Originally created 02/29/04

An All-American final: Woods vs. Love in Match Play



CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Exhausted by 39 holes of dramatic golf, surprised to even make the finals of the Match Play Championship, Davis Love III allowed himself a brief look at what he faces Sunday.

"It's like Duke coming out of the East," he said. "You know you're going to play them in the final game."

Indeed, golf's most fickle tournament finally followed form, becoming as predictable as the NCAA tournament.

Duke, in this case, can only mean one player: Tiger Woods.

Woods, the defending champion and No. 1 player in the world, reached the finals for the third time in five tries Saturday with a 6-foot par to avoid losing the lead and a 12-foot birdie that allowed him to dispose of pesky Stephen Leaney of Australia.

He won his 11th consecutive match and improved his career record in the tournament to 19-3.

"I expect it out of myself," Woods said. "I don't know how any other person in the field thinks, but I feel as if I have the game to win matches."

Love showed the magic it takes in this format, surviving a crazy battle with Phil Mickelson in the morning, then rallying from 2 down with two holes to play to beat Darren Clarke in 21 holes - forcing extra holes with a risky 3-wood to the green to make birdie, and ending it with a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th.

It sets up an All-American final for the third straight year. Woods (No. 1) and Love (No. 3) are the highest seeds ever in the 36-hole final match worth $1.2 million to the winner.

"I'm pretty happy with the way I've played so far, and I look forward to playing him tomorrow," Love said. "He's certainly the guy to beat in this tournament.

"I'm not going to give him a hole. If he plays really well and I play really well, it could be a long day."

Woods, who earlier beat Padraig Harrington, goes into the final match having gone 64 holes without trailing. The last time he faced a deficit was on the 16th hole of his opening match against John Rollins.

He was one swing away from going home Wednesday.

Now, Woods faces a player with 18 victories, including a major, but a player he has routinely beaten in the past. He beat Love in the semifinals four years ago, 5 and 4.

"An unbelievable talent," Woods said of Love. "You step up there and you know you've got your hands full playing against someone like that."

Woods had his hands full with Leaney, the U.S. Open runner-up.

Leaney hung around long enough for the pressure to start building, and he caught Woods with a 25-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole that squared the match.

Under such pressure, though, Woods was at his best.

He got up-and-down for par from 90 yards on the 14th, making a 6-footer to avoid going 1 down. Then, he made a 4-foot par putt on the next hole to stay even.

His best putt was for birdie, a 12-footer on the 13th after Leaney hit a brilliant bunker shot for a conceded par. Woods' putt sneaked in the left side, and he raised his putter and twice pumped his fist, the most emotion he had shown all week.

"I knew if I could somehow bury that putt, I could grab the momentum back," Woods said. "On top of that, it would give me a little bit of cushion with two holes to go."

He closed him out on the next hole when Leaney hit into the left bunker and blasted out to 15 feet. Woods hit a 7-iron that landed 4 feet behind the hole and stopped 12 feet away. He made that for a 2-and-1 victory.

The Saturday morning quarterfinals didn't pack this kind of drama, except for Love-Mickelson.

- Leaney held off a late charge by Ian Poulter and won on the 18th hole when the 28-year-old Englishman lipped out a 12-foot birdie putt.

- Clarke made two eagles, holing out from the fairway on the par-5 eighth, to beat Jerry Kelly, 5 and 3.

- Woods saved par to keep momentum from getting away from him, then won the next three holes to build a 4-up lead on Harrington. Despite missing a 3-foot putt on No. 10 that made the match longer than it should have been, Woods still breezed to a 2-and-1 victory.

Love had the most taxing quarterfinal match, winning a thriller against Mickelson. They were all square when Mickelson went for the green in two on 558-yard closing hole, instead of taking his chances with a wedge. His 3-wood was 50 yards off line, his flop shot floated into a tree and he made bogey.

Was that the right play?

"Absolutely, yeah," Mickelson said. "A good 3-wood could have gotten the ball on the green, and a two-putt birdie should have been able to win."

Love defended Lefty's decision, saying it was difficult to hit wedges to the green and keep it from spinning down the ridge, setting up long putts on bumpy greens.

Love continued his momentum-shifting ride against Clarke. Of the 39 holes he played, only 10 were halved.

Clarke took the lead with a 15-foot birdie on the 15th, and appeared to wrap up the match when Love three-putted for bogey on No. 16.

"I felt like the match was over," Love said. "Walking over to 17, I said, 'You can't give up. You never know what will happen.' Sure enough, he hit it right and made bogey."

Love was in about the same place in the fairway as Mickelson, the difference being he was 1-down, not tied. He nailed his 3-wood into 30 feet, and Clarke missed a 10-foot birdie to win.

Both players parred the first two holes they played, and Love ended it on a hole where he first thought he lost.

Funny thing, that match play.

Only this time, no surprises who made the finals.