MARANA, Ariz. — Second-place sucks, as Tiger Woods has famously observed. It's definitely true in match play, where second place equals losing. Apparently, it's true in horse racing, too.
Lee Westwood anxiously watched one of the horses he owns, Rerouted, run a race in Dubai via his cellphone while warming up before his Thursday match against Robert Karlsson at the Accenture Match Play Championship. Rerouted ran second.
"He's a good horse, he just doesn't win," Westwood said with a shrug. "I can definitely sympathize."
That line brought laughter, coming from a former No. 1 player who has never won a major championship.
Westwood has been one of the many surprises this week in an event that never stops supplying surprises. Westwood had never made it to the third round in 11 previous Match Play Championships until Thursday, when he made a batch of birdies early for a second straight day, built a big lead and coasted to a 3-and-2 victory over Karlsson.
He hasn't done anything different this year, Westwood said, except get off to good starts, and he's at a loss to explain his past lack of success. He likes the course, except for a few overly severe greens; he loves match play; he likes competing among the world's best 64 players; and he has a pretty good record in that format between the Ryder Cup and the European Tour's Volvo World Match Play Championship. The only thing missing has been a positive result.
"It's good fun," Westwood said. "I'm normally watching it at home on TV. It's good to watch, I hope it's better to play."
He'll get that chance this week as he advances to the third round against Nick Watney, who held on for a 1-up win over Tiger Woods.
The highest-ranked players left in the field after two days are Westwood (No. 3) and Rory McIlroy (No. 2), who eliminated Anders Hansen on Thursday. Top-ranked Luke Donald was knocked out in the opening round by Ernie Els, who in turn was beaten badly Thursday by Peter Hanson.
Some of Thursday's other top surprises:
– Miguel Angel Jimenez, aka "The Mechanic," eliminated PGA champ Keegan Bradley in a classic old vs. young showdown.
– Dustin Johnson, who'd never won a match before this week, went on a birdie spree and racked up the largest margin of victory on the day, a 7-and-5 win over Francesco Molinari.
– Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, among the favorites, narrowly missed holing a 60-foot putt on the final green to keep his match alive, losing to the unheralded and underrated Sang-Moon Bae.
– Steve Stricker had to rally with four birdies on the back nine to defeat Louis Oosthuizen. Stricker rolled in a 20-footer on the final green for the victory.
The unpredictable nature of the matches continued, and my picks continued to turn sour. After a 14-18 performance in the opening round, I compiled an 8-8 mark with my second-round predictions. I correctly picked Watney over Woods, and Kuchar over Watson, plus Kaymer and Westwood, but blundered badly on Bradley, Johnson, Stanley and Schwartzel. I'm seriously thinking of just going with coin flips on the weekend.
Here's how Friday's matches shape up:
Mark Wilson vs. Dustin Johnson
Welcome back, Dustin. On Thursday, he exploded for six birdies in 13 holes — seven, really, because he would've done no worse than birdie at 13 before Francesco Molinari conceded for a 7-and-5 loss. That makes Johnson the hottest player in the field. Underrated Wilson handled Robert Rock, and now he faces D.J. That's being stuck between a Rock and a — never mind. This is also a rematch of last year's first-round pairing when David (Wilson) knocked off Goliath (Johnson) on the 19th hole. Grudge match?
Steve Stricker vs. Hunter Mahan
This might be the match of the day in Friday's lineup. Mahan had seven birdies in 13 holes — crushing Y.E. Yang — and he looked in top form. Stricker is rolling it great, as usual. He had four birdies when he needed them on the final nine to edge Louis Oosthuizen, including a winning bomb at the 18th. You don't want to face either one of these guys right now. Mahan is hot, but don't forget Stricker, who reigns as the world's best putter.
Martin Laird vs. Paul Lawrie
Enter Daily Planet editor Perry White so he can utter his catchphrase, "Great Scott!" It's Scot against Scot in this showdown. Lawrie has been playing well all year after his win in the desert, and Laird looks like he's more than ready to defend his Arnold Palmer Invitational title at Bay Hill next month. "It's as good as I've played in a while, and I needed all of it today," Laird said of his tough win over Matteo Manassero. Laird rang up eight birdies. Lawrie had four in his win over Ryo Ishikawa. Before this week, by the way, Lawrie hadn't won a match in this event since 2001. Americans don't know it yet, but Laird is a very, very good player.
Matt Kuchar vs. Martin Kaymer
Bubba Watson strayed into the desert a bit too often versus Kuchar. Watson hit one into the cactus on the eight hole, took a swipe at it and didn't get it out, then just picked up and conceded the hole. Kuchar played solid golf coming in and held on. Kaymer won a very tough match with David Toms, whose match-play record ranks among the best. Neither player holed a lot of putts. Kaymer could still be headed for the Final Four.
Brandt Snedeker vs. Peter Hanson
Well, Ernie Els had a bit of a letdown after his big Donald win, and Hanson played very well, making birdies on three of the first six holes. Snedeker got the better of Kyle Stanley a second time — the first was at Torrey Pines, where Stanley let a big lead slip away with a final-hole triple. Snedeker basically outputted Stanley and won, 2 and 1, and match play is a format that favors putters.
Rory McIlroy vs. Miguel Angel Jimenez
This is a real cross-generational match. Jimenez blitzed Bradley with birdies on the opening three holes and never let up. McIlroy didn't play his best, but Anders Hansen didn't put up much of a fight. Jimenez is a crafty veteran, but it's hard to see him keeping up with McIlroy.
Lee Westwood vs. Nick Watney
These guys are in a rut. They met in the second round each of the last two years, with Watney winning both times. Westwood is in good form here; he's won handily two matches in a row. Watney didn't putt all that well, but he outputted Tiger Woods, who missed a five-footer on the final green that would have forced extra holes. Beating Tiger has to be an emotional drain, so look for Watney to have a slight letdown. Plus, Westwood is looking good. And is Watney really going to beat Westwood three years in a row?
John Senden vs. Sang-moon Bae
The Aussie Senden is one of the game's finest iron players, which is crucial on this course because of the crazy slopes on the greens. If you can't hit a shot to the proper quadrant of the green, you've got no chance of making the first putt, and you'll have a difficult time getting down in two. Bae, a South Korean, led the Japan tour's money list last year. He's got game and he proved it in holding off Schwartzel.