Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie, two members of Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup Team of 2002, recreated the battling spirit evident at The De Vere Belfry to come through their respective first round matches after extra holes at the World Golf Championships – Accenture Match Play.
Both players were behind late in the day in their individual ties at the La Costa Resort & Spa in California but both showed true grit to turn matters around and triumph, Clarke ousting fellow European Tour Member Eduardo Romero at the 25th, while Montgomerie saw off Zimbabwe’s Nick Price at the 20th.
The victories were part of a great day for the European Tour challenge with over half the number who began the morning progressing into the last 32. Alongside Clarke and Montgomerie, the ‘Glorious Twelve’ was completed by Thomas Björn, Alex Cejka, Ben Curtis, Padraig Harrington, Trevor Immelman, Fredrik Jacobson, Peter Lonard, Ian Poulter, Adam Scott and Vijay Singh.
However, it was Clarke and Montgomerie’s respective victories which proved the most intriguing, Clarke now going on to face Cejka, while Montgomerie’s second round opponent will be American Stewart Cink.
Neither eventuality looked likely, however, moving into the latter stages of the contests, especially for Clarke, who won the first hole but lost the second to Romero and who was never in front again in regulation play.
Coming down the 18th the Irishman, who won the title in 2000 when he beat Tiger Woods in the final, was still one down to the dogged Argentine, but forced matters into extra holes with an audacious pitch-in for an eagle three from fully 40 feet short of the pin.
Incredibly, the next six holes were shared sending historians scurrying to the record books to check the longest match in the event’s history, which came last year when Mike Weir beat Loren Roberts at the 26th.
As it turned out, the Clarke v Romero tussle came up one hole short of the record, the contest ending on the seventh green, the 25th hole, Clarke taking the honours with a par four after Romero committed the ultimate sin at La Costa and failed to find the fairway from the tee, his ball dropping down into the clinging rough from where he could only make bogey five.
“It is a huge relief to get through,” admitted Clarke. “You see guys out there who have shot four or five under par and are still going home – that’s a tough thing to take. The first round is difficult to get through because nobody wants to go home after just one day.
“I’ve been over here for three weeks so perhaps it is not quite as bad for me but for the guys who have travelled a long way, from Japan and from Europe, it can be pretty tough to have to leave after one match.”
One player that could have referred to was Montgomerie, who had to travel for 16 hours across the Pacific after having competed in last week’s Carlsberg Malaysian Open, the 40 year old Scot not getting to California until Monday afternoon.
At two down with three to play against former Open Golf Champion Nick Price, it looked like the seven time Volvo Order of Merit winner was going to be getting on another aircraft straight away, before matters turned in the latter stages.
On the 16th green, Montgomerie holed a superb 25 footer for a birdie two to halve his deficit, a thrust which rattled Price to the extent that the Zimbabwean bogeyed the 17th to see the match return to level.
On the 18th, Montgomerie had a chance to wrap matters up in regulation holes but his birdie putt from 15 feet stopped inches short of the hole. However the Scot made no mistakes when presented with a similar opportunity on the second green, the 20th hole of the match, finding the bottom of the cup with his birdie putt to signal the end of the contest.
“I’m delighted to get through, it is a big thing,” he said. “Now I have the chance to go forward. It’s not just the fact that I won, it is the way I won that means a lot to me. When I had to hole the putt on the 16th, I did it. That’s good, it means I’ve still got something.
“Then again at the 20th hole there was another chance for me, 15 footer right to left. It’s a chance, the door opens for me and I go ahead and hole it to win the match. That’s pretty good. In fact, that’s very, very satisfying.”
Of the other ten European Tour success stories, the biggest winning margin was posted by Fredrik Jacobson, who continued the form which saw him win the Volvo Masters Andalucia at the end of the 2003 season, with a crushing 5 and 4 victory over Phillip Price.
The match was fairly even in the early stages but the Swede, who finished fourth on the Volvo Order of Merit in 2003 – matching the best ever finish by a Swedish golfer – pulled away round the turn when he won three holes in a row from the ninth to establish a lead Price could not erode.
“I played very solid today,” said Jacobson, who will now face fellow European Thomas Björn in the second round after the Dane accounted for Scott Hoch by 4 and 3. “I didn’t make any bogeys or any real mistakes, kept the ball in play nicely and made four birdies. I can’t ask for much more than that and I was very happy with the way I played.”
Elsewhere, one of the winners already on The 2004 European Tour International Schedule, South Africa’s Trevor Immelman, continued his winning ways with a 2 and 1 success over Shigeki Maruyama, inflicting a first round defeat on the Japanese golfer for the first time in his five appearances in the event.
The reward for Immelman’s efforts is a second round match with Number One seed and defending champion Tiger Woods, although the World Number One had to struggle to overcome the 64th seed, fellow American John Rollins, winning the last two holes to triumph on the home green.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Immelman, who won the South African Airways Open last month. “I have always gotten on well with Tiger and I have a lot of respect for what he has achieved in the game but I will be going out there and trying my heart out.”
Where there are winners, there are obviously also losers and 11 European Tour Members packed their bags on day one. Those departing were; Michael Campbell, Paul Casey, Brian Davis, Niclas Fasth, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, Miguel Angel Jiménez, Price, Romero, Justin Rose and Lee Westwood.
Of that group, Goosen ended the day in the unenviable position of being the highest ranked seed to go out, the Number Five seed going down to the Number 60 seed John Huston. Seeds One to Four, namely Woods, Singh, Davis Love III and Mike Weir, all progressed safely.