Friday 20 April 2018

World watching as all-Ireland showdown kicks off in the desert

Karl MacGinty

WITH apologies to Van Morrison, mama never told us there'd be days like this. Everything fell into place over the weekend to ensure tomorrow's first round of the Accenture Match Play World Championship of Golf will go down in Irish sporting folklore.

Okay, we half-expected Freddie Jacobson to do the business at Riviera Country Club and thrust Shane Lowry into his first eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with good friend Rory McIlroy in Tucson.

Yet, after the withdrawal of Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker, it required an intricate sequence of events during Sunday's climax to the Northern Trust Open to put Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell back on collision course.

GAA enthusiasts are well used to Croke Park double-headers but when was the last time the sporting world was riveted by two mouthwatering all-Ireland clashes on the same afternoon in the Sonoran Desert?

Wednesday at the Accenture Match Play is golf's longest day. With 32 knockout matches between 64 of the game's top-ranked players, it is well established as one of the most dramatic dates on the calendar.


It's a measure of the stature of Irish golf that McIlroy's first match with Clara champion Lowry dominates this day of days, while the meeting of two universally popular Major champions, McDowell and Harrington, is certain to arouse attention in the US.

Yet there's a downside. Fate has placed both matches in the same 'quarter', so by the end of Friday's third round, certainly three and maybe all four Irish players will be eliminated.

The winner between McIlroy and Lowry plays Rickie Fowler or Carl Pettersson (should the Swede recover from 'flu) for, potentially, a third close encounter of the Celtic kind on Friday.

In the second round, Harrington or McDowell must face the winner of Dustin Johnson's opener with Swedish match play maestro Alex Noren – so neither is certain to make Friday.

Such are the vagaries of 18-hole match play, it's impossible to predict any game with certainty. Even in his pomp, Tiger Woods was sucker-punched by unheralded Aussies Peter O'Malley and Nick O'Hern. It may be golf in its purest form but match play gives TV executives nightmares.

For example, most big names like Tiger, Mickelson, Els and Singh, went home after the first couple of days of the 2002 Accenture at La Costa, leading to a snore-fest final between Kevin Sutherland and Scott McCarron.

The vast majority of professional tournaments are played over 72 holes of stroke play because there's more likelihood of high-profile stars like Tiger, Mickelson or Snedeker (to list three recent PGA Tour winners) coming to the fore on Sunday.

Even when less familiar players break through, the drama can be hard to beat. Take last Sunday's demolition derby at the Northern Trust Open, followed by John Merrick's dramatic sudden-death win over Charlie Beljan.

Yet the first three rounds at professional Tour events are bereft of the cut and thrust of match play.

The dream finale for CBS executives next Sunday is 'Tiger versus Rory', though McIlroy himself will look no further than tomorrow afternoon and a game with Lowry which appears one-sided on paper but has distinct David versus Goliath undertones.

Interestingly, all 14 clubs in McIlroy's bag tomorrow will be Nike, including the Method putter he dumped on Friday in Abu Dhabi.

After intense testing in Florida last week under the gaze of his coach Michael Bannon, the 23-year-old expects to repeat those results on the golf course at the Ritz-Carlton Club, even with his crimson Covert driver.

Still, McIlroy and his new clubs will be under intense scrutiny as the world wonders if Nike, after a false start in Abu Dhabi, can strike the right balance between pushing the brand and respecting the interests of their client.

Described by Lowry as "the best player on the face of the earth," McIlroy knows Dove Mountain like the back of his hand, while the Clara man plays it competitively for the first time.

Yet Lowry's short game and ability to tuck away birdie putts makes him dangerous in any company. A winter fretting over his prospects of making the world's top 50 contributed to uncharacteristic performances in Abu Dhabi and Dubai but he should be free of all such pressures tomorrow.

The pressure on Harrington to perform this week is intense. Missing the cut at Pebble Beach and Riviera left him teetering on the brink of the top 50 as Monday's first deadline looms for the upcoming Cadillac WGC at Doral.

The Dubliner's struggle to rekindle confidence in his green reading made it difficult for him in California, where certainty and commitment are essential on uneven poa annua grass.

The putting surfaces on Dove Mountain are smoother but the greens are quick and undulating.

Playing his fourth tournament in succession and for the sixth week in seven, Harrington needs to get beyond Friday's third round to dismiss any lingering thought of a madcap dash to Honda next week for a last-ditch bid to earn his ticket to Doral.

While Harrington looked tired at Riviera, McDowell's fit and refreshed after a 10-week break – by far, the longest of his career. Both missed last Friday's cut but the Portrush man's confidence is high and the demands on him are low.

Yet who knows how the dice will fall on Wednesday when the world falls under the magic spell of match play.

Irish Independent

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