Thomas Aiken (Getty Images)
Thomas Aiken beat Ian Poulter on the final green to secure his spot in the last 16 of the Volvo World Match Play Championship and send the 2011 winner home after the group stage in Bulgaria.
On a day when defending champion Nicolas Colsaerts snuck through to the knock-out rounds with a morning win over Kiradech Aphibarnrat and top seed Graeme McDowell again looked impressive in beating Stephen Gallacher 4 and 2, the exits of match play specialist Poulter and in-form Swede Henrik Stenson were the biggest surprises.
Poulter took four points out of four in Europe’s sensational Ryder Cup triumph at Medinah and as well as having previously won this event he also took the WGC-Accenture Match Play in 2010. However, his love of the format was not enough to overcome Aiken in what became a decisive clash once both players had been beaten by Thongchai Jaidee.
Stenson, fifth in last week’s Players Championship at Sawgrass, had lost to Ryder Cup star Francesco Molinari on the opening day and when the Italian saw off Felipe Aguilar 4 and 3 the Swede and Chilean faced an all-or-nothing afternoon encounter.
And it was Aguilar, the lowest-ranked player in the field, who won the last four holes to come through 3 and 1.
“Starting the day, I knew this was the match I needed to win because no matter what happened with Francesco, I needed to win this match,” said Aguilar.
“I played pretty good - I think the difference was I didn't make any bogeys, so I played like medal play and only took a risk on a few holes.”
Two down with four to play against Aiken, Poulter got back on level terms with birdies on the 15th and 16th, but then bogeyed the last after hooking his drive onto the adjacent fourth fairway and failing to get up and down after hitting his approach just over the green.
"I have no excuses," said Poulter, who won the event in 2011 and felt it had come at the right time after missing the cut at the Players Championship last week followed a first missed cut of his career at the Masters Tournament.
"There is no excuse for that display of golf over the last two days. I should have been able to finish the match off.
"My concentration was simply not there and therefore you make mental errors when you have not used your brain. It's completely unacceptable.”
Aiken was understandably relieved to be through having been the only member of the field to play the maximum 36 holes in the group stage - and that all in one day after sitting out Thursday’s session.
“It's fantastic to be here for the rest of the week,” he said. “It all starts again tomorrow, another 36 holes.
“I had two tough matches today - Thongchai this morning - we played some really good golf, the back nine, every hole was won with birdie pretty much.
“Then this afternoon against Ian, I got off to a good start and got it to two up, but as you expect from him, he came back.
“All square with two to play, and fortunately I just didn't make any mistakes on the last couple of holes and he made an error on the last.”
Poulter's defeat meant Jaidee advanced to the last 16 as the group winner to face Sweden's Peter Hanson, who came through the only play-off required.
Hanson, Shane Lowry and George Coetzee all finished on two points after Lowry's win over Coetzee today, with the South African then bowing out at the second extra hole with a bogey four.
Lowry's birdie meant he won the group and set up a clash with Aiken.
Defending champion Colsaerts also reached the knockout stages after recovering from yesterday's defeat to Branden Grace to beat Aphibarnrat, who was then eliminated after losing the 18th hole to halve his match with Grace.
Colsaerts will take on Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño in the last 16 after the Spaniard beat Brett Rumford 3 and 2 to top their group, although the pair were already assured of going through after Rumford was eight under par in beating Jamie Donaldson 5 and 3.
“I played a little better of course,” said Colsaerts - who won the title in Spain last year after failing to win either of his group matches.
“I kept the ball in play a bit more than yesterday. That's what the plan was, so mission accomplished.”
After back-to-back wins at the Ballantine's Championship and Volvo China Open two weeks ago, Rumford is looking to become only the third man in European Tour history to win three consecutive events this week at Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort.
Only Sir Nick Faldo in 1983 and the late Seve Ballesteros three years later have achieved the remarkable feat.
"I'm really happy," said Rumford, who faces Grace tomorrow. "Jamie got off to a bad start and I capitalised on that and was three up after four holes. I wanted to try to conserve as much energy as I could so it was nice to close it out sooner rather than later.
McDowell remains on course to go one better than his runners-up finish last year thanks to victory over Scotland's Gallacher, which set up a clash with American Bo van Pelt, whose halved matches with Richard Sterne and Geoff Ogilvy were enough to finish second in the group behind Sterne.
Sterne takes on Chris Wood in the last 16 after the Englishman beat Gallacher 2 and 1, while Molinari will face Swede Carl Pettersson and Scott Jamieson is up against Aguilar.
Jamieson was the only non-seed among the five players to win both their matches, overcoming the disadvantage of playing twice in the same day with impressive wins over Pettersson (one hole) and Thorbjørn Olesen (5 and 3).
"It's nice to win and top the group," Jamieson said. "Again I didn't play my best golf, but that's match play, you don't have to play well and you can still win. Hopefully there's a little more in the tank."