Darren Clarke took on the best in the world and won. An outstanding week culminated in the Ulsterman beating the World Number One Tiger Woods by 4 and 3 to win the first World Golf Championship of the year – The Andersen Consulting Matchplay.
Clarke was magnificent all week, beating Paul Azinger, Mark O’Meara, Thomas Bjorn, Hal Sutton and David Duval on route to the final, and as each round progressed, Clarke stepped up a gear. By the time Clarke reached the final he was firing on all cylinders and throughout the 36-hole final, Clarke was at his best.
Woods took first blood but Clarke immediately hit back on the fourth to level the match. On the sixth Clarke chipped in from the right of the green to go ahead for the first time. Woods birdied the next to level the match and so it stayed for the first 18, Clarke missing a four-foot birdie putt on the 18th.
Nevertheless the 31-year-old from Dungannon was still round in a fine five under par 67 and in the afternoon he came out with all guns blazing as he fired five birdies in the next eight holes. He was in command and never looked back
Woods did respond to Clarke's opening 18-foot putt with a four at the long 20th, but conceded the Ulsterman the 22nd after missing the green and a 15-foot putt, then could not match Clarke's eight and 12-foot birdie putts at the 23rd and 25th.
The second of them was especially important. Woods was only eight feet away, but when he suddenly needed it to half he misread the break. Clarke hit his next iron shot to eight feet and when he sank that as well he was four up with only 10 to go.
Woods came back by two-putting the 27th for a winning birdie, but Clarke turned for home with one hand on the Walter Hagen Trophy and Woods three-putting the 28th strengthened the grip.
Woods almost holed-in-one at the 180-yard 29th and won it to trim his deficit to three, but instead of applying further pressure on the 541-yard next, where his greater length was a powerful tool, he took two in a greenside bunker, then missed a four-foot putt.
His bogey six handed Clarke the hole on a platter and at four-up again with six to play a famous victory was in sight. He crisply struck his next approach to three feet and although Woods birdied from 18 feet, Clarke made no mistake for the half.
And when he was bunkered on the short 32nd he splashed out to three feet to preserve his advantage. He only needed another half now and got it on the next to claim the $1 million first prize.