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A New Day

The final four players in the WGC-Accenture World Matchplay Championships today in Tucson were three parts young stars in the game and one quarter a South African 4-time Major Champion who may be entering the sunset of his brilliant career.

The South African of course, is Hall of Famer, Ernie Els.  After his victory in the 2012 British Open, the “Big Easy” has not been able to sustain the form that gave him his fourth Major title at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s 18 months ago.  Els was lucky to survive his first two matches in the Matchplay having been over par in each but played superbly in his quarter final match with Jordan Spieth (who seems to be in contention each and every week) to advance to golf’s version of “the Final Four”. 

The young guns were led by 26 year old Australian, Jason Day who had been at his brilliant best for his first four matches.  Day had made a field leading 17 birdies in his first three matches before beating Louis Oosthuizen, in an artfully played quarter-final match, in which Day prevailed 2 and 1. It is astonishing that Day has only won one title in his PGA Tour career.  His semi-final match-up with Rickie Fowler (another player who has only won once on the PGA Tour), would be undoubtedly the best ‘mano-a mano’ duels, that the PGA Tour could offer. 

Fowler had what a lot of players would consider a good year in 2013, when he recorded 10 top 25 finishes in 22 starts, but he didn’t make the President’s Cup team for the US or record a victory.  Enter Butch Harmon.  Fowler’s ‘old’ swing was somewhat of an assimilation of a great many moving parts happening at (most times) the right time.  He had been without a coach since Barry McConnell passed away in May of 2011.  Fowler has now been working with Harmon for three months and the results are already bearing fruit.  He has stabilized his lower body movement and rotation (especially his right foot at impact) significantly, which has increased his ball striking and consistency tremendously.

American golf fans have probably not heard of this young man very much; yet, but big things are in store for 23 year old Frenchman Victor Dubuisson.  Dubuisson’s ascension to the top ranks of golf has been meteoric.  He won the 2013 Turkish Open where he bested World #1, Tiger Woods, amongst others for his maiden victory on the European Tour. The long hitting Dubuisson has recorded 4 top-5 finishes in his last seven events on the European Tour and is almost assured of being a member of the Euro’s 2014 Ryder Cup team.  Dubuisson has some ethereal athletic genes as his uncle, Hervé Dubuisson, is considered France’s greatest basketball player, but it may be that the shy Victor reaches even greater heights.

In the first of Sunday’s semi-final matches Day got off to a fast start by birdieing three of his first eight holes to take a 3-up lead.  Fowler rallied with birdies of his own on the 12th and 13th holes to be only one down before Day took control again with a birdie on the drivable par-4, 16th.  After hitting a brilliant tee shot to within 5 feet of the par-3 17th hole, Fowler once again had an opening but carelessly three putted to give the Australian a 3 and 2 victory.

The beginning of the second semi-final between Els and Dubuisson started much in the same way with Els taking a commanding 3 up lead after 7 holes.  Dubuisson rallied with a brilliant stretch of holes by winning four the next five holes to be one up after the 12th.  Both players birdied the par-5 13th before Els drew even once again with a birdie on the 14th. Dubuisson immediately answered with a birdie on the 15th but in a classic see-saw battle, Els followed with a birdie on the 16th to leave the match tied once more.  After both players parred the 17th, Els was unable to get up and down from the greenside bunker on the last hole giving Dubuisson a hard won, one up win.

Sunday afternoon’s final was exactly what one would have expected from the two players who had played the best for the previous 5 days.  Day got off to another quick start winning the first two holes before Dubuisson won the next two to be all square after the 4th. Day surged in the middle of the round and was 3 up through 12 holes before the resilient Dubuisson birdied the 13th to close the deficit to two down.  Day would make clutch putts over the next three holes to retain his lead before Dubuisson made a birdie on the 17th and an amazing par save on the 18 to take the thrilling contest to extra holes.   

And that was when the fun really started.  Dubuisson hit his approach shot on the first extra hole over the green and right into what was basically an unplayable lie in a cactus bush.  Day was safely on in regulation and seemed assured of the win until the magical Antibean made unplayable look routine and blasted out to four feet to make his par.

On the 2nd playoff hole, Dubuisson hit and even worse approach shot into an even bigger cactus bush left of the green.  To add to the complete impossibility of this shot there was also a rock behind the ball.  Naturally he did the impossible again and blasted out to within five feet of the hole while a stunned and smiling Day could only shake his head in admiration.  Houdini had nothing on this kid.  Day, two putted for his par while Dubuisson made his miracle on cactus par.

The problem with Matchplay and therefore this event is that it has the potential to produce riveting theater like this, yet it rarely does. This match may be recorded as the greatest in history.

Both players made bogies on their third playoff hole and pars on the ensuing fourth.  Both players missed to the right hand side of the green with their drives on the reachable par 4, 15th. Dubuisson’s chip shot went 25 feet over the flag while Day played his approach to 3 feet.  After Dubuisson missed, Day made his putt for birdie to record his second victory on Tour.  It was, undoubtedly, a Day for the ages.