MARANA, Ariz. – We interrupt the sometimes robotic and often mundane routine of stroke-play golf to return you to the format that sits at the core of the game: Match play.
Now the mere mention of that format usually ignites intense discussion. There are those who find it too fickle and can’t stand the thought of a class player shooting 67 and going home. Many find it a change of pace and such a different mental challenge.
But if there is one thing that seemingly everyone will agree with, it is this: No tournament starts with a bigger bang than this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, because 32 of the 64 players will be packing their bags Wednesday afternoon. That adds greater significance to every one of the 32 Round 1 matches – there is no “jockeying for position” like in stroke play – and what adds further flavor is how each can be dissected to compare personalities, style of play and histories.
For example, look no further than the match that will be third off Wednesday: Ian Poulter vs. Stephen Gallacher.
Now if you’re scratching your head and asking yourself, “Who is Stephen Gallacher?” then you have stumbled upon the joy of this matchup. Let’s just say that if you can see the golf spectrum from where you sit, look at one end and if you can see Poulter, then look at the other end and, well, there’s Gallacher.
Europeans, the both of them. Golfers, the both of them.
And there ends the list of similarities.
Consider, for example, the symbol of material wealth: the Ferrari. Poulter is said to have four of them stashed in his garage back at his Florida home. As for Gallacher, he smiles. “I’ve got one as well,” he said. The smile widens. “But it’s about that size.”
Holding his index fingers about 5 inches apart, the Scotsman lets out a joyful laugh, partly a product of the joke, but mostly because he’s frankly thrilled to be here. Gallacher’s only other World Golf Championship experience came in 2005 with a trip to the Bridgestone Invitational, so he’s in position this week at Dove Mountain to realize what so many other world-class players have understood for years.
“If you get into (the WGCs) and do well, you go right up (the world rankings),” Gallacher said. And that, in turn, pays massive dividends. “There’s a good chance at setting up your season, too, if you can do well in these.”
Poulter, of course, not only has known this for years but has taken advantage. The Englishman will be playing in his 33rd World Golf Championship, and his resume includes a victory here at Dove Mountain in 2010 and a win last fall in the HSBC Champions in China. Toss in four other top 10s in the Accenture and one in the Cadillac Championship and you have a guy who has helped cement his spot high up in the world rankings, thanks to these WGCs.
At 38, a year older than Poulter, Gallacher can’t come close to matching that record, but he knows enough about his fellow European to suggest he might have something in his favor come Wednesday. “He’s not a bad match player,” Gallacher said. “But thankfully, I’m not an American. He seems to save his best for those guys.”
Another bit of evidence that Gallacher is keen-witted and playful, because Poulter, in fact, has cemented much of his reputation on his ability to crush American spirits at the Ryder Cup. But while Poulter did win here three years ago – his fifth trip to at least the third round in seven years – Gallacher perhaps is well aware of the fact that the Englishman was ousted in Round 1 by Stewart Cink in 2011 and by Sang-moon Bae a year ago, so nothing is taken for granted.
“Every match,” Gallacher said, “is a tough one. He’s a great player, a great match player, so I’m going to have to be on my game.”
He certainly was the last time he teed it up, two weeks ago at the Dubai Desert Classic. Opening with a 63 and adding a third-round 62, Gallacher stormed to just his second European Tour victory, the other having come eight seasons ago. Given his genuine good nature and the fact that Gallacher has toiled with mixed results but a quiet professionalism since 1996, it was a hugely popular win with his fellow competitors. The nephew of former Ryder Cup captain Bernard Gallacher had a heralded junior career, and while the pro game has not always been kind to him, his dedication to his craft and his commitment to the European Tour are to be admired.
Even now as he practices among the game’s elite – Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia – Gallacher is on firm footing. No starry dreams of massive homes in Europe and Florida, like Poulter and others, or jet-setting between the European and U.S. tours.
“Not with a young family,” said Gallacher, who seems proud to have been home in the Scottish Highlands with his wife and two boys the last two weeks. “I’d love to play the majors and the WGC events and then just play the rest in Europe. When you’re in the top 50, that’s the sort of thing you want to do.”
On his tour of the Ritz-Carlton Course here at Dove Mountain, Gallacher went around with fellow Scot Paul Lawrie, the 1999 Open Championship winner. “He’s a good role model for me; he’s a good friend,” Gallacher said. “I see what you can do by not playing the American tour. He showed that you can win early, play well in the WGCs and majors. It’s doable, if you follow his plan, but you need to do very well.
“I think you’ve got to set your tour and see where you want to play and stick with that. I’m happy in Europe.”
In that respect, it’s an intriguing match going off third Wednesday morning. Poulter might be a fellow European, “but he’s Americanized,” Gallacher said with a shrug, and there’s the reality that they don’t have much in common. Though they were born just a country and 14 months apart, Poulter and Gallacher are of far different styles. “I don’t know him well,” Gallacher said. “But I know him.”
The Englishman is very much about glitz and glamour; Gallacher is not.
The Englishman has earned millions, thanks to an all-world putting ability. The book on Gallacher is simple: great ball-striker, suspect putter.
What isn’t questionable when it comes to Gallacher is his devotion to his career. Having won twice in singles (over Tim Jackson and Trip Kuehne) to help Great Britain & Ireland stun the Tiger Woods-led Americans in the 1995 Walker Cup, Gallacher turned pro and embarked upon a roller-coaster odyssey. Four times he has had to go back to the European Q-School, most recently at the end of a 2009 season when he battled a bizarre immune disease.
It could have sent him one way, but instead, Gallacher has rebounded beautifully. He calls 2010 “one of my best seasons,” and since then it’s been a steady ride. He finished 35th on the Order of Merit – oops, make that the Race to Dubai – a year ago and presently sits sixth, thanks in large part to that win in the desert.
And just what does that mean for his fortunes this week, going from desert to desert? Gallacher smiled, because nothing about the course in Dubai is similar to this course at Dove Mountain. There, when you’re off the fairway “the sand is manicured,” he said. But here? “There are tumbleweeds and cactus; it’s as raw as it gets.”
Putting is also at a premium here at Dove Mountain, where humps and bumps and hills and valleys highlight every green and wayward putts can drift 5 or 6 or 10 feet from the hole.
But, still, it’s a World Golf Championship, just his second, and being in his 18th pro season, Gallacher isn’t about to dismiss the thrill or deny the importance. If he were to play well this week, he could improve his world ranking – presently 56th – and perhaps solidify his spot into the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in two weeks. Being top 50 and earning a Masters spot is also a very real possibility, and “that would be a brilliant goal; I’ve watched it since I was 4.”
So there is much on the line, so much up in the air schedule-wise.
“It’s exciting,” Gallacher said.