MARANA, Ariz — Ian Poulter was the first of 21 Europeans to tee off Wednesday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship; 13 survived to do battle in the second round. If proof was needed that there is a change taking place in the golf world, it was delivered by 17-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, with his 2-and-1 victory over World No. 8 Steve Stricker on his 44th birthday. Manassero, ranked 59th in the world, has already made history this week by becoming the youngest competitor in the tournament.
“I achieved a victory against one of the best players in the world and a past champion of this event,” Manassero said. “So it’s just a big highlight for me.”
Luke Donald was first in line for the players’ buffet after sending Charley Hoffman home with a 6-and-5 thrashing. A victory for brains over brawn.
“A lot of these guys hit it 40 yards past me like Charley did,” Donald said. “But I have a good short game and can put pressure on people by not making too many mistakes.”
G-Mac and Wee Mac made it through safely. Graeme McDowell saw off Heath Slocum, 4 and 3, while Rory McIlroy dispatched Jonathan Byrd, 4 and 2.
“I definitely think there’s a good opportunity for the younger generation to come through and show what they got,” McIlroy said. “I mean, regardless of Tiger or Phil or Steve Stricker or Jim Furyk are coming towards the end of their careers, I think the young guys are good enough to compete with them, no matter. I don’t think Tiger and Phil have got any …” McIlroy said, managing to stop himself mid-sentence. But he drew breath and carried on. “Phil hasn’t got any worse.”
Ouch! Take that Tiger.
There were further European victories for Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Ross Fisher, Edoardo Molinari, Robert Karlsson and Miguel Angel Jimenez. While Martin Kaymer inflicted a 7-and-6 thrashing on Seung-yul Noh, and World No. 1 Lee Westwood beat Henrik Stenson, 3 and 2.
There were taxis to the airport for Stenson, Laird, Poulter, Francesco Molinari, Alvaro Quiros, Anders Hansen, Peter Hanson, and Padraig Harrington, who lost 4 and 3 to Geoff Ogilvy. The Australian meets Thomas Bjorn in the second round.
Ten years after beating him in a head-to-head duel in the Dubai desert, Bjorn sent Tiger Woods packing. The Great Dane defeated Woods on the 19th hole after Woods drove into the desert.
“The process” that Woods keeps saying he is working on has taken a serious setback. So where is he in the process, now?
“Pissed,” Woods said. “I had momentum going to the 19th hole.”
Woods drained a 10-footer on 18 for birdie to keep the match alive.
“I blew it,” he said.
When will Woods play again?
“Not in a good mood to talk about that now,” he said.
Exit stage left. In a huff. Wearing a frown.
Woods wasn’t the only player to leave Tucson in a sour mood. A posse of volunteers was needed to track down Ian Poulter, one of the few Europeans who had a bad day at the office. He was last seen heading out alone toward the cactuses in the Sonoran desert. The defending champion was run out of town by Stewart Cink, who won their first-round shootout at the 19th hole — and we don’t mean the saloon.
“Am I disappointed? I’m effing pissed. Does that help?” Poulter said before heading for the hills. “I had my chances to shut him out and didn’t. I’m pissed at myself. I didn’t do my job today.”
Cink, the 2009 British Open champion, just wouldn’t lie down. He was never up in the match until he holed a six-footer to win at the first extra hole. Poulter was 2 up after a birdie at the 10th, but Cink then sank three putts in a row for two halves and a win. Cink looked done at the 11th after slapping a long iron right of the green. He found his ball one yard from the cart path behind a jumping cholla plant. He didn’t get needled. Instead he chipped over the prickly hazard and holed a 10-footer for an unlikely par. Classic match play.
At the par-3 12th, the players had to hike halfway up the mountain to the tee box. Their caddies could have benefited from mules. Cink pushed his tee shot into a bunker, and then he just cleared the lip with a chunky splash shot. Of course, he holed the putt from 12 feet. Poulter had to call for quiet in hospitality boxes behind the green. Well, it was 10:45 a.m. on a work day.
On to the 13th, where Poulter got unlucky when his approach to the par 5 just ran through the back of the green. Cink chipped on in three. Poulter had to conjure a chip from the rough, over a bank, down a slope, around a ledge, between the sails of the windmill and through the clown’s mouth to the hole. No chance. His ball got to within 12 feet. It was the best he could do. Cink had 18 feet for birdie. Boom! Three in a row.
Pressure was mounting on Poulter. The Englishman should have been 3 up, but all he had was a one-hole lead.
Cink was struggling with his long game, but his short game and putter were miraculous. Poulter seemed to be in control of every hole, but he just couldn’t finish Cink off.
“He putted me off the golf course,” Poulter said.
The Englishman threw everything except the kitchen sink at Cink. But he would not yield.
“When I saw I was playing Ian, I knew I was in for a heavyweight contest,” Cink said. “It was a Jekyll and Hyde round for me. I do like the do-or-die feel to match play. It got my juices flowing. My game hasn’t exactly been sparkling over the last year or so.”