Clarke blows chance to stage Woods final repeat

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The Independent Online

Darren Clarke came agonisingly close to playing in yesterday's final of the World Matchplay Championship here at La Costa. However, instead of a repeat of the final four years ago, when the Irishman triumphed over the world No 1, Tiger Woods played Davis Love, the third seed.

Woods, the defending champion, reached his third final in five attempts to extend his record in the event to 19 wins from 22 matches. Clarke, also for the third time in five years, was Europe's last surviving campaigner after reaching the semi-finals. However, that nothing can be taken for granted in matchplay was amply demonstrated when Clarke lost to Love after being two-up with two to play.

Clarke only survived his first-round match with Eduardo Romero by winning two of the last three holes and then winning at the 25th. Against Love in the semi-finals, Clarke recovered from two-down with seven to play helped by birdies at the 14th and 15th before the American bogeyed the 16th to put the Ulsterman two-up.

However, the contest was far from finished. Clarke's drive on the 17th bounded down the cart path but, from the rough, he was unable to make the green and missed a par-putt for victory. At the last, a par-five, Love smashed a magnificent three-wood on to the green and again Clarke missed a putt, this time for birdie, to finish the match.

He did manage to get up and down to half the 19th and, at the next, Love conceded a putt of between two-and-a-half to three feet which Clarke would have to had to hole to continue the match. It was probably the longest putt conceded on the bumpy La Costa greens this week, and Clarke smiled with relief, but Love said it was uphill and straight and no big deal.

The American then ended the interest of the 2000 champion by hitting his tee-shot at the 21st, the short 16th, to six feet and making the putt. "Obviously, I'm disappointed to lose after being two-up with two to play," Clarke said. "I would love to have played Tiger in the final again but overall Davis played a lot better than me and it will be a much better final with Davis in it against Tiger. I was just grinding away as I have all week."

Clarke was being harsh on himself for he produced fine golf in stretches before the odd rogue shot would come in, hardly unexpected over six rounds. He progressed one round further than Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter, who lost to Woods and Stephen Leaney respectively in the quarter-finals.

At least Harrington put a sequence of wins together in the event for the first time, while Poulter was impressive on his debut. Both earned $225,000 (£120,000), while yesterday Clarke played Australian Leaney in the play-off for third place with $530,000 (£295,000) for the winner.

There was $1.2m (£665,000) available for the winner of the final, which started dramatically when Woods hurt his right hand playing his second shot from the rough. It turned out to be only a jarring effect but in losing the hole to a birdie by Love, Tiger trailed for the first time in any match since the 16th hole of his first-round encounter against John Rollins.

Three times Woods levelled the match but he could not get ahead during the morning round. His best chance to do so was a four-footer at the 15th which he missed. While he almost holed his tee-shot at the short 16th, the backspin took his ball back to the fringe. Meanwhile, Love hit his tee-shot to three feet and made his birdie.

Love, whose previous victims included Fred Couples, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson, then holed a 25-footer at the 17th but could not get up and down from a bunker at the last to match Tiger's birdie and went into lunch at one-up.

WORLD MATCHPLAY CHAMPIONSHIP (La Costa, Carlsbad, California) Semi-finals (US unless stated):
T Woods bt S Leaney (Aus) 2&1
D Love bt D Clarke (NIrl) 1up (3rd extra hole)

* Annika Sorenstam opened her European Tour campaign in style by clinching her third ANZ Ladies' Masters - just ahead of England's Karen Stupples - in Australia yesterday. Sorenstam took the title with a 19-under-par total, after shooting 65 in the final two rounds to clinch the £55,000 prize by four shots from Stupples, with Australian Kylie Pratt in third place on 11 under. For 30-year-old Stupples, a closing-round 68 over Queensland's Royal Pines Resort snatched second to give her the best result of a five-year professional career.