Just as it was four years ago when he went on to win, Ireland’s Darren Clarke will carry European Tour hopes into the semi-finals of the WGC – Accenture Match Play at La Costa Resort & Spa in California.
The 35 year old Irishman, who beat Tiger Woods in the final four years ago, kept alive the chance of a repeat showdown when he booked his place in the last four with a comfortable 5 and 3 victory over American Jerry Kelly in the quarter-finals.
The victory was the only moment of celebration for European Tour hopes in Carlsbad as both Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter lost their quarter-final ties, Harrington going down to Woods by 2 and 1 while Poulter succumbed on the last green to Australian Stephen Leaney.
However, there was never any danger of Clarke following suit, the winner of the WGC – NEC Invitational in Ohio last year always in control of his match with Kelly, who had beaten Number Two seed Vijay Singh the day before.
Clarke was two up by the turn, despite a bizarre incident at the sixth hole where he picked up his ball and conceded the hole, believing he had played more shots than he actually had.
But the Irishman soon put the momentary blip behind him with an eagle three at the eighth and another eagle three at the 11th to reassert control of proceedings. From there he gradually pulled away from Kelly before closing out the match at the 15th with a conceded birdie three after another superb approach shot.
“I played pretty well today and everything went according to plan,” said Clarke. “I also enjoyed myself out there. Jerry is a great guy and plays the game the way I like to play it so we had a lot of fun out there.”
As well as his caddie JP, Clarke has been accompanied on the range by coach Butch Harmon and manager Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler and the Irishman revealed the latter might have had a little mixed feelings about his success.
“I’m sure Chubby is enjoying himself but I know he harboured a little hope of getting back to see Bolton in the Cup Final against Middlesborough tomorrow, but I’ve put paid to that now!
“As far as Butch is concerned, it is good to have him here too. He just has a look at my swing after matches and sees everything is as it should be. Sometimes we don’t do anything, sometimes it is just fine tuning, but occasionally he might see something watching on the television that he can put right.”
Fellow Irishman Harrington typically battled hard against Woods but was always up against it after the World Number One and defending champion moved four up at the turn. An eagle three at the 11th was the one ray of sunshine in Harrington’s round before he bowed out on the 17th green.
“I didn’t swing it that well to be honest,” he said. “I had to putt well as well but I didn’t really. Playing Tiger it is quite usual to only get a few chances and if you don’t take them when they come you can find yourself in trouble.
“If I had been playing a little bit better I might have given myself a few more chances but it didn’t pan out that way. To be honest I wasn’t at the top of my game here this week, I tended to scramble through my matches but the positive thing I suppose was that I won and got further than I ever have here.
“I will try to fly over to Dubai as soon as I can now. I am looking forward to that and also looking forward to seeing Caroline and Patrick, who will be over there for the week with me.”
Joining Harrington on the flight out of California was Ian Poulter and although the 28 year old Englishman put up a sterling showing in his debut in the event, he admitted he was annoyed at having lost on the final green of his quarter-final to Stephen Leaney.
“I’m happy with the week, happy with my driving all week, but I’m fuming about today to be honest,” he said. “I was giving Stephen Christmas presents all the way round. You can’t miss greens from the middle of the fairway and I did that three times on the front nine which is why I was three down at the turn.
“I played well enough off the tee to win that match and if I had hit some half decent iron shots it could well have been a different story. He didn’t play all that well but I played worse, that just about sums up things.
“I should have won the 17th really and I had a chance at the 18th as well so right there were two chances to win the match even when I hadn’t been playing that well. So I think it is fair to say that I’m pretty gutted not to have taken that match.”
Leaney’s reward for victory is a semi-final clash against Woods while Clarke’s quest to become the first player in history to win the WGC – Accenture Match Play twice continues with a semi-final match against Davis Love III, who ousted Phil Mickelson on the last green of their quarter-final.