By John Manley
Many doubted Darren Clarke’s ability to take Tiger Woods over 36 holes in their Sunday finals match in the World Golf Championships/Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship at LaCosta in Carlsbad, Calif.
As it turned out, Clarke, 19th in the world rankings, needed only 33 holes to ice the cake against the top-ranked golfer. The Portrush man scored a 4 and 3 victory (up by four holes with three to play) that can be attributed more to his own canny ability to move the ball than to any breakdown on Woods’s part.
The rivals finished on even terms after Sunday morning’s opening 18 holes, which saw 14 holes halved. Woods went one up on No. 3, but Clarke came right back to win the fourth hole. Clarke pulled ahead on the sixth hole, when he chipped in out of tall grass from about 20 feet. That lead was short-lived as Woods’s approach shot from 190 feet on the seventh landed about three feet from the pin. The American evened the match there and so it stayed over the next 11 holes.
Clarke, whose rotund physique contrasts strikingly with the svelte Woods, used the interval between the morning and afternoon sessions to catch up on doings elsewhere in the world via cell phone, as his rival repaired to the driving range.
Clarke went on the offensive on the 19th hole, dropping a 15-foot putt to go one up on Woods. The latter came right back to even matters as Clarke’s putts of eight and 25 feet on the 20th and 21st holes, respectively, pulled just left of the cup.
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The Irishman regained the advantage on 22, thanks to Woods putting his second shot into the gallery, leading to a rough up and down. Woods conceded the hole to Clarke, who stayed in front from thereafter. Nifty putting enabled Clarke to win three of the next four holes, leaving him four up with a maximum of 10 holes to play.
Nobody’s lead against Woods can really be considered safe, however, as long as No. 1 has a mathematical chance of reeling in the frontrunner, and it appeared as if Woods might be getting primed to add to his mystique on the 27th hole. His drive was headed well right of the fairway when the ball struck an object and took a friendly bounce, parking itself in the first cut of rough. Clarke performed his own magic on the same hole, pitching out of deep rough with the ball landing within a foot of the pin, which it then struck, before bounding some 10 feet away. Clarke’s putt went left and Woods won the hole.
Woods missed a five-foot putt on 28, allowing Clarke to go back to four-up, but the American took 29, when his tee shot landed within two feet of the pin.
The writing on the wall began to emerge with much greater clarity on 30, when Woods needed two swings of the wedge to escape a greenside bunker, which was followed by a blown putt from two feet away. The rivals halved 31 and 32, each of which featured some amazing iron work by Clarke. When Woods’s 15-foot putt on 33 slithered by the cup, he conceded the match to Clarke.
"I played pretty solid all day, hitting fairways and greens," Clarke said after the match. "Tiger is the best player in the world by a long way, so to play as solid as I have is great."
The 31-year-old Clarke advanced to Sunday’s finals after an interesting 34 holes of golf on Saturday. His quarterfinal match against Hal Sutton was veering toward the disaster zone, as that rival went three up after only four holes. But Clarke clawed back to earn a one-up victory. He faced David Duval in the afternoon and scored a surprisingly easy 4 and 2 triumph, as Duval played a listless round.
Clarke, who was bounced from this tournament last year by Andrew Magee in the first round, eliminated Paul Azinger, 2 and 1, on Wednesday. Mark O’Meara went quietly in the second round, 5 and 4. Thomas Bjorn wasn’t about to crumble as easily, and he took Clarke to 18 holes on Friday, as the Portrush man left with a one-up victory, and an appointment with Sutton.
Clarke recently began employing Butch Harmon, Woods’s swing guru, to help him with the technical aspects of his ball striking and the dividend was the $1 million winner’s purse. Clarke has been threatening for about three years now to emerge with a breakthrough victory of international magnitude, and he probably couldn’t have done better than to take the measure of Woods in head-to-head play over 33 holes. Now there is the matter of maintaining this lofty level of play.
"If I can come out and beat Tiger, there’s no reason I can’t improve and take my game to the next level," Clarke said.
The other Irish representative at LaCosta was Padraig Harrington, who was dispatched in the first round by Jesper Parnevik, 2 and 1.
Senior PGA Tour
Christy O’Connor, Jr. gave indications that he was back in contending form when he came in with a five-under-par 67 in the first round of the LiquidGolf.com Invitational at the TPC at Prestancia in Florida. That score left him tied with for fifth place with 36 holes to play.
Had O’Connor repeated that number in each of the next two rounds, he’d have had himself some championship hardware to hoist. But he wasn’t quite as sharp, shooting 70 both times. He finished tied for 19th place at nine-under 207. Tom Wargo won a playoff with J.C. Snead and Gary McCord, after the trio finished at 202. O’Connor’s earnings amounted to $14,952.
Richard Coughlan needs to bring some consistency to his game. Fine rounds of 67 and 66 sandwiched a 73, forcing the County Offaly man to settle for a 23rd place tie in the Stonecrest Classic at the Stonecrest Country Club in Summerfield, Fla. His final score of 206, was 10 off Adam Decker’s winning number. Coughlan earned $857.50.
Things were looking up for Keith Nolan after he shot 71 in the opening round of the Tucson Open at Omni Tucson National in Arizona. A repeat of that score would have earned Nolan the right to continue play through the weekend, but he soared to 75 on Friday, and a long, empty weekend beckoned.