Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 23, 2014

The Kids, Even That One We Didn’t Know, Are Alright

Sports fans had plenty to choose from this weekend. The Vladimir Putin Games came to a close in Sochi, even as NASCAR’s new season got underway at Daytona International Speedway. The NBA got fully back into business after its All-Star break; with the Brooklyn Nets making news by signing center Jason Collins to a ten-day contract, making the 35-year old the league’s first openly gay player. But the greatest drama took place in the high desert outside Tucson, Arizona, where the PGA Tour made its annual foray into match play.

The WGC Accenture Match Play Championship pits sixty-four of the top players in the world based on the official rankings in six rounds of win-or-go-home, one-on-one competition. It’s a format that sponsors and television networks hate, because there is no telling who will still be playing by the time the weekend coverage starts. But match play has a special appeal to devoted golf fans, because many of them regularly play the format in their weekend foursomes and weekday club leagues. This year, the tournament gave fans both its most dramatic finish ever and a stark reminder that as a new generation comes into its own, the PGA Tour is in good hands.

By sheer luck of the brackets and the results through the first three rounds, each of Saturday’s four quarterfinal matches offered the several thousand on hand at the Jack Nicklaus designed Golf Club at Dove Mountain and the many more watching on The Golf Channel and CBS a battle between proven greatness and great potential. Four winners of major championships faced off against four players in their twenties.

Louis Oosthuizen, the runaway winner of the 2010 Open Championship at the Old Course, faced 26-year old Australian Jason Day. Veteran Jim Furyk, who won the 2003 U.S. Open and has been in the mix on Sunday at several other majors, played 25-year old Rickie Fowler. Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell teed off against 23-year old Victor Dubuisson of France. In 2010 McDowell won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June and scored the winning point for Team Europe at that fall’s Ryder Cup. Finally 44-year old Ernie Els, winner of four majors and more than sixty professional tournaments worldwide, took on 20-year old American Jordan Spieth.

If any of the young players were awed by their opponent’s resume, they didn’t show it. By day’s end three of the four major champions had been sent packing, with only South African Els, the oldest player in the round, advancing to play in the semifinals on Sunday morning.

There he faced Dubuisson, who later confessed to being star struck on the first tee. Dubuisson was just a 4-year old toddler in Cannes when Els claimed his first major title, the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont. He grew up idolizing the Big Easy and later on, as was the case for so many of today’s young professionals, Tiger Woods. Perhaps not sure that he belonged on the same course as one of his heroes, Dubuisson started poorly and quickly went 3-down. But he made three birdies in four holes around the turn, and when he won the 12th hole with a par the young pride of the French Golf Federation took his first lead of the match. It was back and forth from there, until a par putt by Els slid by the hole on the 18th green, sending Dubuisson to the finals with a 1-up victory.

It was Day versus Fowler in the other semifinal, where the Australian won the first hole and never looked back. He was 3-up by the turn, and while Fowler did his best to make a match of it on the back nine, a pair of costly bogeys at the 15th and 16th ended his chances. So the Sunday afternoon final of Day versus Dubuisson was set.

It was a match that most American fans no doubt assumed would go Day’s way. He plays fulltime on the PGA Tour and won the HP Byron Nelson Championship in 2010. Last year Day was third at The Masters, tied for second at the U.S. Open, and added a top-10 finish at the PGA Championship. But whatever Dubuisson lacks in name recognition he more than makes up for with talent. The former #1 amateur in the world, he claimed his first European Tour victory at last November’s Turkish Open, besting a field that included Woods, world #2 Henrik Stenson, and reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose. By the end of a long afternoon of dramatic twists and turns, Jason Day had the victory, but Victor Dubuisson had a lot of new fans.

As he had not just against Els but in almost all of his matches Dubuisson started slowly, and was 2-down after two holes. But he birdied 3rd and won the 4th with a five foot par putt to pull even. But no sooner than he rallied than a run of bad play by Dubuisson seemed to put Day in control of the match. Consecutive bogeys at the 6th and 7th allowed the Australian to go 2-up, and when Dubuisson hit his approach at the 9th into an unplayable lie in the desert Day’s lead was 3 holes with just nine to play.

Day’s determination was apparent at the par-5 11th hole, where he drove into a bunker and was forced to chip out, leaving almost 230 yard to the green. Dubuisson had already reached the back of the green in two. Refusing to concede Day launched an iron that carried onto the huge green and perfectly caught a slope down toward the hole. The ball brushed by the cup, nearly falling in for an improbable eagle. Instead Day was able to easily match Dubuisson’s birdie to maintain his lead.

The lead shrunk to 2-up with a Dubuisson birdie at the 15th, but when both made par at the short 16th hole the Frenchman was dormie. But rather than the match being about to end, the fun was just getting started. On the 17th Dubuisson faced a 13 foot putt for birdie to win the hole and stay alive. It fell in the left side of the cup. At the 18th he hit a lovely splash out of a greenside bunker to save par, and when Day’s 9 foot putt to win stopped a roll short of the hole, the match was even and headed to extra holes.

There were five of those in all, and on both of the first two Dubuisson put his approach into the desert. Faced with what at an earlier stage would have been unplayable lies, he twice hacked through the scrub and the cacti with a pair of equally unlikely results. Both times the ball somehow found its way to the green, stopping within a few feet of the cup. Finally on the fifth extra hole, the 23rd of the match, Dubuisson’s magic ran out. A high pitch from deep rough ran twenty feet or more past the hole, and his putt coming back tailed off at the end. When Day’s short putt found the bottom of the cup he had won his first hole since the front nine; and with it the championship.

After being in the hunt at majors but always coming up short at the end, the win at an elite event like the WGC Match Play could well prove to be a breakthrough moment for Jason Day. For Victor Dubuisson, the second place paycheck means he can play the PGA Tour right through this season and next, if he so chooses. And while golf fans everywhere will still pay more attention if the field includes Tiger or Phil, the Match Play reminded us that time moves on. In this case with the good news that the kids can play too. Oh my, can they play.

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