Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter will fly the flag for The European Tour in the quarter-finals of the WGC – Accenture Match Play at La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California.
The trio all came through two matches on Friday, an increase in play caused by the total loss of all golf on Thursday due to course flooding, to equal the best European Tour performance in the event, namely in 2000 and 2001, when three European Tour Members made the last eight respectively in each year.
Of course, in that former year Darren Clarke went on to be champion, beating Tiger Woods in the final, and the possibility of a repeat remained, Clarke moving through rounds two and three with respective victories over Alex Cejka by 6 and 5, and Kenny Perry by 3 and 2.
Cejka was out of sorts in the morning’s second round match, a plethora of par figures good enough for the Irishman to progress but he had to produce some red figures in the afternoon, three birdies in total needed in his 16 holes to shake off the dogged American.
“It was hard out there in the afternoon, the wind got up a little bit and the pins were quite tight which made scoring difficult,” said Clarke. “It was a bit of an up and down contest as well, typical match play, with both of us holding the lead at one point, but I am just glad to get through.”
Clarke will now face Jerry Kelly in the quarter-finals, the American booking his place with a last hole victory over compatriot Chad Campbell. Kelly equalled his best performance in the event, that coming last year when he also reached the quarter-finals before losing to David Toms.
Almost as Clarke was walking off the 16th green, he was joined in the clubhouse by fellow countryman Harrington, who beat Toms on the last green, having seen off Bob Estes by 3 and 2 in the morning’s second round.
Harrington was three up through ten holes but had to withstand a strong Toms fightback, reminiscent of last year’s final where he looked down and out to Tiger Woods before battling back and taking the contest to the 35th green before succumbing.
The American – the leading US points scorer in the 2002 Ryder Cup Matches - levelled the match by the time the pair came off the 14th green but Harrington had one crucial thrust left, a superb birdie two at the short 16th, which saw him move one ahead again and he held on for victory through the closing two holes.
“I was relieved to get through in the end because I was struggling a little bit on the back nine. The birdie that I made at the 16th was a big one and came at a vital time because I was starting to get a little bit fatigued,” said Harrington.
“Because of that the timing on my swing was a little bit out and it was getting a little bit disconnected. But I put some bandages on it and managed to get over the finishing line. I was pleased the way I managed to dig in and get though.”
Harrington’s reward for his efforts is a quarter-final tie with World Number One and defending champion Tiger Woods, who put two European Tour Members to the sword by 5 and 4, firstly South Africa’s Trevor Immelman and secondly Sweden’s Fredrik Jacobson.
Harrington remained philosophical about the challenge facing him. “Going into any match with Tiger Woods is tough and you have to be at the top of your game and playing well,” he said.
“I’ll go to the range and do a little bit of work before tomorrow but we will see what happens. It’s 18 hole match play and, as we’ve seen this week already, anything can happen in that.”
Making up the European Tour triumvirate in the quarter-finals was England’s Ian Poulter, who continued his hugely impressive debut in the event with a 7 and 5 thrashing of Duffy Waldorf in the morning’s second round, before ousting John Huston 2 and 1 in the third round.
“It was a long day but a good one,” said Poulter. “I only missed one fairway all day in my two matches which is the key here. You are not going to make a lot of birdies out there because the wind has gotten up and it is a little tricky and a few of the pins are tucked away – so it is tough.
“This is my first real individual match play event and I’m enjoying it, I’m pleased with the way it is going. I’m happy to keep my head down and keep plugging away through the matches. That might make me a bit of a pain in the backside to my opponents, but I’m quite happy to be a pain in backside all the way.
“A few of the guys over here have probably heard about me before this week due to my personality and appearing on the Golf Channel and whatever. Hopefully a few more of them will be beginning to know me now because of my golf.”
Poulter will now face Australia’s Stephen Leaney who put an end to Colin Montgomerie’s hopes and the hopes The European Tour harboured of providing half of the quarter-final line-up.
The 40 year old Scot looked in good shape after having been seven under par for 14 holes in his morning 5 and 4 dismissal of Stewart Cink, but he could not quite find the same momentum against Leaney.
Nevertheless, he was one up through the turn before Leaney won the 11th to level matters and the contest remained locked together as the pair came up the 558 yard 18th. From seemingly ideal position in the centre of the fairway in two, Montgomerie pulled his third shot into an impossible spot in the greenside bunker and made bogey six, Leaney progressing with a regulation par five.
Montgomerie revealed he had been suffering ever since arriving in America on Monday afternoon, following a flight across the Pacific after competing in the Carlsberg Malaysian Open.
“It was disappointing to end like that but I was tired at the end there,” he said. “But it was Malaysia. I never really got over Malaysia. I’ve had ‘flu and diarrhoea and all sorts and that’s never the best preparation for trying to play golf, especially 36 holes a day. It is no fun feeling like that.”
On his way to the Gulf for next week’s Dubai Desert Classic, Montgomerie admitted there had been positives, however, from the week. “I can definitely take something from (the way I beat Nick Price and Cink) I suppose. It is more so than I had this time last year which is something.”
The quarter-final line-up is completed with an all-American tie between Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson, Love III coming through with a 3 and 2 success over Fred Couples before a 4 and 3 win over last year’s semi-finalist Adam Scott, while Mickelson ousted Ben Curtis in the second round by 7 and 6 before beating Chris DiMarco 3 and 2.