McDowell's cold steel can slay World rivals
WHO is Spartacus? That question has extra-special relevance today as hostilities commence in the Volvo World Match Play Championship at Thracian Cliffs.
The original Spartacus, who fought his way from slavery into legend as ('probably') ancient Rome's greatest gladiator, was Thracian, as natives of this stretch of Black Sea coast used be known.
So, it's entirely appropriate that the first European Tour event to be played in the Balkans should pit man-against-man on one of the most threatening golf courses many of this week's 24-combatants have seen.
Ian Poulter's eye-bulging, fist-pumping demolition of the Americans at last September's Ryder Cup in Medinah established him as the greatest match- play warrior in the modern game.
This strutting peacock's formidable reputation is also founded on his victory at the Accenture World Golf Championship in 2010, while he took the laurels in this event at Finca Cortesin on Spain's Costa del Sol two years ago.
Little surprise, therefore, to see Poulter rated as the bookies' joint favourite with Henrik Stenson, the Swede who muscled into a share of fifth at The Players in Sawgrass.
Yet Irish battlers Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry fancy their chances this weekend, especially Portrush native McDowell.
The top-ranked player at world No 8, McDowell's recent victory in the RBC Heritage in South Carolina suggests a return to the all-conquering form which saw him win the US Open at Pebble Beach, then famously clinch Europe's 2010 victory over the United States at Celtic Manor.
Last week's missed cut at Sawgrass "on a course which didn't set up that well for me" can be discounted. McDowell is Ireland's best chance of a first win in the 50th year of this fabled championship.
Last May, he became only the third Irishman to reach the Volvo Match Play final, following a path previously taken by Padraig Harrington in 2001, when the Dubliner was pipped by Ian Woosnam, and Paul McGinley in 2005, when Michael Campbell prevailed.
Nicolas Colsaerts was able to take full advantage of his phenomenal power to beat G-Mac at Finca and make an irrefutable case for one of Jose Maria Olazabal's wild cards and a place in history as Belgium's first Ryder Cup player.
This week, however, big-hitters face only the prospect of going even further off track on a narrow-gauge golf course which swoops and soars with white-knuckle ferocity up and down the Thracian Cliffs.
Swedish-born Carl Pettersson, who hungers so much for a taste of the Ryder Cup action he's taken out European Tour membership in an effort to qualify for McGinley's team at Gleneagles, is among those relieved not to have to keep score this week.
"It's a spectacular course for match play, but if it was a stroke play event, I think I'd be a little nervous right now," confessed Pettersson, who became an American citizen last year, but still hopes to represent Europe in what he describes as "golf's biggest event."
Twice he accumulated enough points to make the team, but erroneous advice from a European official kept Pettersson out of the race for places at the K Club in 2006, while he didn't apply for Tour membership in the run-up to Medinah.
Lowry boosted his match play credentials by beating Rory McIlroy and Pettersson, then had his eyes opened as McDowell, his warm friend, cut him down with cold steel in Tucson.
Boosted by news yesterday of an invite from Jack Nicklaus to the upcoming Memorial tournament at Muirfield Village, Lowry relishes the prospect of another crack at McDowell this weekend, though both must reach the final for that to happen.
All four Irishmen were drawn in the same bracket in Tucson, where McDowell despatched Harrington in his first round, so the Ulsterman enthused: "It's pleasing to be able to look at this week's draw and say to Shane 'hopefully, I'll see you on Sunday'."
The near-sadistic challenge of this Gary Player golf course appeals to McDowell, who opens this afternoon against Chris Wood. The 6' 5" Englishman returns seven weeks after withdrawing with back strain in Morocco.
McDowell then faces canny Scot Stephen Gallacher tomorrow, when Lowry will play both his group games, against George Coetzee and Peter Hanson.
Golf's a minority sport in Bulgaria, where there are eight courses, seven clubs and fewer than 1,000 registered players. Volvo sold a small number of cars in this country in 2012, so all sides will hope bringing this prestige event here will be a double-edged sword.
And, speaking of swords, McDowell may be the man most likely to raise his on Sunday and utter those famous words: "I am Spartacus!"
World Match Play Championship, Live, Sky Sports 3, 12.0