Originally created 01/04/01

No stars, but plenty of excitement



MELBOURNE, Australia -- The Match Play Championship doesn't need Tiger Woods or any of the other absent stars to put on a good show.

There was Jean Van de Velde in another collapse like Carnoustie, only this time with a happy ending. There was Dennis Paulson, rolling in a 70-foot birdie putt to seize control of the match, only to watch Craig Parry take it back with a critical putt of his own.

Six matches required extra holes at Metropolitan Golf Club, compared with only three matches that went into overtime in each of the first two years of the most fickle and entertaining World Golf Championship event.

The "Hoss" - Hal Sutton - played with a badly injured back, was on the verge of getting blown out, then nearly staged an incredible comeback before losing to a young and healthy Nick O'Hern of Australia on the 21st hole.

"I'm not a quitter," Sutton said.

And there was Ernie Els, who knows how to make up for lost time. The "Big Easy" was savvy enough to realize that because it was match play, he was allowed to practice on the course the same day as the tournament.

He got out early and wound up playing 32 holes on Wednesday. Only half of them counted, but all proved important in his 3-and-2 victory over Greg Kraft.

"I shouldn't have any problems sleeping tonight," Els said.

For 22 Americans and six Europeans, there's plenty of time for sleep over the next few days as they try to book early flights home from Australia.

"A long way for one match? It's a long way for seven matches," said Stewart Cink, who watched Mark McNulty make a miracle par on the 18th hole for a 1-up victory.

The second round began Thursday (8 p.m. EST Wednesday) with only six of the top 10 seeds remaining, and everyone else relieved to have made it through the first round, still in line for a $1 million payoff.

No one had a day quite like Els.

He left his beach house in South Africa at the last possible minute, arriving in Australia just 18 hours before his match with no time to get in a practice round on a course he never had seen.

Or so everyone thought.

The Rules of Golf allow for practice on the course the same day as the tournament in match play because players are not competing against the field, but against one opponent. Els made sure it was OK before he play 16 holes Wednesday morning, keeping his distance from the maintenance crew and players from the early matches.

"The golf I played this morning before the round started helped me, especially getting a feel for the golf course, see how the ball reacts," he said. "Other players could have done the same as I did this morning. I don't think I'll do it every day, though. It's a long day."

With a 30-foot birdie putt on the 14th, he seized control of his match against Kraft and wrapped it up on the 16th.

Els has never made it past the second round in his two previous Match Play Championships. He next faces Hidemichi Tanaka, who was 2-down with three holes to play before catching and beating Bernhard Langer on the 19th hole.

The best comebacks belonged to guys who lost.

Sutton showed up at Metropolitan with four small bruises on his lower back, the handiwork of a physical therapist who dug his fingers deep into the muscle trying to get Sutton healthy enough to play.

He made it to the first tee, but looked as though he might not finish. Each swing came with a grimace and a groan, with Sutton clutching his lower left back. He was down four holes with three to play, wondering whether it was worth it to continue.

Instead of giving up, Sutton dug in.

He won the last two holes to send his match against O'Hern into overtime.

"Let's see if I can go one more hole," he whispered to himself as he limped to the first tee. He made it three holes, losing to O'Hern when he pulled an 8-iron into the bunker and failed to make a 6-foot par putt.

"I'm kind of glad it's over," Sutton said, trying to console himself. "I don't think I could have played another hole."

Not everyone shared such sentiments.

Half of the 64-man field was eliminated after one day at a tournament that required at least a full day of travel for most of them. Sutton, Stewart Cink, John Huston and Padraig Harrington were the top-10 seeds who lost.

Paulson thought he had the match won when his 70-foot birdie putt banged into the back of the cup on No. 17. Parry, who came up with one great putt after another at Royal Melbourne two years ago in the Presidents Cup, knocked in a 20-footer on the 18th to force extra holes, and prevailed on the 21st.

Then there was Van de Velde, the Frenchman who squandered the British Open in 1999 with a triple bogey on the 72nd hole. He was 4-up against Waldorf with six holes to play when he went in the tank and Waldorf dropped in a couple of birdies.

Unlike Carnoustie, Van de Velde recovered. He rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole, and survived another day.