18th hole provides captivating theater at Match Play
MARANA, Ariz. – Had your vantage point been greenside at the 18th hole the first two days of the Accenture Match Play Championship, you would have had a lot of down time.
Fewer than half of the matches (20 of 48) reached the final hole, and drama was at a minimum.
But in Friday’s third round, which featured eight matches, it was the place to be at The Golf Club at Dove Mountain. Each of the first four games reached 18, and Ernie Els closed out that afternoon’s action with an electrifying second shot to beat Jason Dufner at that 466-yard finale.
As a stage, the 18th hole wouldn't leave purists salivating here, because it’s a 200-yard carry over desert junk just to find the fairway, then you have two bunkers to negotiate. The one on the right is situated roughly 260 yards off the tee, and it’s about a 290-yard carry. The second one is a pot bunker that sits in the middle of the fairway some 300 yards away, and it’s one you want to avoid because of the steep lip.
Stacked against the closing holes on the PGA Tour during each of the past two weeks – Pebble Beach and Riviera – Dove Mountain’s 18th is no match, but hey, not every concert can be in Carnegie Hall, right. Sometimes you make do with what you’ve got, and extenuating circumstances can carry you through.
Those circumstances being the delectable format this week – match play – pressure situations, and some of the world’s best players. Mix 'em all together and you had wonderful theater on a sun-splashed corner of this vast desert property.
And the actors did not disappoint, starting with the first match of the day when Jim Furyk, having chipped in for birdie at the par-3 16th, tried to protect his 1-up lead over Harris English.
As one would expect, Furyk played the hole conservatively, a safe drive into the fat of the fairway that left him a 195-yard approach. But English? With plenty of firepower, he declined the temptation to take his drive down the right side, over cacti and bushes and that big sprawling bunker.
“I could have, but I’ve hit the same club every day (at 18),” English said. “It’s just a tough tee shot. You can be aggressive, but you can also bring a lot more into play.”
Also staying to the fat side of the fairway, English left himself about the same distance as Furyk, though both of them faced the same challenge. The hole location was on the back tier of a green that is perhaps 45-50 yards in length, and it was cut just over a deep bunker.
“The pin today was very accessible and very birdie-able,” said Graeme McDowell, though Els considered it even more so with a shorter iron.
But one man’s desire – to blow it over the bunker down the right – is another man’s dream, which is why McDowell doesn’t take on the hole in a fashion that suits Els.
“It’s a big one (to carry the bunker down the right),” McDowell said. “It’s only for the big boys. It’s not really a shot I see. I always see something up to the left. I wish I could hit it over to the right side, but it’s not happening any time soon.”
But Els? The 290-carry “that's just in my wheelhouse,” said the Big Easy, who even at 44 can still move it pretty well.
He did, too, with his massive blast perhaps a byproduct of the way things had gone at the 17th. There, Els had made bogey to make his lead disappear and bring the match to 18 all square. After Dufner played safely to the left center of the fairway, where he would have 183 in, Els crushed a drive that carried the bunker down the right, hit a slope and came to rest 314 yards from the tee. His remaining 143 yards to the flagstick had him licking his chops.
“I felt where the flag was, you needed to be aggressive again, to spin it off the bank (behind the hole location),” said Els, who did just that with his 52-degree wedge. When his ball came to rest just 2 1/2 feet from the hole, he had his third birdie of the round and a 1-up win over Dufner.
The American simply wasn’t in the same sort of position to match Els.
“Jason’s ball was inches away from coming down (the slope),” Els said, “but (because) he came in with a longer club, he couldn’t spin it. It worked out for me.”
The hole worked out for Furyk, too, because his two-putt for par from 40 feet was enough to preserve his win over English. No regrets for playing it conservatively, said English, whose approach landed firmly and kicked wide right and long of the hole, and his 43-foot try for birdie never had a chance.
The hole also worked for McDowell, though he conceded he doesn’t have the firepower to play it aggressively. But from 183 the Northern Irishman stuck his approach to 6 feet, slipped in the birdie and turned a 1-down match into yet another overtime thriller, this time against Hunter Mahan.
“I think 18 is a good hole,” said McDowell, whose pleasure for the hole is easily understood. He won it Wednesday to tie things against Gary Woodland, then he prevailed on the 19th hole. He won it again Thursday to beat Hideki Matsuyama. And his birdie forced Mahan into an extra session that McDowell won at the 21st hole.
Recalling a match against Alex Noren in last year’s second round, McDowell said he needed to birdie with that back-left hole location, so he knew what to do against Mahan.
“I had a little bit of a preview of that flag, shall we say,” McDowell said.
The other two matches to get to 18 featured two different routes, but two sets of drama. In his win over Bubba Watson, surprising Frenchman Victor Dubuisson played his drive to the fat part of the fairway and hit a 197-yard approach to 40 feet, about where English was. But with a 1-up lead, Dubuisson was plainly putting the pressure on Watson, and the American couldn’t respond. Having played a conservative tee shot, Watson hit a 188-yard approach wide left of the green, not the sort of birdie chance he needed.
Rickie Fowler took a page out of Els’ book, however, and challenged the bunker down the right. All square in his match with Garcia, Fowler showed some gumption, went down the right side, and was richly rewarded: a 355-yard drive left him just 94 yards, and he wound up making a 4-foot birdie putt to win.
“I just feel comfortable with that (drive),” said Els, but English was not echoing that sentiment.
“It’s just a tough hole,” said the young American, shaking his head. “I tried to make birdie; it just didn’t happen.”