WGC-Accenture Match Play officials could only dream of such a change in fortune.
This week golf’s version of March Madness has lost world No. 1 Luke Donald (early vacation), three-time champion Tiger Woods (vacationing putter) and Phil Mickelson (family vacation), although, given the 'Q' rating of some who advanced to the Elite Eight, Lefty may have thought to postpone his week off and make a run at his first WGC-Match Play title.
Yet as the day’s four matches ended with surprising swiftness, the dream semifinal bout between Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood began to seem more likely. By the time Martin Laird conceded the 16th hole to Westwood the best-case scenario was a reality.
“That’s the trouble with kids today – they think they are always right,” Westwood smiled when reminded of McIlroy’s prophetic comment.
He and the kid will tee off early Sunday playing for more than just an afternoon time in the championship match. Both players can overtake Donald, who lost in Round 1 to Ernie Els, atop the World Golf Ranking, with a victory this week.
That the duo were part of the same management shop until a high-profile split between McIlroy and International Sports Management chief Chubby Chandler only adds to the subtext, although both players were quick to downplay the significance of the perceived rift.
“We don’t spend as much time together as we did when we were in the same management group, but that’s understandable,” Westwood said. “But there’s nothing strained about the relationship between the two of us.”
Nor does Westwood imagine the possibility of becoming No. 1 will weigh on him Sunday, an opportunity somewhat mitigated by the fact he’s been there before – for 22 weeks, in fact – while McIlroy has not.
“I’ve been No. 1 a couple of times,” Westwood said. “He may be thinking about it, but my main goal is to play as well as I’ve been playing tomorrow morning and try and win that match.”
McIlroy had a similar take and also dismissed the notion that he would struggle against Westwood, who some considered something of a mentor to the Ulsterman. When asked if he considered the Englishman “a big brother,” McIlroy left no room for ambiguity.
“To be honest not really because you’re going to each tournament to try and win and beat each other. That’s what I always tried to do,” McIlroy said. “I’d look at Darren Clarke or Nick Faldo (as a big-brother type).”
Not that any of those undertones much matter to tournament officials, who have been snake-bitten in recent years by the Match Play’s capricious format. The Match Play is like fondue, an occasional treat and part-time curiosity but no one would want a steady diet of the stuff, particularly WGC officials who endured a second consecutive day of blowouts.
For the first time in the 14-year history of the event not a single quarterfinal match made it to the 17th hole, a reality so stark one half wonders why architect Jack Nicklaus even bothered with the last two holes at Dove Mountain.
Mark Wilson cruised past long-hitting Peter Hanson, 4 and 3; Hunter Mahan stunned Matt Kuchar, 6 and 5; McIlroy closed out rookie Sang-Moon Bae’s impressive Match Play run, 3 and 2; and Westwood finished the rout with a 4-and-2 victory over Martin Laird.
Yet from Saturday’s carnage comes opportunity. The all-American matchup of Mahan and Wilson will lead off the morning’s semifinal lineup, guaranteeing that for the first time since 2008 a player from the U.S. will advance to the final, followed by Westwood and McIlroy, the first time since 2000 two No. 1-seeded players from the same side of the bracket have played their way into a semifinal clash.
This much seems certain, if form holds it could be a quick Sunday. Since Friday, just one of the 12 matches have made it to the final hole, and a match hasn’t gone to extra holes since Wednesday’s opening round.
As a rule, blowouts aren’t best for any format, particularly a match-play tournament. Just ask the 30 or so fans huddled around the 18th green late Saturday afternoon. Either no one knew or no one cared that the matches, and the day, were over without a single meaningful shot played into the closer.
Officials can only hope for a little more action on Sunday at the 18th, not to mention the 17th hole, but at least they have the matchups that everyone wanted.
Watch live coverage of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Golf Channel, Sunday 8AM-1PM ET. NBC coverage can be seen live Sunday, 2-6PM ET.