Hopes boosted for quick Tiger return
IT was St George's Day in the Sonoran Desert yesterday as Ian Poulter edged out Paul Casey for the honour of becoming England's first winner at golf's World Championships.
Sadly, just a few hundred people were drawn to the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club on Dove Mountain to watch Poulter and Casey play in the 36-hole final of the $8.5m Accenture Match Play Championship.
This is the stark reality of World Championship Golf without Tiger Woods ... a sparse attendance and a venue devoid of atmosphere, regardless of the high-class fare served up by the combatants.
The outlook for the game in Woods' absence is as cold and bleak as the stormy weather in south west Arizona over the weekend. However, an exchange between a reporter and a source very close to Woods as they bade farewell to each other after Tiger's monologue in Sawgrass last Friday strongly suggested the current trough might not last as long as people fear.
In his address, a contrite, downcast Woods gave the distinct impression his quest for rehabilitation would be counted in months rather than weeks.
Yet as one of the three news agency reporters admitted to the inner-sanctum for Tiger's speech parted with a polite "see you" to one member of the player's inner-circle, the reply came: "It could be sooner than you think."
The implication taken was that Woods might indeed return for April's US Masters. Though Tiger's caddie Steve Williams doesn't know how long his employer will remain in rehab, he told an Australian newspaper that Woods "has one more visit to the place where he is receiving his counselling".
When it's over, Williams said: "I'd imagine his focus might change a little bit and might turn back to his professional life, which is playing golf.
"After this visit, I'll talk with him about what his intentions are with golf. While he is receiving treatment and going through the healing process, I'm not bothering him. When he plays is when he plays. There are more important things right now."
Only two Europeans have won at the World Golf Championships -- Darren Clarke (winner of this title at La Costa in 2000 and the NEC Invitational in 2003) and Henrik Stenson (Accenture Match Play champion in 2007).
Yet Poulter and Casey, Ryder Cup skipper Nick Faldo's two Wild Cards for Valhalla, dominated on Dove Mountain and underscored the raw match play power which will be at Colin Montgomerie's disposal in Celtic Manor next October.
And with yesterday's winner guaranteed fifth place in the world and the runner-up taking sixth in the rankings to be issued today, Europe now have six players in the top-10, including Lee Westwood (fourth), Martin Kaymer seventh, Rory McIlroy (ninth) and Padraig Harrington (10th).
While Poulter steered the shortest route ever through the semi-finals on Saturday, annihilating Sergio Garcia 7&6, Casey had to return to the course at first light yesterday to finish off Colombia's Camilo Villegas.
When all of his previous four matches ended on the 14th green, including Saturday morning's quarter-final against Oliver Wilson, Casey appeared to be enjoying an armchair ride into the final of this gruelling event ... until his marathon 24-hole encounter with Villegas became the longest semi-final in the event's history.
So Casey and Poulter, taken all the way up 18 by Thongchai Jaidee in his quarter-final, had played exactly 80 holes each since last Wednesday as they walked to the first tee for the final.
Yet having to complete 38 in the 24 hours preceding the decider must have sapped Casey's energy, so it came as no surprise when he'd slipped four behind through the first 14 holes of the final.
To his credit, Casey, a long-time Arizona resident who fell to Geoff Ogilvy at the final hurdle last year, hung-in. After a winning birdie at 15, he then witnessed an uncharacteristic three-putt by Poulter at 18, leaving him just two behind going into the break for lunch.
However, normal service was resumed in the afternoon as Poulter holed from 15 feet, three outside Casey, for birdie on the first. He might have been dressed all in pink yesterday but Poulter's putter remained red-hot as the 34-year-old held the upper hand throughout to record a 4 & 2 victory - his maiden success on US soil.