Feb
22
2014
Final Four: Young guns and an oldie (but a goodie)
By Stephanie Wei under WGC
Jason+Day+Rickie+Fowler+Masters+Round+2+kKX6xPlUm43l
Sorry for the lack of posts all week from the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m working as on-air talent for Fox Sports International (Asia) — which has been absolutely awesome, but it’s obviously kept me really busy, not to mention it’s my first time doing real TV in this capacity.

We finished early today and I actually had some time to walk with a few groups, so I figured I’d write a quick-ish post about the quarterfinals and preview the final four, featuring Rickie Fowler (25) vs. Jason Day (26) and Victor Dubuisson (23) vs. Ernie Els (44)…

One of the many beautiful things about the match play format is that really anything can happen — and it sets up to create some truly exhilarating drama. You also don’t have to be perfect, or even play *that* well, but you do have to hit the right shots at the right time. Just ask Ernie Els.

The 44-year-old South African defeated the youngest player in the field, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, 4&2 on Saturday afternoon at Dove Mountain. Prior to his quarterfinals match, Els had failed to break par. Yep, for real.

He was three-over in the first two matches and one-over in the third one. Today, he was finally one-under in 16 holes.

But, what Els had done was hit quality clutch shots when it mattered.

In his match against Jason Dufner on Friday, Els hit a fantastic approach shot on 18 to 2.5 feet and made the putt for birdie to win 1-up.

The previous day, he went into extra holes against Justin Rose. On the 19th, they both had about 10 feet for birdie. Els putted first and rolled it in. Rose drained his, as well, so onto the 20th they went. Els missed the green left and had an awkward stance and lie next to a bunker. He couldn’t have hit a more perfect chip shot to about three feet and ended up saving par, which was good enough for the win.

In the first round, Els, who was down the entire day to Stephen Gallacher, made a big putt to save par on 18 and extend the match into extra holes. He won with a par on the 19th.

Els obviously needed luck and got some help from his opponents, but he also stepped up his game at opportune moments. This wasn’t going to last, though — he was going to have to play better against Spieth, who had recorded 19 birdies in the first three rounds.

Els played better golf and brought experience to the table in his battle with Spieth, who weirdly enough acted his age (or younger) on Saturday afternoon.

“Today I felt like I played a little bit more solid, but still not quite to my expectations,” said Els in his post-round presser. “But the course played quite tricky.  You know, they had quite a few flags in corners.  I missed it  it was almost a game of misses today, where you miss it where you can get it up and down and I did that most of the day.

“I think that was the difference between myself and Jordan.  He obviously didn’t play as good as he did yesterday, thank goodness.  And I was just a bit more solid.”

Spieth’s putter went cold and he let his frustration get the best of him, while Els, who hasn’t had a good record at this event, stayed patient.

“Experience definitely helped, all my rounds this week,” he said. “I played young guys the whole week.  And I feel  I could almost feel their frustration.  I could almost sense the frustration in Jordan today that he wasn’t quite playing the way he did yesterday.  And I was kind of playing on that a little bit, just making sure  if I was missing a shot, that I made sure that I got it up and down to keep kind of him at bay or keep him frustrated.”

Spieth was visibly P.O.’d throughout the match, letting go of clubs and throwing mini temper tantrums — something we’re not used to seeing from a 20-year-old who is generally mature way beyond his years.

“I didn’t have my swing, but I was a little mental midget out there,” said Spieth after he had some time to calm down. “Actually I’m kind of embarrassing looking back.  I was dropping clubs and kind of just whining to Michael (my caddie), and you just can’t do that.  In match play you’ve got to keep your cool.

“Anytime you show that, it’s weakness, and Ernie can take advantage of it.  He’s a consistent player, putted very well today and made a lot of putts.  I knew he would have a good round, because he’s coming off, kind of squeaking by a couple of struggles.

“Ultimately I just wasn’t there mentally, I don’t know what it was.  But I’ll regroup and be ready for Miami.”

Good for Spieth to call himself out. And Ernie did certainly notice his actions on the course.

“I think he was a little off,” said Els. “When he was off, he got frustrated.  When you start pushing on this type of course, and this is a (Jack) Nicklaus course, which is playing very firm, you’re just off on the angles and you’re dead.”

Spieth also sent some tweets apologizing for his behavior.

Ernie will face the 23-year-old Frenchman, Victor Dubuisson, in the semifinals.

“We are managed by the same agent,” said Els, referring to V-Dubs. “So I’ve seen him around and met him in South Africa at Sun City, when we played the Million Dollar.  I haven’t played with him.  I hear he’s been a great amateur.  He’s been kind of a star rising on the European Tour and in France.  And I think he won the British Amateur or he was close to the British Amateur, so he knows how to play match play, obviously.  Looking forward to it.  Another young guy.”

Yep, another young gun. The average age of the final four is 29.93. Combined, this foursome is the youngest in tournament history.

**********

I watched the final three holes of the match between Dubuisson and Graeme McDowell, and boy, I was impressed with Dubuisson’s chipping — he made three consecutive crucial up-and-downs that propelled him to the 1-up victory.

On the long par-3 16th, Dubuisson airmailed the green and had a tough chip to a front-center pin. He knocked it to 3 feet and saved par. Meanwhile, McDowell had a bunch easier shot from just short of the green, but his chip was mediocre and he missed his par save. This was pretty much where Dubuisson won the match, or you could argue he did it with his magnificent and extremely difficult chip on no. 17.

“The more difficult shot I had today was on 17,” said Dubuisson. “The chip was just unplayable.  But as I said, I spent a lot of times here around the green playing those big lob shots, because I know here when you miss, the green are very dry, hard.

“You can make good shots when you’re ten feet out of the green and have just an unplayable shot in this high rough.  So I knew that this week it was going to be, I guess, the key to win some matches, the chipping.”

Dubuisson said when he first saw Dove Mountain, he knew patience would be a key to success.

“My first reaction was when I saw the greens, it was that this week I would need to be very patient,” he said. “Because, you know, sometime you think it’s going to be the perfect shot and the ball get a bad catch on the green and a bounce in the wrong direction and you make a bogey.

“I knew I was going to have to be patient on many shots here.  Like if I hit a good shot right at the flag, get a bad bounce on the wrong hill and finish like 20 meters from the hole, just stay patient and stay focused on the game.”

All week, Dubuisson’s strategy has been to pretend he’s playing stroke play. He plans to stick to that game plan for his match against Els in the semifinals.

“I know he’s a great guy, very nice man,” said Victor when asked if he knew Ernie at all. “But I’ve never played with him before.  He has a lot of experience.  He won so many tournaments and majors.  And I will just do the same as I did today and yesterday against Bubba and Graeme, just play my own stroke play and don’t watch him, don’t be impressed.”

It’s clearly worked out well so far.

Meanwhile, G-Mac just ran out of luck. His putter failed him when he was under the gun, unlike the previous three matches, where he made everything he looked at when his back was up against the wall.

He lost with grace, though, of course.

“(Victor’s) short game was very, very good coming down the stretch especially,” said McDowell. “The pitch he hit from left of 17, I definitely had the better of the two lies.  He played a fantastic pitch shot there.

“And the one on the last, what a great touch that was.  He’s got that little bit of European flare.  He’s the first really, really exciting player that France has produced in a few years.  And I think he’s one to watch.”

I agree.

**********

Jason Day and Louis Oosthuizen played one heck of a match. Oosthuizen was dealing with a nagging back injury and had a trainer work on him at several times during the course of the day. He started out hitting some errant drives into the desert. The first one was in such bad position that he conceded the hole to Day.

On the second hole, Oosthuizen, again, found his ball in the desert, but it was unplayable, so he took a penalty stroke. Then, he hit a wood up by the green and holed a long putt for birdie to win the hole and square up the match early. Which was pretty incredible.

“Before today’s round I didn’t know that Louis had a bad back,” said Day. “He certainly didn’t play like he had a bad back.  But he played some nice golf out there.  We both fought hard until the finish.”

The two battled back-and-forth, but Day played just a little better. At the same time, Oosthuizen wouldn’t go away. Day was 3-up through 12, but the South African took him all the way to the 17th hole.

“I was a bit disappointed to start this morning on the range, not feeling too good,” said Oosthuizen following the 2&1 defeat. “It got better the last four or five holes, I felt a lot better.  So it’s a bit painful that it always happens when I’m playing well.  I need to address it big time now and get it sorted.

“But I felt I played really well. You can’t give away holes to a guy like Jason, you’re not going to get them back.  I had a tough start and it was really tough to get back.  He played really well.”

This is Day’s second consecutive appearance in the semifinals; last year, he lost in the semi-finals to eventual champion Matt Kuchar and went on to win the Consolation Match against Ian Poulter to finish third. Day’s record is now 12-3 at this event.

“I’m very excited, I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s rounds,” he said.  ”Just to be able to give myself a chance at winning the Accenture Match Play Championship is obviously a good achievement, to get into the final two groups, it’s an amazing feeling because I was here last year and didn’t quite get it done.  But hopefully I can do a little better this year and press for that win.”

Day will play his good friend Rickie Fowler in the semis.

“It should be fun, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Day. “I haven’t played with Rickie for a while, but I’ve never played against him in match play, so I’m not too sure.

“Obviously he’s playing great golf right now because he’s through to the semis.  It’s going to be interesting.  We’re really good buddies out there.  I’ll probably just get in my little world again and just try to find a way to beat him.”

**********

Unlike the third match, where Fowler never led until he won 1-up on the 18th hole, he got off to a fast start, going 3-up against Jim Furyk in the first four holes.

Furyk, being Furyk, fought back and made four straight birdies on nos. 13-16 to go 1-up. Fowler won the 17th because Furyk made bogey. The match went back to all square.

“Obviously it’s nice to get a win, no matter how it happens.  But started off the today, played fairly solid.  I got off to an early lead, he fought back and I got the lead back.

“And then Jim got hot from 13 to 16, three birdies and made a good 3 on 16, which was playing tough today.

“So just had to kind of stay patient, knew he was going to put up some sort of charge like that.  And I knew it would be tough for him to continue making birdies.  1down with 2 to play is not a bad spot to be in in match play, and I just had to not worry about the first 16 holes and go play the last two.

“With where he hit his second shot on 17, I knew it was going to be tough for him to make 4.  I was able to play somewhat safe on the second shot and get a two-putt and get the win. And it’s always nice to go to 18 all square.”

Rickie cracked a joke with Furyk on the way to the 18th tee.

“I told Jim walking to the tee, ‘Why don’t we just halve everything and go play 18 and decide the match that way?’  And he said it wouldn’t have been as fun.  We had a good time out there.  Unfortunate to see him hit the chip the way he did on his third shot.  I actually thought that  I was expecting him to give me a scare there.  Thought he would give me a chance and maybe hole it.

“But a win is a win, and excited to be moving on to Sunday.”

Furyk hit his approach shot short of the green and then flubbed his first chip, which rolled back to almost the same place it started. He eventually made bogey, while Rickie safely posted a par for the win.

“I played well,” said Furyk. “I’m honestly disappointed with the finish.  I hit some good shots down the stretch.  I hit it as good as I could on 18.  I thought I flagged the 8-iron, I’m surprised it came up short.

“I’ve been getting the ball up and down really well, and hit terrific chips on 17 and 18.  Disappointed.  I fought all the way back from 3-down.  I had all the momentum and I didn’t put the ball on the fairway on 17 and didn’t put the ball in the fairway on 18.

“I don’t feel I handed the match away, but I definitely made it too easy on the last two holes.”

Finishing a match bogey-bogey is always tough to stomach.

 

(Getty Images)