MARANA, Ariz. – And then there were 32, the ultimate herd-thinning at the most Draconian of PGA Tour stops.
Golf’s most frenzied Wednesday, with respect to the Master’s Par 3 Contest, didn’t disappoint with a flurry of on-cue comebacks, histrionics and, yes, even the odd upset; although it’s always a stretch to consider any lower seed at this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship a Cinderella.
This is not March Madness, nor is this Gonzaga over Duke, although there was almost a Gonzo over Tiger that would have somehow qualified as a bonafide stunner.
On a spreadsheet Ernie Els’ Day 1 destruction of world No. 1 Luke Donald was nothing less than a stunner, a No. 1 seed toppled by a 64th-seeded player in dramatic 5-and-4 clarity. It’s just the third time a top seed has been sent packing by a No. 64 at the Match Play.
They make movies about that kind of upset.
In reality, however, Els is anything but a mid-major surprise.
Within the two-year World Ranking cycle the South African has ranked as high as sixth and he’s less than two years removed from his last multi-win season.
Again, this was not Gonzaga over Duke, nor was this much of a surprise. Seventeen of the 32 matches were won by lower seeded players, although Donald was the only No. 1 seed to lose.
World No. 2 Rory McIlroy beat George Coetzee, 2 up; No. 3 Lee Westwood, who has never advanced past the second round at the Match Play, clipped Nicolas Colsaerts, 3 and 1, and No. 4 Martin Kaymer, last year’s runner-up, rolled over Greg Chalmers, 4 and 2.
Whatever one’s pedigree, or world ranking, the depth of the modern game and capricious nature of match play leaves little room for true upsets when it comes to the world’s top 64 players.
“I feel for Luke, he had everything to lose,” said Els, who birdied his last two holes to close out Donald. “I know exactly what it feels like and it’s not a great feeling.”
Steve Stricker was the last No. 1 seed to lose to the 64th seed, although it’s worth nothing that neither Woods nor Phil Mickelson played the WGC in 2010 which made Stricker the de facto top seed, and Woods lost to Peter O’Malley in 2002, which in itself makes Donald’s loss significant but not dramatically so.
In the vacuum left behind by Woods’ prolonged slump has emerged parity in professional golf like never before, a truth evidenced by the 16 lower-seeded victories on Wednesday. It’s the most “upsets” since 1999 when the inaugural Match Play was held at La Costa Resort in southern California.
Not that any of this made the loss easier for Donald, whose dominance last year at Dove Mountain was unmatched. The Englishman never trailed in any of his 89 holes, became the first player to win an event without ever having played the 18th hole and made 32 birdies, which is slightly better than one every three holes.
On Wednesday against Els he managed just three birdies, four bogeys and likely sealed his fate with a sloppy three-putt from 37 feet at the par-5 11th. After missing his 10-footer for birdie two holes later he glanced at the leaderboard which had Els’ putting stats from 21 feet with the notation “Hall of Fame member.”
It was a helpful reminder for a crowd conditioned to view a 64th seed as a long shot, but did little to soften the blow for Donald.
“I just played awful,” Donald said. “Today I don’t think I would have been able to beat anyone at match play. It’s frustrating because I’ve been working really hard.”
No, this wasn’t Gonzaga over Duke, but it certainly felt like the end of the world for Donald.
Watch live coverage of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Golf Channel, Thursday/Friday 2-6PM ET; Saturday noon-2PM ET; Sunday 8AM-1PM ET. NBC coverage can be seen live Saturday/Sunday, 2-6PM ET.