymer on Thursday, Johnson maintained his impressive form with a 4&3 victory over Shane Lowry and, on this evidence, could be a key figure for the Americans in the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine later this year.
World No 6 and recent two-time PGA Tour winner Adam Scott bowed out as he lost to a last-hole birdie from Bill Haas, another player who finished the group phase with a 100 per cent record. Brooks Koepka, whose career has snowballed since winning the 2013 Scottish Hydro Challenge in Aviemore, progressed despite losing 4&3 to Danny Willett while Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Moore and Patrick Reed also bolstered the American contingent still standing by securing top spot in their respective groups.
Others to progress included BMW PGA champion Byeong-Hun An and Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello.
World No 1 and local favourite Jordan Spieth, one of the later starters, was on course to join Day and McIlroy in the last 16 after winning his opening two matches.