The feelgood factor surrounding European golf, which reverberated around the United States during last September’s resounding Ryder Cup victory at Oakland Hills, resonated again Stateside when the European contingent produced a superb showing in the first round of the World Golf Championships – Accenture Match Play.
Of the 23 European Tour Members who teed up at the La Costa Resort and Spa, 14 progressed to the second round, including seven of the ten Members of The 2004 Ryder Cup Team in action.
Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, David Howell, Miguel Angel Jiménez, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood all won well, but perhaps none more handsomely than Poulter, who was in imperious form in dispatching former US Open Champion Jim Furyk.
In the end, the giant scoreboard stated that the 28 year old Englishman won 3 and 1, but that statistic was put into perspective when it was noted that Furyk was four under par for his 17 holes, figures good enough to beat the majority of the field on the rain-sodden course, but not good enough to topple Poulter, who was an incredible seven under par for the day.
“Last night I was trying to get my head around the game and you know when you play a former US Open champion like Jim, you know you can’t miss a fairway and you know you can’t miss a green,” he said.
“But I have to say my golf was flawless. I was happy to get in front and stay in front but even when I was three up (with three to play), Jim came back at me and holed a 30 footer on the 16th. It was tough going but I played great, and seven under par is quite nice!”
While Poulter produced the best figures of the day, fellow Englishman David Howell produced one of the best winning margins, easily dispatching Shigeki Maruyama of Japan by 6 and 5.
One up through six holes, the winner of the 1999 Dubai Desert Classic, caught fire around the turn, birdieing the eighth, ninth and tenth holes and chipping in for an eagle on the 11th to cruise to five up, before closing out the match on the 13th green with yet another birdie three.
“I didn’t play fantastic early on, hit a few poor shots and made some good saves,” he said. “But then I got on a great run and Shigeki just couldn’t match me.”
While Howell won on the 13th, victory for fellow Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood came two holes later on the 15th green, Donald easing past Zach Johnson 4 and 3 while Westwood recorded a similar winning margin over Steve Flesch.
The 16th green was the location for Spanish success as, firstly Sergio Garcia beat Alex Cejka 4 and 2 to be followed into the second round draw by Miguel Angel Jiménez, who ousted Australian Rod Pampling 3 and 2.
The last of the Magnificent Seven to take his place in the last 32 was Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who was also the only one to have to go the full distance, eventually seeing off the dogged challenge of the inaugural champion from 1999, Jeff Maggert, by one hole.
“It was really tough out there because there was never more than one hole in it. It was real tough because around the greens are so difficult, you are not sure how your chips are going to run out.
“There was also a lot of tension out there even though it was a first round match. It made for a long day out on the course but you are always happy to get through. Jeff wasn’t giving up anything out there and it was a tough course to play him on.”
Aside from the Ryder Cup Team Members’ success, there were seven other European Tour Members’ triumphs to applaud as Angel Cabrera, John Daly, Retief Goosen, Graeme McDowell, Nick O’Hern, Adam Scott and Vijay Singh progressed.
Incredibly four of the seven – Daly, Goosen, McDowell and Scott – had to go to the 18th green before winning, while O’Hern had to go one hole further, the only two to win out on the golf course being Cabrera, who beat fellow European Tour Member Paul Casey 4 and 2, and Singh, who beat Shingo Katayama 4 and 3.
Of the last green quartet, pride of place went to McDowell, who marked his debut in the event in fine style, recovering from being two down with five to play to beat his fellow Ulsterman and fellow Royal Portrush member Darren Clarke – the champion in 2000 – with a birdie four on the last green.
Handshakes were also offered on the 18th green by Daly, who beat Justin Leonard, Goosen, who ousted Stephen Leaney, and the winner of the last week’s rain shortened Nissan Open on the US PGA Tour, Adam Scott, who removed Trevor Immelman.
O’Hern was poised for victory on the home green too before opponent Charles Howell III holed an audacious 40 footer for a winning birdie three to send the match into extra holes.
But the Australian left-hander refused to be ruffled and took the honours on the first green with a 20 foot birdie putt of his own. O’Hern now has the dubious honour of facing the champion of the past two years, Tiger Woods, who beat Nick Price 4 and 3.
“It is going to be an interesting day because I’ve never played with Tiger,” he said. “I’ll be hitting my second shots first all day which is fine because that is what I did today.
“I enjoy that in match play because you get the chance to knock one in close and make your opponent think. On any given day, in match play, anything can happen. It will be a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Apart from the quartet of European Tour Members beaten by fellow European Tour Members on day one – Casey, Cejka, Clarke and Immelman – five others making their way home were Thomas Björn, Richard Green, Joakim Haeggman, Thomas Levet and Peter Lonard.