2006: From out of nowhere

By Rex Hoggard

Carlsbad, Calif.

Wonder if Gary Player was sitting at home late last Sunday rethinking his decision to pick Trevor Immelman over Geoff Ogilvy for last year’s Presidents Cup?

But then, in the Black Knight’s defense, Ogilvy often is overlooked. Even at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the affable Aussie played second fiddle, all the while sitting in the lead chair.

After Ogilvy won three improbable matches, no small feat in golf’s most capricious format, a local newspaper ran a picture of Joe Ogilvie – who is equally affable but was playing a few hundred miles to the east in Tucson – where Ogilvy’s mug should have been.

Of the eclectic final four at La Costa – Ogilvy, Davis Love III, Tom Lehman and Zach Johnson – Ogilvy was a 130-to-1 Las Vegas long shot who’d used 10 of his nine lives.

He was the cellophane man. Or, at least he was until he tore through the Match Play field like Phil Mickelson digs into an In-N-Out burger.

Over four Chamber of Commerce days in Southern California, Ogilvy “stole” four matches, played more golf (129 holes) than your average 18-handicapper does in a year, and stunned not one, not two, not three, but four former major champions.

In Round 1, he beat Michael Campbell (U.S. Open), followed by Mike Weir (Masters) in Round 3, Tom Lehman (British Open) in the semifinals and Davis Love III (PGA Championship) in the final. For those keeping score, that’s the Match Play Slam.

Best of all, he did it on the brink of no tomorrow.

From his 19-hole opening-round scare against Campbell to his 4-down-with-four-to-play Houdini act against Weir, Ogilvy kept pulling wallabies out of his hat.

“Each one of those extra-hole matches, I felt pretty fortunate to get through,” said Ogilvy, 28, who didn’t need extra frames to take out Love, 3 and 2, in the 36-hole final Feb. 26. “Something was on my side this week, keeping their putts out of the hole and making mine go in the hole.”

All told, four of Ogilvy’s matches went to OT, but that doesn’t mean he likes spending extra time on the course. Numerous times during Sunday’s final, Ogilvy and Love had to wait on Johnson and Lehman – playing in the event’s consolation match in the group ahead. The wait became so prolonged, Love asked Tour rules official Mark Russell if they could play through.

“I’ve never been one of four people on a golf course and waiting,” Ogilvy said.

Of course, the week’s biggest scare for Ogilvy came in his second-round match vs. fellow Australian Nick O’Hern. With hat in hand, Ogilvy watched in stunned silence as O’Hern missed a 6-footer to win on the 20th hole.

“Nick doesn’t miss putts like that,” said Ogilvy, who ended the match at the next hole with a birdie. “If he’s not the best putter in the world, he’s probably very close. I thought I was done there.”

But the man Player bypassed last August had luck, a hot putter and history on his side. He was, after all, heavy hearted when he arrived at La Costa to play his first Match Play. He was supposed to be in Tucson, defending his first PGA Tour title he won the same week last year.

As luck would have it, the Match Play will shift to Tucson next year, leaving behind the perpetually soggy fairways of La Costa for the South Course at Gallery Golf Club and giving Ogilvy the unique chance to pull a double defense of sorts.

“That probably never happened before,” he said.

For those who know Ogilvy, the Match Play victory wasn’t so much a stunner as it was just another step in a long process.

“He’s been building every single week. He’s been getting better with each tournament and just felt good about his game when he got here,” said Jens Beck, Ogilvy’s agent with Pro.Sport Management. “Ever since Tucson, his game has steadily improved.”

The rest of us, however, still are learning about the opinionated Australian. Learning, for example, that he’s an arm-chair guitarist. “I play, but I’m still atrocious,” he said. That he has an affinity for cars: “I’m an Australian on the PGA Tour, of course I collect cars. It’s a rule. You sign a form when you get your (Tour) card.”

Love may have learned the most about his tenacious opponent in the 36-hole finale. Love – a two-time finalist at the Match Play but still searching for his first WGC bottle cap – was 1 up in the morning round before losing back-to-back holes. He went to lunch trailing 1 down.

By the turn in the afternoon round, Love was still unable to square the match. Ogilvy turned up the pressure with a 4-iron second shot to 6 feet at No. 11 for a conceded eagle to take a 2-up lead.

After four days of solid work on La Costa’s bumpy greens, Love’s putter was the first to go. You can tell when the flat stick goes bad, because the confidence is usually trailing close behind into the exit lane.

“I’m feeling excited about the way my game is going. I’m feeling stronger, hitting it better, and my golf swing is right on track,” said Love, who switched to a new Scotty Cameron putter right before the Match Play and – after a rigorous offseason workout regimen – is in the best shape of his career. “I’m doing the things that I have to do to play better, and I’m excited about the year.”

For all of Love’s heartache, at least he wasn’t Stephen Ames.

One day you curiously question the top-ranked player’s ability to hit fairways, the next day you’re 9-and-8 road kill.

On the eve of his first-round match with Tiger Woods, Ames told The Associated Press that anything can happen, “especially where he’s hitting the ball.” Woods responded convincingly.

Ames ignored the cardinal rule of professional sports – he poked the bear.

Without more bulletin board fodder, Woods – who was 7 under for 10 holes against Ames – once again fell victim to every TV executive’s anxiety attack. After a near miss in the second round vs. Robert Allenby (a 1-up victory), Woods was taken out by Chad Campbell in Round 3.

In all, the third round robbed the marquee of nearly every piece of neon. Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and David Toms all lost on Black Friday. Ernie Els, who in six Match Plays has made it past the second round only once, didn’t even make it that far.

Remaining for Sunday were a pair of fortysomethings (Love and Lehman) bent on turning back the clock through fitness, and two Match Play greenhorns (Johnson and Ogilvy).

Love and Johnson figured to use the forum to impress U.S. Ryder Cup captain Lehman. Lehman seemed intent on showing himself he’s good enough to make the team come September.

And Ogilvy proved something to everyone else – especially Capt. Player.

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