There was a time when Gary Player practically owned the Cisco World Match Play Championship. These days it belongs to another South African superstar.
Ernie Els won the Match Play for the fourth time Oct. 20, defeating Sergio Garcia, 2 and 1, in the 36-hole final. Els needs one more victory in the event to match Player’s five titles, a record Player shares with Seve Ballesteros.
It’s hard to see how Els can fail to add more titles. He has a house beside the 16th fairway of the West Course and is an honorary member of the Wentworth Club.
“It’s really become home here,” Els said. “We have such a good time here. The members are so good to us, and this tournament means a lot to me.
“I always watched it a lot as a young kid, and to win it a few times now is special.”
Player won the title five times between 1965 and 1973. Els has won four titles in eight years, including three consecutive (1994-96). He won £250,000 ($390,000), and Garcia took home £120,000 ($185,000).
Els came into the tournament seeded second behind defending champion Ian Woosnam. He quickly showed he was ready to play when he humbled Colin Montgomerie, 6 and 5, in the second round.
Montgomerie threw 10 birdies at Els in the morning session of the 36-hole match, but found himself 4 down at lunch. The Scotsman didn’t figure Els would shoot 12-under 60 around the supposedly tough West Course. Els bettered the course record by three shots, although it won’t be an official record because it occurred in match play.
Els then scored a 3-and-2 victory over Vijay Singh to reach his fifth World Match Play Championship final (he lost the 1997 final to Singh).
Garcia, seeded fourth, overcame deficits of four and three holes against Padraig Harrington and Michael Campbell, respectively. Garcia defeated both players, 2 and 1, to set up his meeting with Els.
If Els is the natural successor to Player, then Garcia is the heir apparent to Ballesteros,
mimicking Ballesteros’ ability to invent
magical shots around the green. Unfortunately for Garcia, he also sometimes has Ballesteros’ tendency to find spots on golf courses that are alien even to the members. That proved his undoing in the final.
Els fired a 7-under 65 against Garcia in the morning round. He was 8 under through his first 12 holes, making six birdies and an eagle to race to a five-hole lead. Garcia chipped away and was 3 down after the morning session. He reduced the deficit to one with birdies at the first and sixth holes in the afternoon.
However, poor driving killed Garcia’s chances. He found a drainage ditch at No. 7 and drove into the trees at No. 9, losing both holes to pars.
Els was 3 up playing the 31st hole but made double bogey there to concede the hole to Garcia. He then missed a 31⁄2-foot putt at the 32nd to hand the Spaniard another hole and go to the 15th tee with a one-hole advantage.
“I knew that was a big putt,” Els said. “I tried to hit it inside left of the hole and I just pulled it. I was playing really good until that point.
“I think I used all my putts against Colin Montgomerie. Then the last two days I just hung in there. I hit the ball solid, but I think my
opponents didn’t push me.”
Winning the 14th was Garcia’s chance to put pressure on Els. But after halving the 15th, Garcia hooked his drive on No. 16 so badly into the trees that he had to try to play out
left-handed. He moved the ball just 5 feet, tried to slash out, then picked the ball up and conceded the hole when he failed to find the fairway with his third shot.
The end came soon after that.
Garcia crashed another tee shot left into the trees at No. 17 and was lucky the ball stayed in bounds. The ball ended up tight against a tree, and he had to try to hit a low running hook down the fairway. Instead, he sent it farther into the trees. Garcia could only chip out and then had to somehow hole his fourth shot to have any chance of winning. He nearly did, ending up 2 feet past the cup. He shook hands with Els when the South African hit his third shot 18 feet from the flag.
The victory came 21⁄2 weeks after El’s wife Liezl gave birth to his second child, Ben. Diaper duty had no ill effect on him – Els was never behind in any of his three matches.