MARANA, Ariz. – And then there were four.
Old and young, established star and newly minted phenom – the semifinalists smorgasbord at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is as eclectic a final four as this event has seen since the experiment ventured Down Under for the first edition in 1999 (for the record, that would have been Jeff Maggert, Andrew Magee, John Huston and Steve Pate).
In what appears to be the final World Golf Championship atop lonely Dove Mountain, mercurial match play delivered Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Ernie Els and Victor Dubuisson to the most intimate Sunday on the PGA Tour.
For the first time all week, Els finally made it look easy. That he did against one of the hottest players in the game only serves to add to the South African’s legend this week.
Before Saturday’s quarterfinal bout against Jordan Spieth, Els was a combined 5 over par in his previous three matches and had, by his own admission, played well only in fits and starts. But on Saturday he birdied two of his first three holes to take a 2-up lead and never trailed on his way to a 4-and-2 victory.
“At times I haven't played my best, as you guys (the media) have well documented,” smiled Els, who last advanced to the semifinals at the Match Play in 2001. “But it is match play. It's a match-play event. I've just done enough to get through.”
Els will play Dubuisson (pronounced dew-BWEE-shon) who robbed the week’s preeminent bandit, Graeme McDowell. G-Mac, who had not hit a tee shot with a lead all week, finally ran out of magic when his 23-footer at the last slipped past.
The subdued Frenchman has been the wild card at this week’s event, a mystery who at this point last year was 140th in the world and has now crashed the most exclusive game in town.
If American galleries are unaware of Dubuisson’s accomplishments, his deeds are sure to become the stuff of legend. His victory last year against the likes of Tiger Woods and Henrik Stenson at the Turkish Airlines Open ignited a run that will likely land him on this year’s European Ryder Cup team.
“(Turkey) gave me some confidence to win, but you always want more and more. In any event there is this kind of stress because you want more all the time,” Dubuisson said.
With all respect to the mystery man and the old man, relatively speaking, the compelling half of Sunday’s shootout will be Day and Fowler. Combined the two would barely qualify for the Champions Tour – Day is 26, Fowler 25 – and they are considered poster players for the circuit’s Gen X set.
They can also relate to the sometimes unrealistic expectations dolloped onto players in the Tiger Woods era who are still a half-decade shy of their prime. Pegged early in their Tour careers as can’t-miss kids, the scrutiny has flowed since each won his lone Tour event.
For Fowler, who defeated Jim Furyk, 2 up, on Saturday, it’s what drove him to Butch Harmon last year. He wanted to be known for more than just his flat-billed hat and long hair, so he cut his hair and began cutting his teeth with the swing legend.
“I’m putting a lot more work in the last few months,” said Fowler, who teamed full time with Harmon in November. “He’s easy to listen to when he’s taken two guys to No. 1 in the world.”
Day also had a more intense offseason, with a particular focus on his putting, which has been stellar this week at Dove Mountain.
“He worked harder than ever,” said Day’s caddie/swing coach Colin Swatton. “The best thing that’s happened to him was winning (the World Cup in November). He was getting to the point where he was thinking, ‘When am I going to win again?’ It was good for him to get that.”
For Day – who took down an ailing Louis Oosthuizen, 2 and 1, in the quarterfinals – his climb to the final four was predictable following his runner-up finish at the Farmers Insurance Open a few weeks ago and his Match Play record. He was a semifinalist last year, losing to eventual champion Matt Kuchar before beating Ian Poulter in the consolation match.
Fowler, however, had never advanced past the third round at this event and arrived at Dove Mountain fresh off three consecutive missed cuts. He’s also had the most difficult road to the final four, having beaten Poulter (a perennial Match Play contender), Jimmy Walker (who with three wins this season is the game’s hottest player) and Sergio Garcia to reach the quarterfinals.
But then there is no history that matters in match play, particularly when the four semifinalists have endured a week’s worth of Sunday pressure before even arriving at the final turn.
As eclectic as the final four may seem, they all have one thing in common – resilience.