A record 17 Europeans are in the 64-strong field for the Accenture World Match Play championship starting in San Diego tomorrow – and Colin Montgomerie believes they are all capable of emulating Darren Clarke.
Six years on from Clarke’s memorable victory over Tiger Woods on the same La Costa course Europe is still searching for a second player to win a World Golf Championship individual title.
But Montgomerie, who on his return to the tournament faces Swede Niclas Fasth in the opening round, said: “Everyone is capable of beating anyone on any given day and that’s what makes this interesting.”
Following Thomas Bjorn’s late withdrawal with a bad neck top seed Woods is up against Canada’s Stephen Ames rather than Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell on day one.
McDowell has to face world number two Vijay Singh instead, while Paul Broadhurst takes on Retief Goosen and Bernhard Langer is up against Ernie Els.
Obviously each of them has a tough job on their hands, as does Ian Poulter against David Toms, the man who beat him in the semi-finals last year and went on to become champion with one of the best displays of the year.
But they all know that over 18 holes anything can happen – and to prove the point two-time winner Woods has been beaten in the past by Jeff Maggert, Peter O’Malley and Nick O’Hern, while Els and Singh have never gone beyond the second round on the course.
Montgomerie, who failed to qualify 12 months ago, has missed his last two halfway cuts and pulled out of the Nissan Open in Los Angeles to work on his game at home.
“I think sometimes when you miss a cut or two it’s a blessing in disguise,” said the Scot, who finds himself the 11th seed with Sergio Garcia also an absentee.
“It worked out very well and I come here refreshed and with added confidence. It doesn’t usually take very long. Somebody (coach Dennis Pugh usually) watches me and they go ’Oh my God, what are you doing?’. Then we generally fix it in about three or four shots.
“It was just a couple of technical things. It’s nice to talk about technical things for a change.” In Dubai he was in the news because of the multi-million pound divorce settlement with his ex-wife.
With a massive first prize of almost £750,000 a Ryder Cup place is almost guaranteed to anybody winning on Sunday – and for Poulter, Broadhurst and McDowell, currently 62nd, 65th and 67th in the world, it can also catapult them into the top 50 and into the field for the Masters in April.
The same applies to Paul Casey, who although he currently holds 50th spot needs to be no lower at the end of next month.
Casey takes on Ryder Cup points-leader Henrik Stenson in the other all-European clash on the first day, but more could follow.
Montgomerie could play Paul McGinley, Clarke could face Luke Donald and David Howell might play Lee Westwood in the second round.
Poulter may be up against Jose Maria Olazabal then, but for obvious reasons he is looking no further than Toms.
“You’ve got to beat the best in this tournament, so what difference does it make if it’s first round, second, third, fourth, semi-finals or final?” he commented.
During their game Toms birdied the difficult ninth, holed his second shot for eagle on the 10th and hit a five-wood to tap-in distance for another eagle on the next.
“There’s nothing you can do when he’s five under through three holes. He steamrollered everybody and played awesome, but hopefully I’ll give him a bit of the same back.”
Poulter reached the last eight on his 2004 debut and the last four last year, so he has form on the course as well as Toms.
“The top 64 guys in the world can all play golf. If he shoots five over you’ve got to make sure you shoot four over. If he shoots seven under you shoot eight under.”
The growing strength of golfers from all parts of the globe is reflected in the event because the American contingent, 40 in 1999 when it began, is down to 25.
That change, of course, is not being rflected in where the World Championship events are being held.
There is one in Britain – at The Grove near Watford the week after the Ryder Cup in September – this year but next year all three are in the States.
“You go where the money is,” said Montgomerie.