MARANA, Ariz. – So if you had Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Ernie Els and Victor Dubuisson in your Final Four of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, forget taking a bow. Take yourself to Vegas. Immediately.
Proving that there is nothing about this purest of all golf formats that can be explained, the quarterfinals were played out Saturday with a series of surprises at the Golf Club at Dove Mountain. Maybe not that Day, at No. 8 the highest seed left, defeated Louis Oosthuizen, 2 and 1, but certainly there was improbable intrigue involved in the victories by Fowler over Jim Furyk, 1 up; Els over Jordan Spieth, 4 and 2; and Dubuisson over Graeme McDowell, 1 up.
And with that, we were assured a United Nations Sunday here at Dove Mountain, with representatives from four countries (America, Australia, South Africa and France), as well as an assortment of seeds running from eighth to 27th (Dubuisson) to 31st (Els) to 53rd (Fowler).
With that as an appetizer, here are 5 Things to know from the quarterfinal round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship:
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1. A WIN, A PAINFUL LOSS: In a match that might have required motion-sickness pills for spectators, the two Americans traded momentum bursts that left each thinking he had done enough to win.
Fowler birdied three of the first four holes and was 3 up. Furyk got within a hole through seven. Fowler then went 3 up through 12. Furyk countered with wins on four consecutive holes and walked off the 16th green 1 up.
Then, a crushing sequence of shots.
“I didn’t put the ball in the fairway at 17, and I didn’t put the ball on the green at 18,” Furyk said. “I’m disappointed in myself.”
The 43-year-old veteran wasn’t taking anything away from Fowler, who came into the week as the 53rd seed. But Furyk thought he should have won. Fowler wouldn’t argue with that sentiment, but then again, he thought that he, too, had earned this one.
“I just had to kind of stay patient. I knew he was going to put up some sort of charge like that,” said Fowler, who was 4 under for 11 holes before Furyk seemingly stole the show, only to stumble as the curtain came down. At the par-4 17th, Furyk drove it into a fairway bunker and could only blast out. His third shot was one that could be considered his bread and butter, only he hit it poorly, to 41 feet, and made bogey.
At the 18th, Furyk’s approach shot, an 8-iron from 173 yards – “Honestly, it was one of my best swings of the day” – hit the front of the green but trickled back, then ran down a steep slope. Needing his pitch shot from about 60 feet to run up the bank and get in tight to put some pressure on Fowler (he was standing over a slippery, downhill putt of 28 feet), Furyk did the unexpected. He hit the shot fat, and the ball rolled back at him.
“I made a very tentative swing, and I know better,” said Furyk, bemoaning the fact that he didn’t keep the club accelerating. “It kind of bit me at the most important part of the week.”
Instead of a par to force extra holes, Furyk made bogey and lost to Fowler’s par, so it was the young American moving on. But everything about the bogey-bogey finish convinced Furyk that he had squandered a chance to win.
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2. DOVE MOUNTAIN APPEALS TO HIM: Despite Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan having been eliminated one day earlier, this wild and quirky desert golf course was not devoid of favorite sons. Jason Day was still in attendance, and after pushing aside Louis Oosthuizen, 2 and 1, the Aussie will move into the semifinals for a second straight year.
Day, who birdied the third to square the match and birdied the fourth to take a lead he would never relinquish, is now 12-3 in his four appearances at The Golf Club at Dove Mountain. It’s still a bit shy of what Mahan (18-5) and Kuchar (17-4) have done here, but the 26-year-old Day has a chance to join them as champions of this WGC.
“It’s an amazing feeling, because I was here last year and didn’t quite get it done,” said Day, who lost in the semifinals to the eventual winner, Kuchar.
With three birdies on a bogey-free front nine, Day led by two holes. Then at the par-5 11th, he took advantage of Oosthuizen’s errant tee shot and wide-right third. But he thought the 13-footer to save par at the 10th hole was crucial.
“I always talk about keeping the momentum rolling in the right direction,” said Day, who did that at 10 and maintained it at Nos. 14 and 15 with birdies that matched the South African and kept him in control.
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3. NOW, THAT HURTS: It wasn’t so much that the first drive went wide right and into the desert, or that the one at the second hole did similarly. It was the back pain that accompanied those first two tee shots of Louis Oosthuizen in his match with Jason Day.
Oosthuizen knew then and there that an old nemesis had decided to come along for the ride.
“It’s coming back all the time and it’s the same thing,” Oosthuizen said of back pain that has plagued him since before last fall’s Presidents Cup. “I’ve almost learned how to play with it. But you can’t go into the quarterfinals against a guy like Jason and think you’re going to get away with it.”
Indeed, Day was the clear winner in this quarterfinal battle. No argument there from the South African. But he sure would have liked to have been on top of his game. Unfortunately, Oosthuizen, 31, was far from it – especially on the outward nine when he fell 2 down. After driving it into a bunker right and losing the par-5 11th, Oosthuizen shook his head.
“It’s the minute I try and hit a draw (the tee shot), where I need to try and get a little down underneath, that’s where it just blocks (and hurts).”
Oosthuizen received a little help from a physical therapist at the tee box on No. 13 and concedes he started feeling better. But the reality was, on this day he wasn’t going to come from behind against Day.
“It’s a long week. I’ve played every day since Sunday,” said Oosthuizen, who when asked about the seriousness of the pain, offered this:
“I think in a way I’m almost glad that I’m not playing tomorrow because I don’t want to be the guy that withdraws from a final or a semifinal.”
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4. LOOK WHO IS STILL HERE: Ernie Els is 44, has been playing these match-play tournaments seemingly since around the time of hickory and knows there’s no way to make sense of them.
He shot about 75 Wednesday? He made just two birdies Thursday? Means nothing, not when you consider that he was just good enough to beat Stephen Gallacher in Round 1 and Justin Rose in Round 2. That he picked it up a notch and beat Jason Dufner on Friday was one thing. That he kicked it into another gear to show young Jason Spieth a thing or two? Now that was special.
“I’ve just done enough to get through,” conceded Els, though the way he played the final eight holes – six pars, two birdies – while trying to hold off one of the game’s elite young talents had him smiling. “Obviously elated. It’s been a wonderful week.”
Els got the advantage with a birdie at the par-5 second and never let go. Spieth did pull even twice, but Els birdied the par-5 eighth to seize the lead, added to it at the par-3 12th, then won the 14th to go 3 up.
At 44, Els is the oldest to make it into the semifinals of this championship, surpassing 41-year-old Davis Love III in 2006.
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5. SURPRISE TRUMPS MAGIC: As he had in each of the first three days, Graeme McDowell came to the 18th hole needing to make something happen. A par on Wednesday had squared his match against Gary Woodland, which McDowell won in overtime. A par Thursday beat Hideki Matsuyama. A birdie Friday forced extra holes and McDowell won again, over Hunter Mahan.
Ah, but Irish eyes on this day would not smile. McDowell, having missed a 6-footer at the par-3 16th to fall 1 down, could not squeeze home a sliding 23-footer for birdie, and thus was his magical ride derailed by one who had more power, the surprising ride of Victor Dubuisson.
Playing in just his fourth pro tournament in the United States, the 23-year-old Dubuisson became the first Frenchman to make the semifinals of this World Golf Championship.
“Hat’s off to Victor. Great player,” said McDowell, who unlike his previous three rounds, took the early initiative. He led by two through three holes, which was his plan. Only Dubuisson, showing off a powerful game and deft touch around the greens, won three holes to go 1 up at the turn. McDowell squared the match with a birdie at 15, but his bogey at 16 left him 1 down, and he could win neither 17 nor 18.
For Dubuisson, making his WGC debut, it was all about staying patient.
“I tried to just focus on my game,” he said, and that was the thought process at 18 when his second shot hit the front of the green and rolled back, much like Furyk’s did. Only Dubuisson played aggressively, his lofted wedge shot tossing the ball to within 2 feet. Conceded par, and now McDowell needed another miracle.
But on this day, there were no more rabbits in the hat.
Instead, there was a Frenchman in the semifinals.