McIlroy chips in at last as the big shots win opening battles

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The Independent Online

So much for matchplay being a lottery. Five of the world's top six are here in Andalucia and each of them shrugged off the supposed volatility of the head-to-head format to win their opening matches. For yesterday at least, all the balls rolled out in order for the multi-millionaires.

Lee Westwood was ominously impressive, Luke Donald was characteristically solid, but, as ever, the hardest-earned was the most noteworthy. Judges such as Butch Harmon have criticised Rory McIlroy's short game, but here he was chipping in at the last to beat the two-time major champion Retief Goosen.

In the wake of his Masters meltdown, McIlroy's nerve was also questioned. Well, one down with three to play, Goosen proceeded to pick up two birdies. McIlroy matched him. You don't expect to lose when carding six birdies, but that fate befell Goosen. Bottle from Rory, indeed. "It was a tough match, no quarter was given," said the 22-year-old. "That chip-in was nice. I always seem to do it the hard way in matchplay. But it feels good when you come through a battle like that."

Graeme McDowell would say Amen to that. He responded to his own capitulation in last Sunday's final round of The Players – a 79 that saw him plummet from first to 33rd – with a 3&1 success over Louis Oosthuizen. "I've put last Sunday down as a blip on the radar," said the US Open champion after defeating the Open champion. "I wouldn't have liked a week off to dwell on it. So it was nice to get out there today and win."

McDowell and McIlroy, countrymen and great friends, are seeded to meet in tomorrow's quarter-finals. Yet it is another projection doing most to raise the mercury on the Costa del Sol. After his 4&3 win over the American Ryan Moore, Donald expressed his own desire to play Westwood in the final. World No 1 versus world No 2 would be some scenario, particularly for Donald, who beat Martin Kaymer in the "other" World Match Play in February, when the German was top dog.

"I would love to play Lee," said Donald, further emphasising his new hard edge. "Just like playing Martin in the final at Tucson. It's more satisfaction when you take down the best player in the world."

Certainly, Westwood wouldn't duck from the battle. Donald's confidence may be obvious, but then so, too, is that of his fellow Englishman, having lifted back-to-back titles at Indonesia and Korea. The 38-year-old claims to have rediscovered the winning feeling which brought him 24 wins before his 28th birthday. Anders Hansen would agree, having suffered a 6&5 humbling which featured six Westwood birdies in eight holes from the fourth.

Kaymer, the world No 3, also joined the high-ranking celebrations, fighting back from a two-hole deficit after the 11th against the Korean Y E Yang to come through 3&1. Like the others, the German now only needs a halve today to ensure he qualifies from his three-man group and into the last 16 who will contest the weekend's knockout stages.