Thursday 18 January 2018

Raiding party seeks to match Clarke's feats

Top Americans will want to draw line under Ryder Cup disaster this week, writes Dermot Gilleece

Darren Clarke
Darren Clarke

When choosing his number one singles player at Gleneagles last September, Europe's Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley knew the key match-play quality he was seeking. "He's a fighter where you need a fighter," he said memorably of Graeme McDowell.

It is an attribute the three Irish challengers, Rory McIlroy (ranked 1), McDowell (31) and Shane Lowry (48), will need in abundance if they are to emulate Darren Clarke by capturing the $9.25m WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship starting at TPC Harding Park, San Francisco, next Wednesday. With a new date and a new venue, this year's event also has a new format.

On his victory march at La Costa in 2000, Clarke beat six Ryder Cup players - Paul Azinger, Mark O'Meara, Thomas Bjorn, Hal Sutton, David Duval and Tiger Woods in that order. And at a time when the world No 1 Woods was at the peak of his powers, he thrashed him by 4&3 in the 36-hole final.

On reflection, Clarke's 32 birdies and an eagle in 116 holes that week, were certain to do serious damage.

This time, however, the tournament will feature round-robin groups of four in which each competitor will be guaranteed at least three matches over the first three days. The top 16 seeds will also be placed in different groups, and a blind draw tomorrow will determine the other three players within each group.

McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson are the top four seeds, based on world ranking positions after last weekend. It has meant a debut appearance for 24-year-old Englishman Tommy Fleetwood who moved from 66th to 55th after finishing third in the Shenzhen International. On the other side of the pond, Ben Martin earned a first appearance when his 37th position in the RBC Heritage, allowed him to hang onto 64th in the world rankings.

Miguel Angel Jimenez, in 65th position, gets in because of the withdrawal of Luke Donald for family reasons. And 66-ranked Francesco Molinari, will also make the field due to the absence of South Africa's Tim Clark with a damaged elbow.

Irish players have compiled an outstanding record in this format, going back to Fred Daly, who was a three-time PGA Match-Play champion in 1947, 1948 and 1952. Then came Christy O'Connor's victory in the 1957 News of the World Match-Play.

Competition gained a more formidable dimension, however, with the launch in 1964 of the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth where Arnold Palmer was the first winner of an event which included Jack Nicklaus, Ken Venturi, Gary Player and Tony Lema. Like the Ryder Cup, it would leave European players generally outclassed until Seve Ballesteros made his mark in 1981 by beating Ben Crenshaw in the final.

In these circumstances, European places were at a premium, which would explain why O'Connor played in it only once. That was in 1965 when, as holder of the aggregate stroke-play record at Wentworth, he was beaten by the reigning Open champion, Peter Thomson, whose winning par on the 37th hole sealed a sudden-death play-off victory.

It was 24 years before the next Irish challenger emerged in 1989 when prospective Order of Merit winner, Ronan Rafferty, beat Mike Reid (US) and Sandy Lyle before losing to Ian Woosnam in the semi-finals. Rafferty then produced blistering play the following year when thrashing no less an opponent than Ballesteros by 8&6 in the opening round.

In the first 18 holes of that match, the Northerner compiled record approximate figures of 10-under-par 62 to be five up on the Spaniard at the half-way stage. But he was again beaten by Woosnam, this time in the second round.

Irish match-play prowess had earlier been enhanced by Des Smyth's victory in the European Championship at Fulford, where he beat Nick Price by one up in the 18-hole final. This brought a reward of £6,660 and a wild-card place in the first Ryder Cup team to represent Europe at the Greenbrier GC, West Virginia later that year.

Dunhill Cup victories by Ireland in 1988 and 1990 would have to be viewed differently, given their medal match-play format. A long-awaited Irish breakthrough at Wentworth, however, eventually seemed likely in 2005 when McGinley really sparkled in a 6&5 first-round victory over Bjorn before overwhelming Donald by 9&8 in the quarter-finals. This was followed by a 4&3 semi-final win over Angel Cabrera.

In the final, however, he was edged out by New Zealand's Michael Campbell, who earned £1 million, the richest first-prize in golf, while becoming only the fourth player to capture the US Open and Wentworth titles in the same year. This had previously been done by the elite trio of Player (1965), Hale Irwin (1974) and Ernie Els (1994).

By this stage, the Accenture Match-Play Championship had been instituted at La Costa where Jeff Maggert captured the inaugural title in 1999. Then came Clarke's victory in 2000.

Since then, McIlroy has come closest in 2012 at Dove Mountain outside Tucson, Arizona, where he reached the final, only to be beaten 2&1 by Hunter Mahan. That defeat was especially disappointing, given an impressive semi-final victory over Lee Westwood.

McIlroy had earlier been hugely impressive at the same venue on his debut in the event in 2009, reaching the quarter-finals where he lost to the eventual winner, Geoff Ogilvy.

This was the memorable occasion when Els hailed the Holywood star as a future world No 1, though one imagines he had a somewhat longer time-scale in mind.

Lowry's only previous appearance was in 2013 when he memorably beat McIlroy in the first round but lost to McDowell two rounds later. Which brings us to a very serious match-player, as identified by McGinley. When the Wentworth version moved to fresher fields under the Volvo banner, McDowell emerged victorious in Bulgaria in 2013. And on the other side of the Atlantic, he has been a beaten quarter-finalist in the last two years.

Harding Park is a fine, old course where a major facelift in 2002-'03 prefaced the American Express triumph by Woods there in 2005 and the staging of the Presidents Cup, four years later. Conditions will be very different from Tucson, with temperatures unlikely to rise above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, with so much recrimination in the wake of last September's skirmish at Gleneagles, one imagines this occasion being viewed by Americans as an opportunity to right some perceived wrongs. Especially with such outstanding challengers as Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler.

Not even a Masters triumph is likely to obliterate the Ryder Cup memory for Spieth of being three up on McDowell after five holes and still ahead by that margin at the turn, only to lose eventually by 2&1. The possibility of himself and McIlroy battling through to the final is a thrilling prospect.

McGinley had McDowell in mind when he talked at Gleneagles of "a big player with a big heart, who loves the big occasion". Events on the PGA Tour this year have demonstrated, however, that there is no shortage of stout hearts among America's elite.

Woods, an absentee who once dominated this event, famously remarked: "If we had match-play every week, I think our playing careers would be halved, because there are so many emotional ups and downs. Essentially, you've got to outlast your opponent." And there's nothing like a fighting spirit to brighten the journey.

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