The next time I get into a brawl with four angry Marines or find myself face-to-face with that Doberman down the street, I know exactly who I’m calling to get me out of trouble.
Perhaps a hastily assembled consortium of golf’s higher powers came up with a plan for the 16th WGC-Match Play Championship. A tournament steeped in forgettable finales would, on little more than a moment’s notice, produce seven holes of intense, flaw-filled drama, the last five of which occurred in sudden death.
A venue few seem to like – and has likely hosted this event for the last time – would suddenly emerge as a behind-the-scenes hero in a duel between a strapping Aussie lad who couldn’t win for losing and a French kid who just wouldn’t lose, period. Without all that desert scrub crowding his ball, Victor Dubuisson never ends up looking like David Copperfield with a cheesy goatee.
You could have turned this match off three times, gone out and bought seven bags of groceries, then arrived home to find Dubuisson still alive, wedge in hand, one-hopping shots out of burly rough to what he obviously considers gimme range. Those red trousers were a bit much, but the bulletproof vest? Superb choice of apparel.
My wife thinks I’m a bit negative in print – never mind when our kids leave the living room looking like John Blutarsky spent the weekend. Hey honey, this might have been the most compelling match I’ve ever seen. The extra holes? An instant candidate as one of my top five playoffs in recent memory, a term that comes in handy when you’re not sure how far back you want to go.
Red Shirt Division
5. Tiger Woods vs. Jim Furyk, 2001 WGC-NEC Invitational: Furyk holed a bunker shot on the first green in sudden death; Tiger finally subdued him six holes later. Longest playoff in 10 years at the time.
4. Woods vs. Els, 2000 Mercedes Championships: Both made eagle at the par-5 18th to force extras. Tiger’s 40-footer on the second hole of sudden death made this his fifth straight victory. The streak would reach six.
3. Woods vs. Rocco Mediate, 2008 U.S. Open: Just an awesome day to be a golf fan. Eighteen-hole playoff went to sudden death at Torrey Pines’ par-4 seventh, a left-to-right hole, which killed Rocco.
2. Woods vs. Els, 2003 Presidents Cup: The fellas were holing 20-footers in the dark of night, for Pete’s sake. An absolute crime this duel was halted in the name of sportsmanship, leaving the teams tied. My guess is, they’d be finished by now.
1. Woods vs. Bob May, 2000 PGA Championship: Tiger escapes with third consecutive major title, destroying May’s Jack Fleck impersonation. Brilliant shot-making from the Odd Couple of Overtimes.
Red Pants Division
5. Bill Haas vs. Hunter Mahan, 2011 Tour Championship: Haas saves par from the water on third playoff hole to win $10 million, but I’m thinking Dubuisson can do that in his sleep.
4. Bubba Watson vs. Louis Oosthuizen, 2012 Masters: Gap wedge from the straw right of 10th fairway turned Bubba into a major champion. Big man, very big shot, larger-than-life win.
3. Jonathan Byrd vs. Martin Laird and Cameron Percy, 2010 Shriners Hospital Open: The only overtime session ever decided by an ace, as Byrd jarred a 6-iron from 204 yards on the fourth extra hole. Fall Series status hurts it here.
2. Day vs. Dubuisson, 2014 WGC-Match Play: Imperfect golf played at the highest level, if you know what I mean. First par from the junk looked harder than the second, but both were outrageously good.
1. Larry Mize vs. Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros, 1987 Masters: If Mize’s miracle hole-out from right of Augusta National’s 11th green isn’t the greatest shot in golf history, you won’t need more than a couple of fingers to count those better.
THE FIRST THING that hit me upon meeting Day a few years back was the kid’s size. He’s listed at 6 feet and 195 pounds, but take it from a veteran – some 195s are a lot better than others. Day’s thick shoulders and robust thighs remind me of a slightly taller version of Fred Couples, who looks like he could have been a college running back when he’s wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
Much like Couples in the early 1980s, Day has also struggled to win tournaments early in his career. The Match Play triumph is just his second victory in 139 PGA Tour starts – the first was basically handed to him by Ryan Palmer at the 2010 Byron Nelson Championship.
If potential can become life’s greatest curse, Day has found a few black cats in his path. An excellent stretch of play in mid-2011, which featured runner-up finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open, led some to believe Day was ready to take the next step, but 2012 was a bust, as he fell from 14th to 113th in the FedEx Cup derby.
Amid all the happy talk from Dove Mountain last week, CBS analyst Ian Baker-Finch articulated on Day’s trophy shortage during the finals. “He gets very tight at times,” IBF said. “Especially in a situation like [last] year when he was leading the Masters with four holes to play.”
This from a giant-hearted man whose own career was derailed by mental blockage. “He realizes he has to continue doing what he does if he’s going to learn how to win,” Finch added. “He’s only won the one time, and that troubles him a bit.”
So which direction is he heading now? Day had a 3-up lead on Dubuisson with six to play but still needed another 11 holes to finish the job. Is that a sign of toughness or weakness? Sure, the Frenchman was ultra-pesky, but you could see the Aussie fighting it on a couple of occasions as regulation turned to overtime, and once overtime leaked into sublime.
You can’t leave the par putt short on 18, as Day did to allow extra holes. A 9-iron from 188 yards in fading daylight (and dropping temperatures) midway into sudden death? That’s just lousy judgment. By then, Day was taking violent lashes with his irons on approach shots – a stark contrast to his fluid moves with a 2-iron off the tee.
In a weird way, Day’s “progression” reminds me a little of the situation that confronted Adam Scott, another marvelously talented young Aussie. Scott’s collapse down the stretch at the 2012 British Open left him at the crossroads. He responded by not only winning the Masters 8 ½ months later, but doing it in a way that suggested he wasn’t about to let another opportunity slip away.
Scott played aggressive, focused golf under the greatest pressure, which Day really didn’t do at Dove Mountain. Does he have it in him to become as good as we think he can be? Father Time has all the answers.
ON THE SUBJECT of direction, the Match Play itself is probably heading somewhere, as previously noted. Instead of pontificating (guesswork) on where this tournament will be played in 2015 and beyond, I called on a few of my favorite sources and asked them for their thoughts.
“Not always that nice [weather-wise] in Vegas, but this is where it should be,” said swing coach Butch Harmon. “Action, baby. Action!”
No doubt, a legal wagering element could really give the Match Play its own crackling identity, but it’s hard to imagine Camp Ponte Vedra taking such a dangerous leap. Sexy ideas just aren’t the Tour’s style. Besides, there probably isn’t a golf course in Las Vegas suitable for an event of this caliber, and the lack of spectators could make Dove Mountain look like TPC Scottsdale.
“Vegas is the dream city but the weather is too dicey,” said Geoff Shackelford, an author/blogger with an advanced degree in course architecture. “It’s a tie for me between Sherwood [near Los Angeles] and PGA West-Stadium [near Palm Springs]. Both have great risk-reward holes, though Sherwood has less chance of great weather.”
San Francisco’s Harding Park is the first place that crossed my mind – a notion seconded by veteran Tour pro Joe Ogilvie. It’s such a Tour favorite that it has been re-branded with TPC status, a designation for wish you may or may not wish. Again, the climate is a potential factor, with February’s high temperatures averaging in the upper 50s.
Of course, if you’re going to San Francisco for the weather, you’re probably one of those people who thinks the Super Bowl should be played in New Jersey every other year.
Bottom line? There is no perfect location, even out West if we’re talking the first two months. “We’re looking at a lot of different options,” Tour commissioner Tim Finchem confirmed Sunday. “I wouldn’t rule out anything at this point. We haven’t moved in any one direction. We don’t have any particular agenda.”
A quality layout in a golf-friendly metropolitan area would serve as a good start. “Anywhere but where it is,” cracked one of my sources, although I’m sure he wasn’t kidding.
I’M NOT ENTIRELY sure what I found more amazing – Dubuisson’s back-to-back par saves from the Cactus Penitentiary or the fact that he entered the Match Play ranked 30th in the world. I know he won the Turkish Open a few months ago, which ended up with a very nice field (featuring Woods), and finished solo third at the European Tour’s 2013 season finale in Dubai.
From there, however, Dubuisson’s performance portfolio gets rather thin. A few top fives in Europe shouldn’t be enough to get you into the top half of the Match Play bracket, yet more evidence that the world ranking imparts too much emphasis on what players have done over the last few months.
It matters because the most important tournaments rely heavily on the world ranking to grant exemptions (top 50). There is a self-perpetuating effect in Europe, which makes it easier for good players overseas to climb faster than good players on the PGA Tour. The kicker? More top Euros play over here than do top Americans over there.
Roberto Castro had six top 15s in the final three months of the 2013 PGA Tour season. Three of them came in the FedEx Cup playoffs. Another occurred at the PGA Championship, and there was a solo second at the AT&T National. Still, he finished 70th in the ranking at the end of the year.
“WGCs are the new Q-School for international players,” Castro tweeted this past weekend. “Play well in Europe. Make a run at a WGC. Welcome to the PGA Tour.” As a man paid to dispense balanced perspective, I can’t say factually that Castro is wrong or right, but I do know which way I’m leaning.