2005: Toms’ Cruise

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By Rex Hoggard

Carlsbad, Calif.

La Costa Avenue was closed for most of the week, washed out by a mud slide. And the resort’s ninth hole, a beefy par 4 that climbs the hill toward the Spanish-style clubhouse, had 280 yards lopped off and played as a peculiar par 3 for most of the tournament.

The second-rainiest winter on record in the San Diego area probably wasn’t what the Chamber of Commerce had signed on for, but a David Toms-Chris DiMarco finale at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship likely didn’t ring the bell among ABC television executives, either. All of which proves a seven-figure payday and 63 of the top 64 players in the world can jazz up a marquee, but all the star power in Southern California can’t make magic with mud and a match-play mixer.

At pro golf’s version of March Madness, Toms vs. DiMarco wasn’t exactly Weber State vs. Princeton. Yet what the 36-hole final lacked in Q-rating Feb. 27, Toms more than made up for with what some, including ABC commentator Paul Azinger, ranked among the game’s best performances.

For the week, the Tour’s most understated multimillionaire made only four bogeys in 116 holes and was 19 under over his final three matches. The most impressive stretch of Toms’ championship climb was a machine-like 10 3s in his first 18 holes of the final.

“We were all square (through nine holes). All square is fine. And then he just went on a birdie barrage (five birdies in the next six holes to take a 6-up lead through 18 holes),” said DiMarco, who was 2 under through 31 holes vs. Toms yet suffered the most lopsided loss, 6 and 5, in a Match Play final. “That’s the worst beating I’ve taken.”

He wasn’t alone.

After a first-round scare against Australian Richard Green, the Toms buzzsaw started with victories over two of the most explosive players in golf – Phil Mickelson, 4 and 2, and Adam Scott, 2 and 1.

But it wasn’t until the semifinals that Toms, who won $1.3 million to become the sixth player in Tour history to earn more than $20 million, started to light up La Costa.

After falling 1 down early to colorful Englishman Ian Poulter, Toms played Nos. 9-11 in 5 under to take a 3-up lead.

“I was doing OK until he went mad, he just had a spell in the middle which was difficult for me,” said Poulter, who lost to Retief Goosen in the tournament’s consolation match in 20 holes. “When someone is holing second shots and making threes on par 5s, then it is hard work.”

Toms’ performance didn’t look much like work – hard or otherwise.

PGA Tour events are normally marathons. The Match Play, however, is a collection of six sprints, a half-dozen individual duels that bear little resemblance to each other.

That Toms, a plodder who values fairways and greens over fireworks and flash, won so handily may be an indication unassuming players is ready to take his place among the Tour’s heavyweights.

For the first time in six seasons, Toms finished outside the top 20 on the money list in 2004, more a byproduct of a lingering wrist injury and ensuing surgery than any cracks in his confidence or swing. He entered this year with signature simple goals – top 10 on the money list and a spot on the Presidents Cup team.

“I feel like, if I’m playing well, I can be a top-10 player,” said Toms, who joins Tiger Woods as the only players to reach the Match Play finals at least twice. “As far as a top-10 player, I feel like I have limitations.”

His only limitations at La Costa were a shortage of dry socks and an explanation for his record-setting performance. Not all of the game’s stars were as fortunate.

The first round followed the seeding script, with just two of the 32 matches going to the lower-seeded player. That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of match play folly.

A bomber (John Daly) easily dusted a bunter (Justin Leonard), and in a match that looked a lot like the Royal Portrush Club Championship, inexperienced zeal (Graeme McDowell) did a number on veteran savvy (Darren Clarke).

Long ruled at liquid La Costa but to slop your way past the first round, you needed to be Balco Laboratories long.

Daly downed Leonard for his first Match Play victory, 1 up, and Woods, the two-time defending champion, easily dispatched Nick Price.

But in Round 2, the capricious nature of match play torpedoed any visions of a Woods-Singh-Mickelson finals combo.

For the second time in six Match Play starts, Woods was taken down by an Aussie with an Irish surname. In 2002, Peter O’Malley stunned Woods in the first round. This time it was Nick O’Hern, a left-hander with a long putter and fewer non-major PGA Tour starts (five) than Woods has major victories (seven), playing the role of Tiger slayer.

Woods’ 3-and-1, second-round loss was only half of the Friday carnage. Jay Haas stunned top-ranked Vijay Singh, 3 and 2, leaving Goosen as the event’s only remaining top-seeded player.

Goosen rolled through the first four rounds and drew DiMarco in the semifinals – a Goose and a grinder. After falling 3 down early, DiMarco won four of the next seven holes with a powerful cut from the tee and a putting clinic on La Costa’s spongy greens.

“This was the first time I was down in a match all week,” DiMarco said. “You have to start believing in yourself and get your confidence back . . . kick yourself in the butt a little bit.”

All the self-motivation in California couldn’t have saved DiMarco in Sunday’s final. The leaderboard looked a lot like a Sugar Bowl scoreboard early with Toms, an LSU alum, 7 up on DiMarco, a University of Florida product, after 17 holes.

“I was hoping it was only an 18-hole match,” said DiMarco with rope-a-dope glaze in eyes. “When I was 9 down going to the ninth (27th) hole, if he wins it’s over, 10 and 9. Which would have been great, we were right there (at the clubhouse).”

For network execs and Chamber of Commerce types, great would have been less rain and better ratings. For Toms, however, there was no questioning a great performance.

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