MARANA, Ariz. – Lee Westwood was in uncharted territory, playing in the third round of the WGC Accenture Match Play for the first time in 12 starts. The early-exit streak was inexplicable and sorry, but these are happier times.
Westwood kept going Friday, beating Nick Watney, 3 and 2, and advancing to Saturday’s quarterfinals. So let the jokes begin.
And let Westwood tell them.
“I hadn’t seen a lot of the flags where they were today because I’m not normally here,” said Westwood, who can improve from No. 3 in the world to No. 1 again with a victory here.
Westwood will meet Martin Laird in a quarterfinal, with the winner advancing against either No. 2 Rory McIlroy or Sang-moon Bae. But first things first.
“There’s a danger if you’re looking too far ahead,” Westwood said. “I’m just happy to be looking for a different restaurant for Friday night. That’s where my sights are set.”
Westwood said he was amused when watching Match Play predictions on television Wednesday morning before he played in the first round.
“I don’t think they got many right,” he said. “So it’s virtually impossible.”
And where did the prognosticators have Westwood in their projections?
“On the BA 289 on Thursday night,” he cracked, referring to a British Airways flight.
That forecast wasn’t right, either, mainly because Westwood’s game has been strong in all areas. Long one of the game’s best ball-strikers, he’s driving long and straight and chipping better than usual.
The surprise isn’t so much that he’ll play Saturday at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, it’s that he has led on all but one of his 49 holes here this week–the lone exception coming on an opening halve in Round 1.
Improved chipping is a primary reason.
He and coach Pete Cowen worked on chipping for about four hours before the tournament and Westwood clearly has become more comfortable with the technique.
“If I had a weakness, it would be my chipping,” said Westwood, who hit a poor chip on the last hole at the Dubai Desert Classic Feb. 12 and lost by one stroke. “But I hit a lot of real nice chips today.”
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Dustin Johnson averaged 314.2 yards off the tee last year and Mark Wilson 280. Normally someone with a 34-yard edge would have an advantage in an 18-hole match.
Friday wasn’t normal.
Johnson was sick and off, and Wilson kept rolling along, beating the bomber 4 and 3 in the third round.
“People keep talking about how I hit it so short that I can’t compete,” said Wilson, winner of five PGA Tour events the past five years. “First of all, I don’t hit it very short. And secondly, it all comes down to putting, it really does. So I just don’t know how many times I have to explain it.”
As it happened, Wilson made five birdies to Johnson’s four. More important, Wilson limited his bad holes to three bogeys, compared with Johnson’s four bogeys and two Xs.
Johnson said weeklong allergy and sinus problems finally caught up with him. He felt bad on the range beforehand. Nor did he feel well when seeing where some of his wild shots went.
“I drove the ball bad and hit terrible iron shots,” he said, naming the recipe for a trip home.
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Matt Kuchar hadn’t finished better than 22nd in his first three Tour starts this year. That’s an atypical start for someone who racked up 20 top-10 finishes the past two years.
But the Smiling Assassin is at it again here at the Ritz-Carlton. He extended his record to 8-2 here with a 4-and-3 victory over world No. 4 Martin Kaymer. He made five birdies in advancing to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year.
He said maybe the course suits him but maybe it doesn’t. For certain match play sits well with the former U.S. Amateur champion.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a lot more intense (than stroke play). After matches I feel I want to lie down and take a nap.”
Kuchar’s success is set up by accurate driving. He has hit 30 of 38 fairways in three days.
“That’s what I can do,” he said. “I hit fairways and greens and wear somebody out. Plus my short game is good.”
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It has been well established that the Ritz-Carlton’s undulating and elevated greens are on the wild side. Players have to factor in slope, grain and valley effect. Two plus two sometimes doesn’t equal four.
And just when you think you might have them figured out, you don’t.
“I said yesterday that I wasn’t struggling reading the greens,” McIlroy said after defeating Miguel Angel Jimenez in Round 3. “And then all of a sudden today I couldn’t read them well.”