Rory McIlroy (Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy was in real danger of falling at the final hurdle in his bid to win the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play title and become World Number One for the first time.
After a thrilling 3 and 1 victory over Lee Westwood - he grabbed seven birdies after falling three down early on - the 22 year old Northern Irishman trailed by three again against American Hunter Mahan.
This time, though, it was with only nine holes to play and McIlroy had gone from playing some sublime golf to making mistake after mistake.
The US Open Champion had already halved two holes in bogeys and two in birdies when Mahan, conqueror of compatriot Mark Wilson 2 and 1 in his semi-final, broke the deadlock with a tee shot to two feet on the sixth.
But McIlroy then double-bogeyed the 486 yard next, seeing a chip come back to him after both men had rolled down the slope in front of the green with their approaches, and then had another six on the long eighth after driving into a bunker and going long with his third.
Mahan went three up there despite three-putting for par and when both parred the next he had turned in a level par 36 to McIlroy's 39.
In the third place play-off, meanwhile, Wilson was one up with eight to go on Westwood, whose own chance of reclaiming the World Number One spot had gone with his defeat to McIlroy.
It looked as though that duel had taken something out of both Europeans.
Westwood won three of the first four, but then opened the door by bogeying the fifth. And asking McIlroy to hole from two feet for par there appeared to fire the youngster into action.
He birdied three of the next four to turn one up and then had three more in a row from the 11th.
Westwood was able to match only the first of them, so found himself three down.
He then produced an 18 foot eagle putt after driving the green on the 343 yard 15th, but missed from similar range at the next and conceded defeat after bogeying the 17th.
"It was great," McIlroy said. "It was not the start I wanted. Three down after four is very tough against anybody, but against Lee, who's one of the best in the world, I was just trying to get back to level at some point in the round.
"To turn one up was a bit of a bonus. I made a few birdies and definitely played well to win that one."
He was six under for the 17 holes and Westwood three under.
McIlroy added: "Maybe there's a little extra intensity (at three down), but I think you just have to stay patient and chip away."
On being one game away from possibly reaching World Number One for the first time he said: "It's very exciting. After Luke departed early (in the first round to Ernie Els) that was the goal, to give myself a chance."
Westwood said: "Rory played well. I think we both played well - it was just one of those typical match play games that went a lot with momentum."
He felt he was unlucky on the fifth when he flew the green and considered McIlroy even more fortunate at the long 11th, where the Ulsterman's wild second shot was heading for desert and possibly out of bounds, but hit a cart path and finished on grass near the green. It was halved in birdies.
"That sort of thing can change a match. Go back to level there it's a different kettle of fish. I thought it was big turning point," he said.
"But I'm playing great. I've shot four or five under every day and that's pretty good golf. He can't let a game of match play with all its fickleness get in the way of when you are playing well.
"You build up your confidence and carry that forward."
Mahan delivered another blow by almost holing his second to the 493 yard tenth, but McIlroy, four down after missing from nine feet, chipped in for eagle on the next and finally had his first success of the game.
The 12th was shared in threes, so Mahan led by three with six to go, while Westwood was two down at the same point.