In a performance worthy of a No. 1 player, Rory McIlroy made seven birdies in a 10-hole stretch Sunday to roar past Lee Westwood and into the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
All that stood in his way of going to the top of the world ranking was Hunter Mahan, who won his semifinal match over Mark Wilson.
McIlroy has to win to replace Luke Donald at No. 1.
"You've got to beat five great players to get here," Mahan said. "I've got to beat one more incredible player to win."
Westwood was 3 up through four holes of their semifinal match at Dove Mountain until the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland won four of the next five holes to take a 1-up lead to the back nine.
McIlroy seized control with a 25-foot birdie on the 12th, and he went 3 up on the 13th hole after Westwood's drive sailed into the gallery, the ball coming to rest inside the back of a woman's sweater. From there, it was a matter of time. McIlroy closed him out, 3 and 1, when Westwood missed an 8-foot par on the 17th.
Mahan defeated Mark Wilson, 2 and 1, in a match that he never trailed. Mahan went 2 up with a birdie on the 15th hole and ended the match with par on the 17th, a hole that Wilson had not played all week.
Players had an hour for lunch before going back out for the 18-hole championship match.
It will be only the third Europe-United States championship match in the 14-year history of this tournament, and the first since Steve Stricker defeated Pierre Fulke at Metropolitan Golf Club in Melbourne in 2001.
Mahan will be trying to become only the fifth player with multiple World Golf Championship titles. He also won the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in 2010.
Westwood and McIlroy halved the opening hole with pars, though that was hardly a sign of what was to follow. Only two holes were halved on the front nine.
Westwood moved out to a 3-up lead through four with birdies on the par-5 second and by nearly driving the 336-yard fourth hole for a two-putt birdie from off the green. McIlroy looked shaky, missing a 5-foot par on the third.
Everything changed on the fifth hole. From behind the green, Westwood chipped weakly from 10 feet and missed his par putt, and McIlroy took off from there.
He made birdie from 30 feet on the sixth, and then pitched to 15 feet for birdie on the eighth to square the match. The ninth green is a blind shot from the fairway, and Westwood heard a cheer when he hit his approach to 12 feet. Then came a louder one for McIlroy, whose shot settled 5 feet from the cup for his first lead of the match.
McIlroy still needed some good fortune along the way. He was 1 up playing the par-5 11th when his second shot from the rough peeled off to the right and was headed for the desert. It went into the gallery, bounced along the cart path and hopped to the left, settling in the grass. From there, McIlroy judged the slope beautifully, pitching across the green and down the hill to 2 feet.
"I thought 11 was the turning point when he bounced it off the cart path and got the halve," Westwood said.
It was a civil match, although neither player conceded putts from the 2-foot range. The levity came from Westwood's caddie, Billy Foster, after the tee shot hit a woman, Larue Branch, in the back and the ball rolled inside the back of her sweater.
"Would you mind walking 250 yards forward," Foster said.
That might not have mattered the way McIlroy played. Every putt that McIlroy hit looked as though it had a chance to go in. Westwood twice had birdie putts inside 12 feet to win the hole, and they never had a chance. On the 10th, he left it short.
"Like most matches, it came down to putting," Westwood said. "Rory made them and I missed them."
Westwood at least tried to stay in the match, driving the 321-yard 15th hole to within 20 feet for eagle to stay alive. McIlroy, however, saved par from a bunker on the 16th to keep his 2-up lead, and closed out Westwood on the next hole.
"Great to be in the final," McIlroy said. "I played Hunter here three years ago and beat him on the final green."
That was in the second round in 2009, when McIlroy was playing in America for the first time as a pro. Now, he is on the verge of becoming the second-youngest player as No. 1 in the world. Tiger Woods was 21 when he first reached No. 1 in 1997.
Mahan won the first two holes, though he never had control until his birdie on the 15th. On the par-4 10th, Mahan hit his approach to 4 feet and looked as though he would go 3 up. Wilson chipped in from 50 feet short of the green to halve the hole, then won the 12th with a par when Mahan hit a poor flop shot from behind the green.
Westwood and Wilson were to play a consolation match Sunday afternoon, with a $110,000 difference in prize money.