Surprising starts: Bubba's comeback; Fowler, Blixt upsets
MARANA, Ariz. – And for your morning breakfast, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship served up a trio of surprises.
Rickie Fowler beating Ian Poulter and Jonas Blixt eliminating Keegan Bradley? No argument there. But Bubba Watson ousting Mikko Ilonen? A surprise? If you go by stature in the game, resumes and seedings – Watson was 11th, Ilonen 54th – it surely wasn’t, but the way things turned in the American’s favor certainly was.
Watson conceded as much when he said, “he kind of gave me a couple of opportunities.”
The par-4 14th was the biggest gift. But you could back it up to the 13th because the unheralded man from Finland missed a golden chance to keep Watson on his heels. Having won the ninth and 10th holes to go 2 up, Ilonen stood over a 7-footer for birdie at the par-5 13th, knowing if he made it, Watson’s 5-footer would feel exponentially longer.
Ilonen blew it wide, Watson made. Watson, 1 down.
PHOTOS: WGC Match Play 2014
Check out photos from the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz.
On the next hole, Ilonen and Watson drove it well and had similar shots into the green – 142 for the Finn, 139 for the American – only far different results. Ilonen hit his approach long and left and watched his ball bury in thick rough.
“He’s a PGA player, so obviously he can get it up-and-down,” Watson said. “So I expected to have to make my (17-foot birdie) putt.”
Instead, Watson was able to pick up his coin, because inexplicably, Ilonen bladed his wedge across the green, hit a fat pitch and conceded the hole.
At the shortish 15th, Watson drove it to the edge of the green 331 yards away and converted a two-putt birdie from 52 feet. Ilonen went a bit long with his soft wedge and missed his 10-footer for birdie.
Just like that, Watson had gone from 2 down to in command. When he closed it out at the 17th, Watson said he was relieved. For good reason, too. Out in the third match, Watson was able to keep tabs on the opening game, one in which his good friend, Fowler, got 3 up through seven holes and held on to win.
After closing out Poulter – a former champion here and owner of a 22-11 Accenture record coming in – Fowler hung around the 17th green to offer congratulations to Watson.
Given Poulter’s renowned talent for match play in this championship and in the Ryder Cup, he had to be considered the heavy favorite.
Fowler conceded as much.
“If I was picking a bracket and I was an outsider looking in, I probably would have picked Poulter,” Fowler said.
But had anyone known that Poulter’s ballstriking would be so shabby and his putting so suspect – he bogeyed the sixth, seventh and 10th to go 3 down – it would have been easy to pick against him. Especially with Fowler rising to the occasion at the 13th (35-foot eagle) and 15th holes (a deft up-and-down to save par from right of the green).
It was a result that Watson monitored and was glad to see.
“I’m pulling for him. He’s a young kid,” Watson said. “He’s a great talent. Everyone loves him. He’s not started off the way he’s wanted to this year, but that’s a big win for him today and hopefully he can keep improving on that.
“Until he plays me.”
No fear of that, unless Watson and Fowler win their brackets, because they cannot meet until the semifinals. Until then, they have enough to keep them busy.
Fowler will take on one of the world’s hottest players, Jimmy Walker, who steamrolled Branden Grace, 5 and 4, while Watson must deal with the dogged Jonas Blixt.
All the 29-year-old Swede did in his Accenture debut was win four of five holes starting at the 11th to blitz a roller-coaster named Bradley.
“This thing could have gone either way,” said Blixt, who felt he had played well enough early to be 3 or 4 up. Instead, he was 1 down. Yes, it was a crazy match, but it turned to the Swede’s favor when he birdied the 11th to square the match.
Bradley then missed the green left at the par-3 12th and par-5 13th to put himself in precarious spots. He made bogey each time, fell 2 down, and then Blixt won another hole when he slipped home a 4-footer for birdie at 15.
Now dormie, Blixt saw that Bradley had a 48-footer for birdie at 16, while the Swede’s putt was from 10 feet. Game over?
“When I came up there, I really wanted him to make that putt,” Blixt said.
“My best friend in college, we’d always play match play and we’d always want to win with a birdie, not two putts,” Blixt said.
Be careful what you wish for, young man, because sure enough, Bradley, the 22nd seed, buried the long snake of a putt, Blixt missed, and suddenly . . . “it was a little more interesting than I would have wanted,” said the 43rd seed.
It became even more tense when Blixt missed the fairway left at the par-4 17th and had a 197-yard shot out of rough, while Bradley had 151 yards from the middle of the fairway.
“It was one of my better shots of the day,” said Blixt, who hit 6-iron to 40 feet, then two-putted to leave the stage to Bradley.
In a morning filled with surprises, there was one more – Bradley missed, dropped his putter and held both hands to his head.
“I didn’t see that coming,” Blixt conceded.
He should have. After all in match play, the golden rule is to expect the unexpected.